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What to expect from Iraq's election?
Written by jonathan     May 11, 2018    
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This week's elections in Iraq are unlikely to produce any earth-shattering results. There is far more electoral competition between parties in Iraq than most other countries in the region, including Lebanon where voters this week returned the country's political monopoly to power with scarcely any changes. But most of the main candidates in Iraq are well-known quantities and there is absolutely no chance of any independent figures or new political forces breaking into parliament or into government. Given how dysfunctional many of those candidates have been while in power since 2003, many voters have already decided that they will protest against the state. The only real question is how many votes Iraq's dominant parties will gain on election day, and how they will use the results when negotiating the formation of the next government.

Some commentators have noted that one difference in 2018 is the increasing number of cross-sectarian alliances, but that trend started many cycles ago, and there are currently very few electoral alliances that are likely to attract voters from across the ethno-sectarian divide. There is an argument that electoral politics have regressed in that regard: in 2010 and 2014, there was significant chatter about new civil, independent movements that contested those elections, but they have been close to absent from the current elections.

As in the past, the main focus of attention will be on how Shia Iraqis will cast their votes. Their community's dominant position virtually guarantees that the next prime minister will be drawn from one of a small number of parties and alliances. That is even more certain than in the past, given how divided and discredited other communities' politicians have become. And while most parties barely have any political platforms to speak of, there are a few differences that will make a difference to Iraq's future, including their respective positions on whether the country should be involved in the region's many conflicts.  

Who is running?

Past electoral cycles have produced many surprises, including Iyad Allawi's surprise victory in 2010, so predictions are naturally unwise. However, the frontrunner in the 2018 elections appears to be current prime minister Haider al-Abadi. The question is less whether al-Abadi will come out on top, and more how much distance he will be able to put between himself and his closest competitors. Al-Abadi is a moderate in both substance and style: a soft-spoken individual whose rhetoric is consistently conciliatory and who seeks to keep Iraq at arm's distance from all international and regional powers and, thereby, protect the population from any new conflicts. Al-Abadi's narrative and electoral platform will appeal to many voters, particularly given the state's victory over the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) for which al-Abadi has taken some credit, and for Baghdad's vastly improved security since 2014. He has set the tone for these elections, which have been remarkably civil in comparison to the poisonous atmosphere that prevailed in 2005, 2010 and 2014. At the same time, however, al-Abadi's moderation suggests weakness to those voters who are accustomed to their leaders projecting strength and arrogance, which has led some analysts to question whether he will do well enough to dominate the next government.

Alliances headed by Muqtada al-Sadr and by Hadi al-Amiri are al-Abadi's main competitors. Al-Sadr and his family profess to represent Iraq's most marginalised economic communities, and as a result, he is one of the country's very few political movements that has a loyal constituency that consistently earns him approximately nine percent of the popular vote. Al-Sadr's platform strongly favours an independent foreign policy, which sets it apart from Iranian-backed politicians including al-Amiri. He also carries a strong anti-corruption message, which he has demonstrated his commitment to by forbidding almost all of his alliance's previous MPs from standing in this year's election (nominally in an effort to curb the benefits of incumbency). Finally, al-Sadr has allied with the Iraqi Communist Party, formally to encourage greater participation of Iraq's technocratic class in any future government. It is unclear whether that will translate into additional votes (some Iraqis are likely to shy away from voting for any alliance that includes communists), or even whether it will actually lead to an improvement in the government's performance.

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