Iraq Election: The Quest for Democratic Change

Image source: Al Jazeera


In a democracy, the conduct of free and fair elections determines the foundation of a healthy democracy, ensuring the government authority derives from the people’s will. The rising anger at the political elites because of the surge in corruption, unemployment, violence and rapid social change has fuelled political upheaval in recent years. These challenges have constrained the very nature of the democratic setup and fundamental norms and institutions of liberal democracy. Iraq is dealing with the same problems of social and political unrest that hampers its democratic structure. On 10th October 2021, Iraq held its fifth national election since the fall of Saddam Hussein in 2003. The election comes amid social and political fractures, as unrest and discontent in Iraq continue at political elites. These violent protests and turbulence forced the authorities and government to respond to the uprising by rescheduling the election to this year. The situation questions the very nature of democracy and makes it a contested subject in Iraq. The election’s aftermath allows analyzing the pertaining challenges in Iraq that lead to the downfall of the true spirit of democracy.

The Challenges

The low voter turnouts, the continued insurgency, unrest, divided polity, and external interference are some of the challenges of this election that hampers Iraq’s democracy.

Low voter’s turnout

Iraq consists of 329 seats in the parliamentary elections, with 3,449 candidates contesting for the polls. According to the statistics, out of the 21 million registered voters, one million were old enough to vote for the first time. But the people chose to boycott the national election, as voter’s turnout fell from 44% in 2018 to 41% in 2021, becoming a record low turnout. Despite the election being the crucial element of democracy to positively change and shape the political situation, the people restrained themselves from voting. The chief observer Viola Von Cramon of E.U. Observation Mission said many Iraqis didn’t believe in this opportunity that would have helped change the political landscape. The overall outcome indicates the voters have lost faith in democracy, the election process due to the government’s lack of ability to fulfil their basic needs and demands.

External Threat

Iraq has always been under the shadow of external interference from multiple international state actors. The invasion of Iraq by America and Saddam Hussein’s fall created a power vacuum for others to fill. The external actors have been able to use the multi-ethnic and multi-religious aspects of Iraq. The prominent influence of Iran and the U.S is quite visible in the political system of Iraq. The external interference is so deep-rooted that candidates like Muqtada al-Sadr’s and many others entire campaign were based on terminating external influence, withdrawal of U.S troops and nationalism. America’s presence in Iraq has allowed the U.S to involve deep in Iraq’s political matters. In efforts to bring freedom and democracy to Iraq, the U.S. has got more chaos by marginalizing and dividing the Sunni-Shia population in the political system leading to the widening of Sunni-Shia spilt. Also, Iran mobilizes its influence in Iraq’s political system by backing the Shia-led party and paramilitary groups like Asaib Ahl al-Haq. Iran has managed to divide the Shia factions within the political system of Iraq, making the situation more complex and hostile to achieve common political goals. The current divide between Muqtada-al Sadr and Nuri-al-Maliki from the State of Law party results from Iran’s influence. The State of Law party is in dialogue with the Iranian backed militias group Asaib Ahl al-Haq that has already rejected the results of national elections. This external interference dominates the political scene in Iraq, causing an internal stir leading to disruption of the political system and democratic values, which gives rise to many undemocratic activities. This external interference leads to the internal political chaos in Iraq. 

FILE PHOTO: Iraqi President Barham Salih speaks during a news conference at the Elysee Palace in Paris, France, February 25, 2019. Christophe Ena/Pool via REUTERS

Political chaos and divide

The external factor has complicated the internal political and democratic arrangement creating enormous challenges, making democracy and institutions uncertain. The elections are supposed to be a smooth way to change power, but in Iraq, it has heightened the hostilities and divided the community and whole political class. The lack of ability of parties to achieve the majority has brought a divide in the Shia faction to form the government. The rivalry between the Sadrist and Muqtada-al Sadar and Nuri-al-Maliki from the State of Law party has created a political conquest for forming a government. Both the Shia-led parties are in a tussle to topple each other’s tally to form a coalition with the help of different political parties and independent candidates either belonging to the Sunni bloc or the backed Iranian militias. Also, this division makes the informal political arrangement of sectarian power-sharing setup between the Shia, Sunni, and Kurds factions for the president, prime minister, and parliamentary speaker challenging to achieve as it becomes a contested issue. The same religious sectarianism setup in Lebanon for power-sharing has witnessed adverse outcomes bringing the entire country on the verge of collapse. This division makes the whole political arrangement and democratic setup challenging to achieve, creating a vacuum in the system that fails to translate the power into better service delivery or improved handling of the many crises in Iraq. Also, the recent attack on Prime Minister Mustafa-al-Kadhimi and rejection of election results by violent Iraqi protest and threats from the militias group makes the situation more unfavourable for Iraq’s political system to achieve democracy. These challenges lead to undemocratic and unlawful activities like political violence, corrupt horse-trading, boycott, voter fraud, and vote-rigging. This slow process and delay in government formation disrupt and limit Iraq’s genuine democratic political representation efforts.

The Efforts to Stand Tall for Building Democracy

The ray of hope accompanied the challenges in this election. Against all odds, the Iraq government has taken concrete steps to sustain its democracy by conducting a free and fair election. For the first time, elections have been conducted on people’s demands and their protests since 2019. The 25% seat reservation for women was a significant highlight of this election, as many obstacles constantly hampered their development despite Iraqi women’s determination to engage in the public sphere. Also, the election turned out to be relatively smooth and peaceful from previous years, with no incidents of violence as the security forces were deployed to maintain the free and secure flow of election. The new election law was a positive change that would divide Iraq into two smaller constituencies, allowing smaller parties and independent candidates to contest. This election law is the outcome of activists’ demands who were part of the 2019 protest. Also, biometric voter’s cards were introduced to ensure voter equality and prevent abuse of electronic voter cards. The E.U. and the United Nations have also deployed dozens of election observers responsible for monitoring the voting under the newly adopted U.N. Security Council resolutions. This decision resembles a positive step and the government’s efforts despite such unrest and violence to conduct elections. These actions are expected to bring a meaningful change if it continues to materialize.


Eventually, the aftermath of government formation will set the tone for Iraq’s continued insurgency, general unrest, political landscape, and democracy. The immediate need of Iraq is to have a peaceful transition of power. Also, the responsibility of police and military forces becomes crucial to maintain peace and stability in the country. In the long run, to strengthen its foothold on democracy, Iraq has to realize that it needs more than elections. For any democracy to sustain, it needs to nurture and build strong roots of a democratic culture that will reflect the true spirit of democracy. Iraq will have to create a liberal and adaptive democracy by embracing appropriate political and economic motivations based on collective democratic decisions to address the above challenges. To turn Iraq into a stable democracy, it should involve the citizens and willingly build solid democratic institutions that benefit all sections of society because lack of people’s will, involvement, coordination results in chaos and violence. So Iraq should constantly work together on building its democracy because democracy is always a work in progress.

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The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Kootneeti Team

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Suyash Tawde

Suyash Tawde is an Intern at The Kootneeti

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