Iraq’s newly-elected MPs recently gathered for the first time, three months after an election in which an alternative new generation of independents and protest parties won dozens of seats in parliament. This new cohort have the potential to gradually reform the political system, but must work towards forging a unified strategy if they are to effect change.
Even before the October 2021 elections, divisions in tactics emerged amongst disillusioned Iraqis who had taken part in popular protests in 2019-20.
Some called for a boycott of the vote due to state-sanctioned violence against activists and claims of an unfair playing field that favoured established political parties. Others felt the election represented an exciting opportunity to vote for new candidates who would promote reform from within, while some still felt that voting was the ‘least bad’ option.
Challenges for unity remain
This divide has unfortunately proven an early indicator of the lack of cohesion among the new parliamentarians. Since the elections, at least three separate alternative blocs have formed amongst the new cohort, while three members of Imtidad – one of the parties which emerged from the protest movement – have withdrawn due to political differences.
Many MPs who already had links to traditional political parties ran as independents with the aim of increasing their votes, correctly interpreting Iraq’s new electoral law which favoured independent candidates, but other genuine independents have been lured into joining establishment political parties since the election.
Around 30 of the 70 alternative MPs appear to have maintained their independence and continue to advocate for an alternative to the traditional post-2003 political system.
The most prominent blocs among this group are the For the People Alliance, which consists of 18 MPs from the Imtidad Movement and the New Generation party, and the Independent Popular Bloc, consisting of five MPs who ran as independents.
The Ishraqat Kanoon party won six seats and has now formed a bloc of ten MPs with a few additional candidates, while just a handful of new MPs remain entirely independent, hesitant to join any alliance or party.
Overall, these new MPs do seem to agree on core issues such as the predominance of corruption and the need for systemic reform, but disagree on how best to achieve it – whether from inside or outside the system. They also disagree about who the main perpetrators of corruption and government mismanagement are – and therefore who to target.
This mismatch was highlighted during the recent vote for the speaker of parliament, when some of the new cohort believed it was strategic to play the political game by voting alongside establishment political parties for Mohamed al-Halbousi, a prominent figure within the political system they oppose. Others disagreed and instead cast blank votes, to demonstrate their opposition to the entire Muhassasa system.
All of this indicates that, while these different blocs argue that they are open to forging ad-hoc partnerships on issues of mutual interest, it is increasingly unlikely they will be able to work as a single, united entity.
Pathways for change do exist
Because most of Iraq’s alternative MPs are new to the political system, their political skills and competencies remain a key concern, especially as established MPs and parties have a great deal of experience in fragmenting and violently repressing movements which seek to challenge the political status quo.
This raises doubts about the extent to which Iraq’s alternative MPs can work the system to their advantage to achieve change. For example, despite working together to nominate an Imtidad party MP for the position of first deputy speaker during the January parliamentary session, they were only able to win 34 votes compared to 182 given to his opponent.
There are indications the new MPs may work together to interrogate establishment politicians in ministerial posts in a parliamentary process which only requires a minimum of 25 votes. This may prove a powerful tool to exert pressure on corrupt politicians or those involved in attacks on protesters.