Touch wood and hope for a new dawn in Iraq

Touch wood and hope for a new dawn in Iraq

Supporters of hardline Iraqi Shiite factions block streets and burn tires in Basra, Iraq, after the Electoral Commission announced the results of the parliamentary elections on Oct. 17, 2021. (AP Photo/Nabil al-Jurani)
Supporters of hardline Iraqi Shiite factions block streets and burn tires in Basra, Iraq, after the Electoral Commission announced the results of the parliamentary elections on Oct. 17, 2021. (AP Photo/Nabil al-Jurani)
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Iraqis were not exactly dancing in the streets after last week’s elections, but it looks very much as if a healthy democratic process has produced the best possible outcome — one that leaves most players slightly dissatisfied.

These were free and fair elections, the fifth since the US invasion, with all the trappings. A new law came into effect, with more numerous districts and single-candidate voting instead of lists. There were boycotts by the young generation who remained skeptical and had lost faith in the system. There were also uncertainties about the outcome and little or no violence, despite the extreme political tension and polarization. These are all factors of immense significance.

The early elections were brought about by popular demands after massive demonstrations that began on October 2019, led by a new generation who defied what they saw as a corrupt, sectarian and nepotistic political establishment that had failed them in every way.  The protesters rejected the outcome of the 2018 elections, which they saw as rigged. They also defied the armed factions and kept their protests peaceful, despite being confronted by violence with over 600 dead and 36 of their leaders assassinated.

It is also important to note that the elections were conducted by Iraqis themselves; the Americans kept at a safe distance, with minimum military presence, and were careful not to say anything that might have adversely influenced the process. All foreign interference was rejected. Statements by the EU and UN officials were also criticized; the special representative of the UN Secretary General, Jeanine Hennis-Plasschaert was nicknamed Um Fadak, in reference to the pro-Iran militia leader Abu Fadak. At the same time, Iraqis wanted the legitimacy and protection that international observers brought to the operation.

There were mixed results — a victory for the Sadrists under the banner of Iraqi nationalism at the expense of the Fatah coalition and Iranian influence, together with the arrival of new faces in parliament in the form of independent members. It is now possible to imagine that had there been no boycott, the new election law would have brought more civil society and independent candidates into parliament. No single party has enough seats to govern on its own, and there is speculation about possible coalitions.

There is also a historical and international context. The traumatic recent history of Iraq, well before the US invasion, has taken its toll and is a factor that affects the ability of society to recover. The Iran-Iraq war of the 1980s, the Kuwait invasion and the second Gulf War, the massacres of Kurds at Halabja and Anfal, the crushing of southern Shiite revolts in the south in 1991, the ethnic cleansing of what were known as the March Arabs —all are part of the legacy of Saddam’s rule well before the additional traumas caused by the US invasion itself. Iraqi transition could have started in 1991 had the Bush Sr. administration not had cold feet about regime change, but Saddam was left in power and the population punished further with heavy sanctions and the country being split into three zones.

We also live in an era when elections have been problematic globally, bringing about results that threaten the democratic process itself. The underlying reason is a lack of confidence in corrupt political establishments everywhere, with populist leaders filling the gap, often undermining the electoral process that brought them to power in the first place. Fraught relations between states and their societies, with a failure to deliver essential public services, brought us leaders such as Narendra Modi in India, Viktor Orban in Hungary, Jair Bolsanaro in Brazil, Rodrigo Duterte in the Philippines and Donald Trump in the US. There have also been close shaves in the Netherlands, Poland, Italy and even Austria.

Elections are thus a necessary but insufficient condition for a healthy democratic and free society.  In the last century, fascism and fascist movements conquered swaths of Europe, initially through legitimate elections.  In Algeria, Palestine and Egypt people elected extremist Islamist movements mostly as a protest. In Algeria this triggered a civil war that people called the “dirty war,” which lasted almost 11 years from 1991 to 2002. In Palestine, Hamas won elections in 2006 but the result was rejected by Israel, the US and the EU and collapsed the peace process, splitting Gaza from the West Bank. In Egypt and Tunisia, the Muslim Brotherhood were elected and proved to be useless at running both countries, which eventually brought back authoritarian regimes. Elections are also sometimes used to legitimize the worst regimes, such as that of Bashar Assad in Syria.

All these problems with elections make the result of the last Iraqi ones even more significant. If it were not so soon after the Afghanistan fiasco, I would be dancing in the street myself to celebrate a new era in Iraq’s transition, 18 years after the toppling of Saddam Hussein and, yes, after “regime change.”  If this is all what it seems, if a semblance of liberal democracy has been restored in Iraq for the first time since 1958, then there are enormous implications for the region and many taboos will be broken.

With the scars of Afghanistan still stinging and bearing the mind the US-Iran talks in Vienna, I am touching wood and thinking of caveats within caveats, like Russian dolls, with extremely cautious optimism in case the whole edifice collapses after being sold down the Danube.

Nadim Shehadi is the executive director of the LAU Headquarters and Academic Center in New York and an associate fellow of Chatham House in London.

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