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Iraqi parties scramble ahead of new October election date

The High Electoral Commission’s need for additional time to update constituents' records requires that the government postpone early elections until October, while political parties publicly oppose the new date and secretly support it.
An Iraqi woman updates her voter registration at the Independent High Electoral Commission Center in the southern Iraqi city of Nasiriyah in the Dhi Qar province on January 12, 2021. - Iraq's early parliamentary elections were promised by the PM for June but according to officials and politicians they are highly unexpected to be held without several month of delay. (Photo by Asaad NIAZI / AFP) (Photo by ASAAD NIAZI/AFP via Getty Images)

Baghdad — Although Iraq’s higher authorities affirmed that early elections are to be held in early summer, the High Electoral Commission is unable to sit for the ballot on the scheduled date, which prompted the council of ministers to approve Jan. 19 the commission’s request to delay the voting until October.

In a joint meeting Jan. 13, and in the presence of Special Representative of the UN Secretary-General for Iraq Jeanine Plasschaert and members of the commission, Iraq’s three presidencies — the president, prime minister and parliament speaker — stressed the need to take all measures and make the preparations for early elections, so as to ensure the utmost credible outcomes.

Once he took office seven months ago, Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi pledged to hold early elections as the protesters demanded and Iraq’s top Shiite cleric Ali al-Sistani backed as well.

Now that the government allocated the funding for the elections and provided the commission with the necessary support, particularly to update the voters registration system, the ball is seemingly in the court of the parliament and the political blocs in order for them to do their part of the work relating to early elections, i.e., to complete the law relating to the federal court, which is in charge of approving the elections’ results, and vote to dissolve parliament, which is the sole constitutional way to organize elections ahead of time. However, do these blocs agree on a date to dissolve the parliament?

Former Prime Minister and State of Law Coalition’s head Nouri al-Maliki said in his last TV appearance that the elections cannot be held on the scheduled date. At the same time, the office of Sadrist movement head Muqtada al-Sadr warned during a press conference Jan. 13 against changing the election date and demanded to hold it in June as previously decided by the Kadhimi government.

The political parties’ differing views on the early elections date reflect their varying capabilities to run in the race, in light of the new election law that parliament passed in late 2020. The law allows voters to vote for a specific candidate and divides Iraq into multiple electoral districts. There are parties that fear that armed groups exert control in the small electoral districts. These parties aspire for a better security situation prior to the elections, and are joined by those blocs and parties that base their electoral propaganda on a figure or the charisma of a leader such as Maliki’s State of Law Coalition. They believe that they will not win a lot of votes in the small electoral districts. In contrast, there are parties that have a large popular base such as the Sadrist movement or that have weapons and are capable of influencing in the central and southern parts of Iraq. They perceive that they can win the largest number of parliamentary seats in the elections.  

Ahmad al-Kanani, a member of parliament for the Fatah Alliance, told Al-Monitor, “The matter of changing the election date or holding it at the scheduled time is neither related to political desires nor electoral motives. Rather it is about the electoral commission’s ability to organize the polls in a favorable atmosphere. Postponing them until October was anticipated in order to allow the commission to complete the preparations.”

Muhammad al-Khalidi, a member of parliament for the Sunni Forces Coalition, attributed putting off the election date for many reasons, including issuing all biometric election IDs and the federal court law. He told Al-Monitor, “We believe that guaranteeing appropriate security conditions is the top requirement for holding the elections. The government needs to set the security conditions until the electoral lists are completed and the candidates are able to conduct their propaganda away from any threats or assassinations.”

A quick review of the Iraqi political parties’ views regarding the election date shows that the Sadrist movement, the Kurdistan Democratic Party led by Massoud Barzani as well as Kadhimi are the only ones in favor of holding the elections June 6. They are either in favor of postponing the elections or do not mind doing so, although they publicly oppose this and warn against postponement, as did the Fatah Alliance Jan. 19, saying that it is displeased with the new date. Nevertheless, informed sources told Al-Monitor that the parliamentary blocs' officials, including those of the Fatah Alliance, were in favor of the election date change and of setting it for late 2021 or early 2022 in order to have time to build electoral alliances.

The questions now are focused on the new date, namely Oct. 16, and whether or not there will be enough time to complete all arrangements. Will parliament pass the law of the federal court, which now misses one of its members who died last year, as well as the election budgeting? Will a majority of members vote in favor of dissolving parliament?

The political reasons behind postponing the elections are correlated with the political parties failing to decide on their alliances and on how they will run in the race under the new law.  The traditional Shiite parties — except for the Sadrist movement — fear that the ongoing popular protests in the central and southern parts of Iraq capture the Shiite voters’ mood to the advantage of the liberal and national forces. They are studying the option of building alliances among themselves after overcoming the protest crisis once and for all. In addition, the Sunni parties would rather see the Shiite Popular Mobilization Units leaving their areas and the displaced returning before the elections are held. All the while, the Kurdistan Region of Iraq is witnessing a severe domestic crisis due to the Kurdish parties’ disputes over how to deal with Baghdad in terms of the economic crisis and the sharing of local authorities.

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