The political economy of electioneering in Iraq

Many Iraqis are disillusioned with their unaccountable political system, which deprives them of basic services and fundamental standards of living.

Expert comment
Published 7 October 2021 Updated 10 February 2022 3 minute READ

On October 10, Iraqis head to the polls in their country’s sixth election since regime change in 2003. Despite the promises of democracy, many Iraqis have become disillusioned with their political system, which deprives them of basic services and fundamental standards of living.

Many disillusioned Iraqis tried to bring about change through protests in October 2019. They believed their voice could be heard louder through mass demonstrations, instead of elections that only reinforced their corrupt political system.

Their demands were to put an end to the political elite’s institutionalized corruption, and many asked for a change in government through early elections in a safe and fair atmosphere. But the system proved resilient.

Despite the widespread public dissent, Iraqi state-allied armed actors clamped down on protesters, leaving more than 600 dead and tens of thousands wounded. Activists and potential mobilisers have continued to be targeted, being killed in broad daylight at their homes before they can organise further protests.

The illusion of democratic elections helps give the system resilience because, at face value, it offers Iraqis a choice of who governs them. But in reality, the Iraqi elite use it as a mechanism to re-enforce their grip on power and state wealth.

Rulers divide the spoils

After each election, the ruling parties come together to divide the spoils of the oil-producing state within their networks but not with the wider population. And the support from International actors and religious clerics for the elections only defend this system, despite the state-sanctioned violence and misgovernance it breeds.

Elections are an example of the politically-sanctioned corruption which has marred governance in Iraq since 2003. In Baghdad, wrangling over the government formation began months ago despite the fact no votes had yet been cast.

The illusion of democratic elections helps give the system resilience because, at face value, it offers Iraqis a choice of who governs them

As an attempt to hold onto power, the prime minister – who is not running for election – is required to seek the support of the ruling parties that determine his fate. To portray himself as a reliable partner to this elite, he has offered each side a continued share of the state.

For the ruling parties, votes from their social bases matter, especially in the context of a low turnout where the disillusioned are voiceless. Each seat translates to enhanced bargaining power in the government’s formation.

As with previous elections, this one features little of a policy or ideological debate as parties rely primarily on the political economy to secure votes from their bases, offering public service jobs, distributing goods and services, and announcing infrastructure projects.

Campaigning strategies of the ruling parties feature shifts in government budgets to make space for new jobs. With one month to go, parties close to the Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF) initiated a mass rehiring of around 30,000 individuals in an attempt to convince dwindling social bases to come out to vote, and similar examples exist across the political spectrum.

Politicians also tend to make promises to distribute goods and services in the run-up to elections, and this time they have taken advantage of their government and public resources directly, indirectly, and through semi-official institutions. Political parties invest in strategic communications through their connected media channels to flaunt their provisions in a system which is unregulated and unaccountable.

System with no transparency or accountability

The head commissioner of the Iraqi Higher Electoral Commission (IHEC) – Iraq’s electoral regulatory body – recently stated that legally, there is no financial limit to funds spent on an electoral campaign.

In Iraq, elections matter not for strengthening democracy and reform but primarily for legitimizing the status quo

Even though the electoral law formally prohibits the use of public funds for campaigning, accountability is not enforced and the ruling parties use the state’s wealth to buy votes in a system lacking any transparency.

Political leaders also seek support by claiming to be behind big infrastructure projects as part of their electoral campaigns. This year, a high oil price has allowed for more of these kinds of project to resume but they have already been scheduled through government provision or international donor funding. Frequently such projects then come to a halt post-election due to delays caused by corruption.

In the run-up to this election, IHEC selectively suspended and fined hundreds of candidates who violated electoral laws and regulations but the Supreme Judicial Council – meant to be independent but in reality controlled by the ruling parties – has overturned some of these decisions. This is just one of many examples of the judiciary being used by ruling parties during elections to allow their candidates to compete without oversight or accountability.

System with no transparency or accountability contd.

In Iraq, elections matter not for strengthening democracy and reform but primarily for legitimizing the status quo. For the many Iraqis disillusioned with the system, voting only reinforces it.

The few optimists that remain believe that independent candidates competing in this election may come together to offer a challenge to the system from within rather than call for revolution. However, some of these so-called independents already have links to the ruling parties.

It is likely that even those elected candidates who are truly independent will struggle to assert the will of their supporters against the wealthy and connected network of elite, who have already proven since the last election that the status quo can be maintained in the short to medium-term future.

This article is part of a series from Chatham House that provides in-depth insights into the inner-workings of Iraq’s government and evaluate what recent developments – both public and behind the scenes – reveal about prospects for a more a stable, accountable, and prosperous Iraqi state.

This series is part of the workstream on the political economy of reform, under the Middle East and North Africa programme’s Iraq Initiative led by project director Dr Renad Mansour.