On Sunday, for the fifth time since the U.S. invasion that ousted Saddam Hussein in 2003, Iraqis voted in elections. Initial results suggest that the big winner was nationalist cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, whose political formation once again emerged with the most seats in parliament. Parties aligned with pro-Iranian militias were the big losers, seeing their vote totals plummet. But with turnout at a record low 41 percent of registered voters, the election is being seen as an expression of Iraqis’ disillusionment with the state of the country’s electoral politics.
The elections were the culmination of a political process triggered by widespread popular protests in 2019 that led to the resignation of then-Prime Minister Adil Abdul-Mahdi. The protesters were driven by a range of economic grievances, including a lack of reconstruction after the war against the Islamic State, as well as a general lack of infrastructure development since the end of the U.S. occupation. But the overriding complaint was of a corrupt political class that apportioned power—and the economic benefits that accompany it—according to a sectarian spoils system that defied democratic accountability.
The coronavirus pandemic subsequently stifled those protests, and targeted violence against Iraqi dissidents further weakened the movement, while also highlighting the impunity enjoyed by powerful Iran-aligned militias. The opposition movement’s decision to boycott the elections may have been driven by a realistic assessment of the possibility for electoral politics to effect change. But if the results—and the expectations they generated for a continuation of business as usual—are any indication, it also served as a self-fulfilling prophecy.