October elections and the erosion of identity politics in Iraq

  • Talmiz Ahmad
    Non-Resident Fellow - Expert on Political Islam and Energy Security - India
Foreign Policy & International Relations

October elections and the erosion of identity politics in Iraq

On July 30, 2020, Iraq’s Prime Minister, Mustafa Al-Kadhimi, announced that national elections would take place in June 2021, a year before they were due. In January 2021, the cabinet agreed to postpone these elections to October 10, 2021. This was in response to an Independent Higher Electoral Commission (IHEC) request to address specific “technical” issues to achieve a free and transparent electoral process. Though these issues were not spelled out at that time, subsequent reports suggest that they pertained to voters’ registration, setting up new parties, finalizing “alliances” among different groups, and preparing candidates’ lists.

The decision to hold early elections is the direct result of expressions of widespread popular anger with Iraq’s political and economic system from October 2019. These protests began on October 1 following the demotion by then Prime Minister, Adel Abdul Mahdi, of a popular military officer, General Abdul Wahab Al-Saadi of the Counter-Terrorism Service (CTS), who had led the fight against ISIS. The youth who took to the streets saw in this action a subservience to Iranian diktat since the CTS was a rival to the Popular Mobilization Units (PMU), the conglomerate of Shia militia sponsored by Iran.

Popular protests

The street protests in October 2019 that rocked Baghdad and many of Iraq’s southern cities had several significant features. They were primarily made up of young people, reflecting that over 60 percent of Iraq’s population is below the age of 30. The demonstrators were generally Shia, and their agitations were primarily in the country’s Shia towns, marking the rejection by Iraq’s youth of ethno-sectarian identities that have shaped the country’s politics since the US occupation from 2003.

The demand from the street was for a thoroughgoing reform of Iraq’s political order – the replacement of the domination of the ethno-sectarian “spoils’ system” with genuine democracy, eradication of corruption from public life, better delivery of services, and improvements in the economy coupled with better employment prospects for young people. The demonstrators also demanded that Iraq become a genuinely sovereign nation by throwing off the influence of all foreign countries, a direct reference to the intrusive role of Iran and the US in its affairs.

The most remarkable aspect of the protests was the resilience of the agitators – though the government responded to these demonstrations with lethal fire-power in which about 500 persons were killed and several thousand injured, the agitators refused to go home. Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani publicly rebuked the government for its failure to implement its long-promised reforms, leading to the resignation of Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mahdi in December 2019.

The public anger of Iraqi youth also nudged the country’s council of representatives (parliament) to draft a new election law hurriedly. On December 24, 2019, the Iraqi parliament approved a new law, but it took another 11 months to finalize an annex to the law that would define the country’s electoral constituencies. President Barham Salih finally approved the new law in early November 2020.

New election law

The reason for this extraordinary delay in effecting electoral reform was due to the country’s entrenched power brokers wanting to affirm that the new rules did not undermine the power and influence they enjoy under the present electoral system.

In the 18 years since the US invasion in 2003, Iraq has had five national elections: in 2005 (twice), 2010, 2014, and 2018. All these elections took place within the framework of the Muhasasa (apportionment) system that provided for the distribution of cabinet posts and other government positions along with the appointment of other officials based on ethnic and sectarian quotas. In popular perception, this system institutionalizes corruption while rendering the state incapable of fulfilling its primary responsibilities, providing security, national development, employment, and services.

While the 2005 elections were based on the whole country constituting a single constituency, from 2010, each of the country’s 18 provinces constituted one electoral district, with the number of seats being allocated to each province based on its population. The capital Baghdad, for instance, was allocated 71 seats.

This system favored large parties with a country-wide presence that had popular and prominent leaders. Thus, former Prime Minister Nouri Al-Maliki would get about 500,000 votes, while the minimum for election was just 25,000 votes. In this system, the balance of his votes could be passed on to other party members in his list. [1] Since political parties were organized on an ethnic and sectarian basis, this electoral system consolidated these divisions in Iraq’s political order.

Given the demand from the streets for electoral reform to do away with ethnic and sectarian factors in the electoral process, the parliament had been under pressure to approve a new system that would be candidate-based rather than party-based. The new law of November 2020 provides for some reform and retains a few features of the old order. Instead of each province constituting one electoral district, the country’s 18 provinces will now be divided into 83 electoral districts. Depending on its population density, each district will return 3-5 members of parliament with each member representing a constituency. The electoral law requires  that at least one of the constituencies within the districts returns a female candidate. [2] Each member will represent about 100,000 residents.

The new law includes few other provisions:

  • Henceforth, each constituency will return a single candidate based on the first-past-the-post electoral system, with each voter having a single non-transferable vote. Thus, the new law has done away with the earlier proportional representation and list system that favored large parties with high-profile leaders.
  • Each candidate is required to either originate from or be resident in the constituency that they are seeking to represent.
  • Each candidate will have to be at least 28 years old, a snub to younger aspirants who had wanted the minimum age to be 25 years.

Besides the provisions of the new law, the forthcoming elections will also be affected by rules prepared by the IHEC in 2015 relating to the registration of new parties and candidates. [3] The IHEC charges ID 30 million ($ 20,500) to register a new party and ID 2 million ($ 1,400) per founding member (up to a minimum of five). The application for registration has to be backed by 3,000 signatures from three provinces. The proposed party should have headquarters and branch offices and organized a 350-member conference that IHEC members attended. Each candidate must deposit ID 10 million ($ 6,800) with the IHEC, of which half will be returned if the candidate is successful. Finally, each candidate should have completed lower secondary school, which accommodates the interests of the traditional parties. Activists had demanded a graduate degree as the minimum qualification.

Shortcomings in the new law

Given that the new law has been promulgated in response to popular agitations for change, there is considerable disappointment among those who had demonstrated for reform earlier. The main criticism relates to the definition of electoral districts.

While most electoral districts have been defined on a geographical basis to obtain the figure of 100,000 residents for each constituency and given the absence of clear boundaries between districts and sub-districts, the IHEC has in some instances demarcated constituencies on clan and tribal bases. This is most apparent in the Nineveh, Kirkuk, and Anbar provinces. In Nineveh and Kirkuk, ethno-religious considerations have prevailed, with electoral districts being shaped on a Kurdish, Arab, and Turkmen majority basis. In Anbar, tribal identities have been deciding factors in finalizing constituencies.

In the view of critics, this has “officially “formalized” sectarian borders [that had been] established through continuing civil strife since 2005.” [4] This has raised concerns that, instead of doing away with ethnic and sectarian considerations in the forthcoming elections, these arrangements may “spark new tribal and regional tensions to emerge.” [5] Thus, tribal identity and tribal leaders will become dominant influences in Iraqi politics rather than promoting a modern national identity that eschews such sub-national affiliations.

Again, young people who had spearheaded the demand for change find several obstacles in their efforts to form parties and stand for elections. The fees and conditions imposed by the IHEC on the registration of new parties and candidates and the high age eligibility limit of 28 years have meant that several young people aspiring to enter parliament will find themselves unable to move forward.

The good news is that many of the new parties are seeking funds from the public. This has, for instance, enabled the Beit Al-Watani (National Home) Party and the Emtidad (Extension) Movement to set up their headquarters in Baghdad and in the southern Dhiqar province, respectively. [6] Three other parties made up of activists associated with the protests that have registered are the October 25 Movement (OTM), Harakat Al-Waei (Awareness Movement), and the Marhala (Next Phase). Though seen as a vehicle for protest, Marhala also has activists associated with Prime Minister Al-Kadhimi.

A total of 249 parties are registered for the forthcoming elections. It appears that some of the older parties (referred to as “establishment parties”) are seeking to register new parties and put forward younger candidates to add to their popularity. [7] This is in response to one significant change the new law has affected – single candidates competing in smaller constituencies. Now, since voters will know the candidates personally and are also anxious to see a reformed system, younger candidates affiliated with new groups will likely be more appealing to voters.

Concerns relating to the elections

Despite the new electoral law, the registration of parties, and the firm date of October 10, 2021, having been announced, there are still serious doubts about the timely holding of elections. The IHEC is facing some issues in getting itself ready for the October deadline, such as the slow pace of voter registration, recruitment of staff, the form of the ballot paper, selecting the computer system, etc., which has encouraged some officials to talk of delaying the election until April 2022. [8]

Another major source of concern is the possible reluctance of sitting members of parliament to cut short their tenure even by six months – fresh elections can only be held 60 days after the council of representatives votes to dissolve itself. It can do this through absolute majority or, alternatively, through a one-third vote backed by the prime minister and the president. Delaying tactics could include slowing down the registration of candidates and proposed alliances, seeking an entirely new IHEC, or making the disruptions caused by the ongoing pandemic an excuse to secure a postponement. [9]

Given the widespread perception of a deeply corrupt political order, there are naturally widespread concerns relating to the integrity of the electoral process. A skeptical Iraqi public already sees “signs of strategic manipulation” in the intimidation of activists, particularly potential candidates, and restrictions on press freedom. There are also fears about the rigging of courts and official institutions charged with ensuring free and fair elections along with clandestine and illicit interventions in the election process that might not be apparent to the UN and other international observers. [10]

The biggest concern relating to the elections pertains to political violence. Gustafson and Al-Nidawi have noted that, from the second half of 2020 to the first quarter of this year, there has been “a continuous stream of bombings, drive-by shootings, and other killings.” [11] In this violence, elements of security forces who might have links to militants have been targeting activists and opposition candidates through threats, assassinations, and attacks on residences.

Belkis Wille of the Human Rights Watch reports that, over the last year and a half, there have been 81 assassination attempts on activists and journalists, of which 34 have been successful. A third of these killings have taken place since Al-Kadhimi became prime minister in May last year. [12] She criticizes the prime minister for having failed “to ensure any accountability or justice.”

The election-related violence in Iraq has had two consequences. One, potential candidates have either given up their political activism or have fled their homes; some have even gone abroad. Several candidates have reported being threatened with murder if they did not withdraw their candidature. The other effect has been a call for the boycott of elections. If the turnout were to be very low, it would reflect poorly on the credibility of the election and encourage a revival of street demonstrations by disgruntled youth.

The murder of the Karbala-based activist, Ehab Wazni, on May 9 this year, led to street protests by hundreds of persons who blamed pro-Iran Shia militants for the attack and demonstrated outside the Iranian consulate in Karbala. Wazni’s murder has shaken the election environment. By May-end, several activist movements said they would boycott the elections.

The new party, Beit Al-Watani, decried the intimidation of activist forces in the country and rejected the legitimacy of the administration that would emerge based on this violence. [13] The ongoing violence also prompted Iraq’s president, Barham Salih, to call, on May 30, to punish the killers and to stress the need for a safe atmosphere for the elections.

Changes in the Iraqi order

Five months before the October elections, it is easy to be pessimistic regarding matters relating to Iraq. The violence over the last two years, the continued autonomy and influence of the PMU militia, and the bitter US-Iran competition that made Iraq a theatre of conflict – all these taken together validate conclusions that Iraq will not readily shrug off ethnic and sectarian divisions. It will continue to shape internal rivalries within the framework of a dysfunctional and corrupt political order.

But such a conclusion would be based on a superficial reading of the national scenario and would ignore important trends in the country. The most significant aspects of Iraqi politics are the steady erosion of the cross-sectarian binary and what Fanar Haddad has describes as “a shift from identity politics to issue politics.” Linked to this is the emergence of Iraq’s new fault-line – “between the people and the ruling classes.” [14] Viewed in this light, the public agitations in Baghdad and the southern towns were not a dramatic break with past politics but rather an expression of the changes that have redefined Iraqi politics at least since the 2014 elections.

After the Muhasasa arrangements between the three political groups (Shia, Sunni, and Kurd), they had been firmly established and “normalized” in the early years of the US occupation. The main feature of Iraqi politics was not inter- but intra-sectarian competitions. In the 2014 elections, there were three Shia lists and four Sunni lists, with both also having several smaller lists. This was reflected in the election results: the highest share of the vote was just 24 percent, after which other lists did not exceed 7.5 percent. [15]

This pattern continued in the 2018 elections. While the highest number of votes went to the Sairoon alliance of Muqtada Al-Sadr, the group received just 14 percent of the vote. Interestingly, most alliances campaigned across ethnic and sectarian divisions, with cross-sectarian accommodation (or collusion, as Haddad says) being reflected later in the government formation as well. [16]

These trends were naturally reflected in the agitations that first rocked the southern Shia towns from 2018 over poor services, with their agenda becoming broader and more political from October 2019 onwards. This marked in the popular mindset the end of identity politics and the priority being accorded by Iraqis to issue-based politics.

Outlook for Iraq

Of course, the old establishment politics has not gone away in the face of these new challenges – the two factors remain in competition to shape the political order of Iraq. The dice is certainly loaded in favor of the establishment – it is well-armed and well-funded and there is also collusion among its diverse members to keep the old order in place.

However, while the old order is seeking to stay in place through identity politics, money-power, and violence, the votaries of new politics have thrown up new ideas and raised fundamental questions about the national order. Will it be a faith-based or a secular order? This question also relates to the ethno-sectarian quota system versus a democratic order based on freedom and equality, sectarian militia versus a strong and credible national security force, and, finally, external intrusion versus national independence and sovereignty.

Even though there are reasons for dissatisfaction at the pace of change in Iraq, and the dark clouds of division and conflict continue to hover across its skyline, much has already changed in the political order. Young people have entered politics in large numbers – both as founders of new parties and as members of old ones. Single-member constituencies will give them a presence and a voice that was not possible earlier. Even if they are defeated, the issues they raise will not fade away and will re-emerge in later elections.

Above all, the new candidates and parties will not be intimidated by the threats and violence of the old guard. They were targeted by these same elements during the protests and sustained 500 deaths and 20,000 other casualties. They did not go home then; they will not go home now. The new order has the backing of the Shia Hawza in Najaf. Grand Ayatollah Sistani has backed the protest marches, while, under his influence, some militia units have detached themselves from the PMU, signifying their disenchantment with PMU’s status outside the national order and its subordination to Iran.

The 2021 elections will exhibit a forward movement from the earlier electoral exercises for several reasons. There is the Iraqi demography that is significantly youth-based. Again, women were a major presence in the October agitations and, with their 25 percent quota (83 seats in the house of 329 members), will loom large over the electoral firmament. The issues the youth have raised resonate widely across the country and go beyond region and identity. They have far greater national resonance than the self-centered and corrupt Muhasasa system that has outlived its useful life.

And then there is social media – the powerful means of communication among young people that informs, mobilizes, and brings on to the streets like-minded people regardless of their regional and personal self-identities.

Iraq’s politics will inevitably evolve further – it has already come a long way from the dark days of war and early occupation when the Americans deliberately injected into the nation the poison of ethno-sectarian division to facilitate their domination and influence over the country. There is still history to be made in the lands of Mesopotamia.


[1] This was based on the “Sainte Lague system” that includes proportional representation and the list system: Election - Plurality and majority systems | Britannica

[2] Iraq’s electoral law provides for a quota of 25 percent for women legislators; thus, in a house of 329 members, the quota for women is 83..

[3] Sajad Jiyad, “Protest Vote: Why Iraq’s Next Elections are Unlikely to be Game-Changers,” LSE Middle East Centre Paper Series 48, April 2021, p. 10: Protest_vote_iraq_elections_paper_48.pdf (

[4] Omar Al-Jaffal, “Iraq’s New Electoral Law: Old Powers Adapting to Change,” Arab Reform Initiative, 12 January 2021: Iraq’s New Electoral Law: Old Powers Adapting to Change – Arab Reform Initiative (

[5] Ibid

[6] Omar Al-jaffal, “Iraq’s new political parties seek funds from citizens,” Al-Monitor, April 13, 2021: Iraq’s new political parties seek funds from citizens - Al-Monitor: The Pulse of the Middle East

[7] Erik K Gustafson and Omar Al-Nidawi, “Iraqi protestors’ perilous journey to the ballot box,” Middle East Institute, March 22, 2021: Iraqi protesters’ perilous journey to the ballot box | Middle East Institute (

[8] Sajad Jiyad, p. 12

[9] Ibid, p. 13

[10] Marsin Alshammary and Maya Nir, “The prospects and limitations of United Nations election observation in Iraq,” Brookings, May 3, 2021: The prospects and limitations of United Nations election observation in Iraq (

[11] Gustafson and Al-Nidawi

[12] Belkis Wille, “Impunity for killings will cast a pall over Iraq’s elections,” Human Rights Watch, May 20, 2021: Impunity for Killings Will Cast a Pall Over Iraq's Elections | Human Rights Watch (

[13] Mustafa Saadoun, “Iraqi activists worry about election security,” Al-Monitor, May 30, 2021: Iraqi activists worry about election security - Al-Monitor: The Pulse of the Middle East

[14] Fanar Haddad, Understanding Sectarianism: Sunni-Shia Relations in the Modern Arab World, (London: Hurst and Co, 2020), p. 291

[15] Haddad, p. 295

[16] Haddad, p. 296-97

: 08-June-2021

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