The significance of the upcoming Iraqi elections
Campaigning began on Saturday ahead of the Iraqi parliamentary elections, which will be held on May 12. Some 7,000 candidates have registered to stand and will compete for 329 parliamentary seats. But how will the elections affect Iraq’s relations with its Arab neighbors?
For the first time since the rise of Daesh, Iraqis across the country will be able to cast their votes at the ballot box. Voters will elect the representatives they want to guide the country out of its political, economic and security quagmire. Many candidates hope to return Iraq to its pre-1991 era, when the country led the Arab world in various fields. And with many countries in the Middle East supporting different candidates and blocs, regional players will be hoping for a result that best serves their interests.
After the US intervention in Iraq in 2003, many Arab countries chose a state of non-interference in Iraqi affairs, but they may have paid a heavy price for this policy of self-restraint, as it allowed Iran to extend its influence in Iraq. In spite of this, key regional players like Saudi Arabia are now seeking to reactivate the relationship between the two countries in an effort to achieve common political, security and economic goals.
Iraq’s Arab neighbors are possibly seeking to take advantage of the opportunity brought about by strained US-Iranian relations under the Trump administration in order to restore the days when they had a presence in Iraqi politics. They hope to regain influence in Iraq to protect their interests and security, since the country has become an almost exclusive arena for Iranian influence.
In security terms, Iraq is now ruled by opponents of the regime of Saddam Hussein, most of whom have returned from exile in Iran. The country’s neighbors may now seek to strengthen their relations with the Iraqi government in order to protect their borders and to limit Iran’s ability to influence factions against their interests.
Many candidates hope to return Iraq to its pre-1991 era, when the country led the Arab world in various fields.
The Iraqi governments since 2003 have disrupted their relations with neighboring Arab countries in favor of Iran. Iraq has suffered a lot through sectarian wars, the proliferation of violence and terrorism, and the conflict between its rival political camps, depriving the country of stability and development. Now, Iraqi leaders believe that a development of the relationships with its neighbors will positively affect Iraq and pave the way for it to regain its status among Arab countries.
The Iraqi government is almost entirely isolated in the Arab world because of the Iranian influence in its politics and military. Therefore, Baghdad hopes to develop bilateral relationships to obtain an effective regional presence. Prime Minister Haider Abadi, in particular, is seeking gains to reflect positively on his future and against his rivals.
Iraq is also suffering from the negative effects on its economy of the continued restrictions on its borders with Saudi Arabia and Syria. Iraq’s poor infrastructure and the deterioration of its economic conditions have impacted the social stability of its citizens and their relationship with the government. The more stable Iraq is, the more economic benefits its people will gain from open borders with their direct neighbors.
But challenges may hinder the development of Iraq’s relations with its Arab neighbors, some of which may be constrained by the negative image created during the recent past that Iraq is under the influence of non-state actors and Iran. The presence of armed militias loyal to Tehran is a major challenge.
Relations between Iraq and the rest of the Arab world are still in the process of normalization, reconciliation and the resolution of problems. Confidence-building measures would be welcome, as well as developing and strengthening their cooperation. The development of Iraqi-Arab relations depends largely on Baghdad’s post-election desire to develop these ties and reduce the influence of Iran within its borders.
- Maria Dubovikova is a prominent political commentator, researcher and expert on Middle East affairs. She is president of the Moscow-based International Middle Eastern Studies Club (IMESClub). Twitter: @politblogme.