The wave of protests in the last few weeks has shaken Iraq’s post-2003 political system to the core, as the government’s use of violence against peaceful protesters has seriously undermined the system’s legitimacy. Prime Minister Adil Abd al-Mahdi, in office exactly one year on October 25, may have to resign. Yet Iraq, in a formal sense, has a democratic political system. It held a national election in May 2018, and long-awaited provincial elections were recently set for April 1 of next year, now less than six months away. This raises the question of why so many Iraqis from the country’s Shia-majority provinces—which elect the political elite—have felt the need to take to the streets to force the government out. 

The structure of Iraqi election law is part of the problem. The new provincial election law passed on July 22 set in motion the country’s first provincial elections since 2013. Unlike parliament, whose four-year terms are set in the constitution and whose authority instantly lapses upon expiry, provincial governments have a statutory four-year term. Under existing law, these terms are automatically extended whenever they run late. While the cabinet normally exercises the authority to set elections, parliament set the date as April 1, 2020 in Article 13 of the new law.

Yet even before the recent round of protests, the electoral system’s legitimizing capabilities were in question. Last year’s parliamentary election drew just 44 percent participation, a notably low turnout.  The new election law favors the dominant factions, and the legacy of last year’s flawed election and disillusionment with scandals, which have engulfed most provincial governments, suggest participation could decline further. If an election does nothing more than shift the balance of power within what is viewed as a kleptocracy, it cannot not take Iraq forward.

The new law was written to favor large blocs and, therefore, the highly unpopular dominant political class. Prime Minister Abd al-Mahdi submitted a bill to parliament which contained a range of amendments to existing law, including measures to make provincial governments more stable and to give 30 percent of seats in the election to the candidates with the highest votes, regardless of party. This latter provision was a step toward balancing out a voting system designed to favor the larger blocs, allowing prominent locals with no national organization a chance to compete.

The parliamentary committee charged with managing the bill shredded Abd al-Mahdi’s version, discarding all his key reforms. The election procedure provision in Article 9 is most crucial. The national election law changed after the 2013 provincial election, in which many small province-based parties won seats. Then-Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki was explicit about the need to amend the law following that election, saying that it “produced weak governments.” Al-Maliki was referring to what is called the Sainte-Laguë Formula,  a seat allocation formula of European origin in which party votes are divided by successive odd numbers starting with 1.0 (increasing the divisor makes it harder for parties to win their initial seat). Distribution of seats after the first seat are not impacted, and so incremental changes in the divisor are often aimed at making it more difficult for a small party to win its first seat. A 1.7 divisor was used during the 2014 and 2018 national elections, and this successfully excluded the small parties. As a result, the established parties demanded an even more favorable 1.9 divisor. Abd al-Mahdi included the number in his bill while also adding a pro-local candidate provision (noted above) as a counterbalance. 

Another provision of this tendency is the reduction in the number of seats in each council. Article 18 amends the existing law to provide that each council will have 10 members plus one additional member for every 200,000 in population. This does not include minority reserve seats, which are additional. Thus, Basra, for example, will decrease from 35 seats to 20. Such a provision impacts the seat allocation formula in a way that increases the minimum number of votes needed to win a seat. 

These provisions need to be viewed in the context of the political status quo. In a democracy with developed and transparent institutions, a law excluding small parties might be justified as a precondition for stable governance. But this only works if the dominant parties are themselves democratic—instead, Iraq’s main parties are personality vehicles for the same figures who have run things since 2005. It is simply inconceivable, for example, that a citizen from Basra might join the provincial branch of Maliki’s State of Law Coalition, and then argue that Maliki should retire from politics or argue against his views. Every major Iraqi party, Shia, Sunni or Kurd, functions this way.

Thus, in mid-October, in the wake of widespread violence against protesters earlier in the month, President Barham Salih gathered a group of legal experts to develop new electoral reform legislation. Iraq’s presidency is mostly a ceremonial post, but one authority it does have is to introduce legislation. Salih’s opening remarks to the group, in which he declared the current system unresponsive to popular demands, were televised in order to send the message that someone in power is listening. 

Indeed, Salih was the only major leader to respond to the protests in terms of structural reform. Despite his reform-oriented rhetoric, Abd al-Mahdi’s response focused on patronage-related programs, such as land grants and welfare payment programs. Perhaps rethinking the matter, on October 24, the eve of the planned launch of a new wave of protests, Abd al-Mahdi announced a commitment to election reform as part of his program. Judging from the past week, his national address—a 33-minute lecture heavy with technocratic jargon—had no impact at all. 

A second major factor underming confidence in the electoral system is that the protests came just one year after Iraq’s previous national election, the results of which were tainted by fraud.  Said Kakai, a commissioner on the Independent High Electoral Commission (IHEC), publicly disclosed what he claimed were large discrepancies between electronic records of vote counts and those announced publicly in all the Kurdish areas (including Kirkuk and Ninawa), Salah al-Din, and Anbar. The cabinet conducted its own investigation and found substantial fraud, recommending a range of officials for prosecution.

Hopes were raised and then dashed that exposure of the election fraud would be an impetuous for change. Parliament passed a law requiring a recount to be overseen by judges rather than IHEC commissioners, who were roundly assailed as corrupt and unfit, a move the judiciary also approved. Yet, the recount only modestly affected the results. Even more, the prosecutions announced against several officials disappeared without any convictions or public explanation. One of just two MPs who lost their seats, al-Hal leader Muhammad al-Karbuli, was still elected into parliament after an alleged “deal,” wherein one of al-Hal’s MPs gave up his seat, and was then rewarded with the Anbar governorship.

A third structural flaw is the distortion of election results caused by the prevalence of backroom deals and the weakness of anti-corruption, resulting in many elected parliamentarians and provincial council members switching parties. At the national level, this led to the election of Abd al-Mahdi himself, even though he did not lead a party in the election, and thus could have no electoral mandate. At the provincial level this has meant regular turnover of governors and council chairmen as elected representatives switch sides. Thus, in the 15 federal provinces, Maysan’s Ali Duwai is the only governor elected in 2013 still serving, with several provinces having had three or more governors. The same small group of factions controls every province, but they split the governorships. Even more, when a governor faces scandal or protests, he is replaced by another member of the kleptocracy. 

None of these factors detract from the importance of elections for Iraqi political parties, as winning seats is the gateway to patronage through ministries, executive appointments and contract tenders. But for Iraqis taking to the streets with frustration toward the electoral system itself, the next big question for Iraqi democracy may not be who wins, but whether voters can be convinced it even matters.

Kirk H. Sowell is a political risk analyst and the publisher of the biweekly newsletter Inside Iraqi Politics. Follow him on Twitter @uticarisk