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Will young protesters be the dark horses in Iraq’s next election?

September 3, 2020 at 1:29 pm

An Iraqi protester waves a national flag while demonstrating outside the burnt-down local government headquarters in Iraq on 7 September 2018 [HAIDAR MOHAMMED ALI/AFP/Getty Images]

On 4 August, Iraqi activist Ridha Al-Igaili’s home in Amara, the capital of Maysan province, was attacked by militiamen who fired a rocket-propelled grenade and sprayed the building with bullets. This was the second attempt on his life this year. Luckily for Al-Igaili, a pharmacology student and member of the Maysan Students’ Union, no one was injured. News of the attack reverberated quickly on social media. Barely two weeks later, fellow activists Reham Yacoub and Tahseen Osama were assassinated.

These cold-blooded attacks were the latest in a wave of targeted violence and kidnappings by shadowy gunmen seeking to silence advocates of free speech and those speaking against Iraq’s corrupt, militia-dominated system of ethno-sectarian power sharing. They dampen any optimism for reform resulting from Prime Minister Mustafa Al-Kadhimi’s announcement of early elections next June.

I have spoken recently with Iraqi activists who have been part of the pro-reform protest movement in Iraq since last October about their views on the election. Uniformly, these courageous young protesters were less concerned with the election date and much more interested in the conditions under which candidates and voters would campaign and go to the polls.

Their concern is justifiable. Within the first four months of the protests, government forces and gunmen believed to be affiliated with party militias killed at least 600 protesters, injured thousands and subjected scores to forced disappearances and torture. To outsiders, these are grim statistics, but to many Iraqi protesters, the victims of government violence such as Safaa Al-Sarray, or Hussein Adil and Sara, are friends-turned-martyrs. The memory of these icons of the “October revolution” inspires Iraq’s young protesters to keep struggling, peacefully, for reforms, and fair elections are their gateway.

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Holding elections next June before the term of the current parliament expires will be a challenge. The government needs to address the conditions set by Iraq’s electoral commission (IHEC); finalise annexes to the new election law to define the contested borders and number of electoral districts; find $300 million from the country’s depleted purse to organise the polls; and take legislative action to rectify the legal status of Iraq’s top court (in questionable condition following an arguably illegal 2019 appointment of a court member) so that it can ratify the results. An even harder challenge will be to persuade sitting MPs to dissolve Parliament before June 2021 and forego months’ worth of pay, perks and power. Even if Kadhimi overcomes these obstacles, it will be even harder to create conditions for genuinely free and fair elections for all Iraqis.

Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi seen during his visit to Tehran, Iran on July 21, 2020 [Iranian Leader Press Office / Handout - Anadolu Agency]

Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa Al-Kadhimi in Tehran, Iran on 21 July 2020 [Iranian Leader Press Office/Anadolu Agency]

The activists I spoke with want a level playing field (or at least one that’s less unfair) where candidates not affiliated with establishment parties and militias can compete. “We don’t need early elections,” protester and pharmacology student Ekram Wasfi told me. “Let elections happen in 18 months, but the Prime Minister should freeze the assets of parties so they can’t buy votes.” Equally importantly, they want to see disenfranchised voters who sat out the 2018 election (leading to the lowest turnout in any Iraqi election to date) regain enough confidence in the electoral process to return to the polls in large numbers.

For that to happen, activists see three essential requirements: the integrity and independence of the IHEC, which is yet to recover from the allegations of fraud in the last election; the scrutiny of party finances and enforcement of the laws governing political parties to limit their ability to receive foreign funding or exploit public funds to buy votes; and the bringing of militias under state control so that elections do not take place at gunpoint. With these in place, protest organisers say that they would have a chance to educate and mobilise voters to unleash the potential of Iraq’s young voters. With the voting age being 18 and half of Iraq being under 21 years old, young people have made up the vast majority of anti-government protesters and so will have electoral clout. If just half of the approximately 20 per cent of Iraqi voters who didn’t vote in 2018 decide to have a say in the next election, their representatives would outnumber the top seat-winning party in the 2018 election.

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There are new channels and networks for voter mobilisation at the disposal of Iraqi protest organisers that didn’t exist before October 2019. Notably, these include the student unions that came into being last autumn. According to Laith Hussein, a medical student and founding member of the Baghdad Students’ Union, within a few weeks of its founding it went from representing eight colleges in two of Baghdad’s universities, to 92 colleges comprising 95 per cent of all colleges in the capital. The union used the network to turn rallies by individual colleges into weekly events that attracted more than 60,000 protesters at a time and became the backbone of the protest movement.

Activists are optimistic that events since October have fundamentally changed how young Iraqis view their role in politics. As protester and college student Haider Faisal put it, “The awareness that emerged will mobilise people to vote… now there’s no one who says I’m not concerned with politics, and more people know they must think before giving their votes to candidates. I think everyone will vote.” Activist and medical student Ameer Al-Haboubi echoed this assessment, emphasising the movement’s aim to spread a culture of individual awareness that challenges Iraqi voters to think and choose for themselves rather than blindly follow partisan and religious demagogues.

Protest organisers believe that they can capitalise on their new networks to build a voter mobilisation and education machine that can avoid the low turnout of 2018, when loss of faith in the electoral process pushed many activists to call for a boycott. That boycott, not to mention any foul play, made it easier for the relatively small yet easily mobilised (and in some cases, bought) supporters of political parties to dominate the polls. Ahmed Khaldoun, a protester, medic and human rights activist, said that he and fellow activists are prepared to educate the public about the need to vote and how to select candidates. “We will promote the independent candidates. We’re working on this and could have 10,000 volunteers in the nine ‘protest’ provinces, and up to 15,000 in all provinces.”

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These young protesters believe that painful shared experiences of recent years have created an electorate that is more connected across the traditional barriers of sect, class and location. Several spoke passionately about how the protest experience brought together people from segments of Iraqi society who normally do not mingle. Confronting government and militia violence together “made people see you for what you do for the country,” Wasfi explained.

College professor and peacebuilding activist Noor Qaes agreed: “You check your differences at the door before you enter Tahrir Square.” She sees a silver lining even in the terrible displacement experienced during the 2014-2017 war with Daesh because it introduced Iraqis to one another after the sectarian violence of the previous decade had built walls between them. As she put it, young people displaced from Anbar were forced to live in Erbil and those displaced from Ninawa were forced to live in Karbala, and this opened their eyes to what they have in common with their fellow Iraqis.

This could have electoral implications. If Iraq were to become one electoral district, whether in the next election or later, some activists think the arrangement would offer reform-minded voters viable candidates that they wouldn’t have if they were limited to their own town or province. “We prefer to have all of Iraq as one circuit so that a son of Anbar can vote for a son of Basra and vice versa,” said Ahmed. However, these activists know that change will have to be gradual and suggest that they would be content with a system that involves one district for each province, so long as it disposes of party lists in favour of individual candidacy to give independents a fighting chance.

Nevertheless, they are hopeful that if fellow young men and women overcome their ambivalence about elections and decide to vote, they can create a highly motivated constituency that outnumbers the patronage-based voting blocs of establishment parties and perhaps even rival the hundreds of thousands who rally behind the populist cleric Moqtada Al-Sadr.

Leader of Iraq’s Sadrist Movement, Muqtada Al-Sadr [Twitter]

Leader of Iraq’s Sadrist Movement, Muqtada Al-Sadr [Twitter]

In contrast with stereotypes of their generation being impatient and always seeking instant gratification, these young people are playing the long game. They understand that ending a culture of corruption and political violence takes time. The political power that these reform advocates seek to build is not just for the next election, but also for the one after that and the one after that. Activists talk of their ”revolution” as a step on a road that some began walking in 2015 and even 2011, and which they expect to involve more showdowns in the future. To this end, they see establishing a foothold in parliament as the first step towards shifting the balance of political power and catalysing change from within.

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Mohammed Al-Yasiri, a Basra protester who survived a kidnapping ordeal in October, explained: “In 2011, there was a protest movement. Then came bigger ones in 2015 and 2016. In the 2018 protests the government lost control of Basra. Then in 2019, the protest movement was in nine provinces. Next time, after the people have gone through all this experience and hardships their drive to compel the political class to listen will be even stronger.”

During nearly 20 hours of interviews, one of the striking differences I could see between the younger protesters and “mid-career” activists was the difference in how they responded to the “campaign of terror” orchestrated by government and militia actors. While the violence dissuaded the older activists, the atrocities and the blood that was spilled during protests still motivates the younger ones despite the loss of momentum and resources since the onset of the pandemic. The bonds of friendship and sacrifice and a shared dream of an Iraqi homeland that treats all of its people with fairness and dignity keep them moving.

Some of the protesters I interviewed admit that at first they shrugged off the protests as something that would fizzle out quickly, but decided to participate after they saw the victimisation and oppression. Al-Haboubi said that the snipers “provoked” him because, “The killing made me feel that there was no solution and no way to get back our dignity without protesting and telling the political system enough is enough.” For Ekram Wasfi, who as a volunteer medic personally carried the bodies of 13 protesters killed by bullets and gas canisters during the events of 25 October 2019, the experience made him believe that he had to do his part because the people are planting a seed. “We might not achieve our goals now,” he told me, “not in this revolution, but in the next one.”

Wasfi and his colleagues in the student unions are continuing to strengthen their contacts with students in all provinces, including the Kurdistan region and western provinces that haven’t witnessed large-scale protests. Their goal is to “understand the obstacles they face” and get these provinces involved in the next stage, which several activists expect to be launched sometime in October, marking the first anniversary of the protests.

The movement will continue and expand because, as Laith Hussein puts it: “We have developed a wealth of experience in negotiations, dialogue and crafting demands, and remain determined to create change. It may not happen next year, but the goal remains an Iraq for all Iraqis, with true equal opportunity. The paper tigers [militias and establishment party leaders] have weapons and money, but no real base of support. Like Safaa [Al-Sarray] said, at the end, only Iraq remains.”

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.