The Imtidad Movement and Tishreen Protests
The Imtidad Movement was formed in 2019 by Iraqis who were tired of the rampant corruption and ineffectiveness within the political system in Iraq. It is a youth-led and non-sectarian party that is led by Dr. Alaa al-Rikabi, a prominent figure of the 2019 Tishreen (meaning October) protests. In fact, the party was directly born out of the aftermath of the Tishreen protests to challenge and oppose the governments that have ruled the country since the US invasion in 2003.
The Tishreen protests took place in October 2019 to oppose the government’s inaction towards rising unemployment, corruption, poor living conditions, inadequate social services, sectarian politics, and troublesome paramilitary groups. The protests took place all around the country but were mostly centered in Baghdad. Despite being peaceful, the government and various militias violently attempted to put a stop to the protests. Along with the COVID-19 pandemic introducing lockdowns as well as a fear of illness, protestors faced threats, violence, abductions, targeted killings, and torture.
Regardless, the Tishreen protests proved to be very influential, bringing the Imtidad Movement to the forefront of Iraqi politics and triggering the resignation of former Prime Minister Abul-Mahdi. Subsequently, his successor Mustafa Al-Kahimi promised to hold elections in October 2021.
As a result of the recent election, the Shia Sadrist Party took power, winning 73 out of 329 seats, compared to the pro-Iran Fateh coalition’s 17 seats and the State of Law’s 33 seats. All three are major militia-backed parties that were undoubtedly going to win seats. This dynamic is a major part of the reason why it is so difficult for independent candidates or new parties to gain seats and exercise influence; they are unable to compete with the militia-backed, powerful, and well-established parties to gain seats. Despite the status quo, the Imtidad party gained 9 seats, mostly due to the support of the youth who rejected the traditional parties and opted to support those who want to bring about more change in Iraq.
The Government Structure of Iraq
Iraq is a republic based on a constitution created in October 2005 and is made up of 18 governorates or “muhafazat.” The federal government is made up of three branches: the Executive, Legislative, and the Judiciary. The executive branch is responsible for setting policy and conducting everyday matters of government as well as proposing legislation to the Council of Representatives. The legislative branch consists of the elected Council of Representatives, which has 275 members. Judicial powers are allocated to an independent judiciary, and judicial affairs are managed by the Supreme Judicial Council. The Council nominates judicial officials like the national prosecutor to the Supreme Court and other judicial bodies.
The constitution of Iraq governs two main bodies: the Council of Representatives, or the Parliament, and the Council of Union. In the Council of Representatives, each representative holds a seat for every 100,000 citizens. Ministers holding seats can serve four-year terms and sit in sessions for eight months every year. The main roles of this council are to enact federal laws, keep the prime minister and president in check, ratify treaties, and approve appointments. Meanwhile, the Council of Union forms an “upper house” which includes representatives of the regions as well as the governorates.
The president is the head of state and the executive branch, and is elected by winning two-thirds of the votes in Iraq’s parliament. The president is also limited to two four-year terms. They also work with a vice-president, together making up what is known as the presidency council, which must vote unanimously for decisions to pass.
The president calls on the party that won the election to form the government, which is made up of a prime minister, who heads the government, and the cabinet. To finalize the transition, the Council of Representatives must approve of the new government.
The Iraqi Electoral System
Iraq follows a new electoral system referred to as the Single Non-Transferable Vote. According to this system, the eighteen governorates are divided into 83 multi-member electoral districts with 329 seats allocated between them. Citizens cast a vote for a single candidate, and that vote cannot be transferred to other candidates in the same party. As such, the candidates with the most seats in each district win. Depending on its size, each district has three to six seats.
This system is a stark contrast to the previous party-list proportional system which gave seats according to the total number of votes a party received, rather than through individual candidates.This new electoral system came about as a result of the Tishreen protests. This system is preferable to the old one as citizens are able to vote clearly for more candidates. The 83 electoral districts were previously only 18.
A Lack of Voter Turnout
Voter turnout in the recent election was particularly low, as only 43% of registered voters cast a vote. One reason for this is that many Iraqis do not believe that the elections will lead to positive change. Their lack of optimism largely stems from very little economic and social change or economic development in the country since the defeat of ISIS in 2017. The Iraqi government spent billions of dollars on projects that provided no benefits to the population. The money was spent towards the politicians themselves and they did not work to keep the power of militias in check. Social and economic projects were delayed and underfunded and contributed to a lack of success and progress in the country. Citizens were offered no relief in times of economic turmoil. In addition, random violence towards voters and political activists makes many people hesitate before going to cast their vote. Elections in the past have resulted in fighting and bomb attacks against civilians simply exercising their right to vote.
Despite a low voter turnout, the most recent election was peaceful and well-administered compared to previous ones. As well, it was the first election in decades to take place without a curfew, which demonstrates the improvements that have been made to increase the security and protection of voters. This election was even praised by the United States and the UN Security Council for having been run smoothly. Further, the win of the Imtidad party has helped some voters gain confidence that new parties and independent candidates can hold positions in parliament and possibly bring about change in Iraq.
Other Problems Facing Iraqi Politics
General election fraud has been and continues to be a large problem in Iraq. First, many of the losing parties in the 2021 election like the Hashed party claimed that they were put at a disadvantage by many unlawful practices. Those that filed claims of fraud did so on the basis that the electronic voting system did not adequately recognize fingerprints of those voting. They also claimed that a new electronic machine that was used had failed to work properly. These claims are being rejected by the Iraqi judiciary as well as UN Special Representative Jeanine Hennis.
Second, the Shia-Sunni divide plays a major role in elections. This divide is between the Sunni Muslim and Shia Mulism populations of Iraq. Iraq has been a Shia majority country since Sadam Hussein’s Sunni majority party was removed from power, and the country often colludes with Iran, another Shia majority country. While some support this cooperation with Iran, others dislike it. Majority Shia groups tend to support this partnership while Sunni majority groups tend to be apprehensive towards it.
Many of the major Shiite parties formed and rose to power during the war against ISIS and were backed by Iranian groups such as the Asaib Ahl Al-Haq. The party that gained the most seats during the recent Iraqi election, the Sadr party, stands in good relation with Iran but remains cautious of its interference in Iraq’s affairs. Meanwhile, the Fateh Alliance, which is backed by Iran, lost seats, which could lead to less Iranian influence over Iraq. The Imtidad party does not appreciate any form of foreign intervention as that was also what the Tishreen protests were protesting against; the party and its supporters want less Iranian influence in the country.
There continue to be significant problems that face Iraqi politics, but the success of the Imtidad party demonstrates that positive change is possible. The coercive power that many parties and governments employed has proven not to be sufficient enough to rule the country. People are now retaliating against the brutality of these parties, often revoking their support and showing opposition. Instead, people are turning to parties like Imtidad to bring about change.