Millions of Iraqis heading to the polls early

October 9, 2021 - 22:28

TEHRAN - As Iraqis prepare to head to the polls to cast their ballots for the early parliamentary election on Sunday, a lot is at stake. Observers say there are some aspects of this election that make it different from the previous ones. Firstly, the election is taking place one year earlier than it should have been.

Wide-scale demonstrations in October and November 2019 against alleged corruption led to the resignation of the government of Adil Abdul Mehdi. He had only been in power for one year following the 2018 election. His successor, who was selected by parliament, Mustafa al-Khadimi, pledged to tackle corruption and bring reforms to the electoral process. To avoid any potential fraud and vote-rigging, the country’s Independent High Electoral Commission uses a German-made voting bio-metric system. This means every eligible voter, of which there are 25 million, receives a personal pre-issued bio-metric card.

One election observer explained to Tehran Times that fingerprints are taken before the card is issued. Once the voter enters the booth, a computer system checks the fingerprints again to avoid any fraud. Should any suspicions arise by local or international observers, then one or two boxes are chosen at random and hand-counted.

On election day, they must use this card to vote for the candidate of their choice, and once they do so, the card is disabled, so it would be impossible for the card to be used again at least within the following 72 hours; by which time the election is over. Nevertheless, analysts are also not ruling out the possibility that the entire “German-made” bio-metric electronic voting system would not be hacked by a foreign enemy power of Iraq.

The third point to the electoral reforms is that there are more constituencies in every city, which depends on the population of each town and province. Baghdad, Mosul, and Basrah, who have a higher population, will also have more constituencies, albeit a much lower number than previous elections. This is to lower the number of candidates and allow a chance for more independent candidates to win a parliamentary seat. Essentially, how this works is as follows.
If there are 25 constituencies in the province of Basrah, previously, a parliamentary candidate could place his name on the ballot ticket at all 25 constituencies. This time, the candidate can only run for one constituency in the province of Basrah and has been banned from running in any other constituency in Basrah, let alone the country. The ballot paper for each electoral district is printed months ahead of time with the name and logo of the party or the independent candidate.

Experts say this will potentially allow more independent candidates to win a seat against the traditional heavy-weight parties. The fourth point that differentiates this election from the previous ones is how the party leader can choose the candidate that is running on behalf of the party.

Previously if a candidate received the most votes in a specific area, it would not necessarily mean they would gain a parliamentary seat. If a party wins 30 seats, the party leader had the power to select 30 lawmakers of their choice, the ones that they saw most qualified to sit in the 329 seat legislature.

This meant the voter was essentially voting for the more popular party leaders and not the local representative they had perhaps wanted to represent them in parliament. In essence, the voter was voting for a party, not a local representative.

With the new electoral legislation, the candidate who gets the most votes will be the voter’s representative in parliament.

Some say this will help as before; locals perhaps voted for a particular person because they saw him fit to serve the constituency, not because they necessarily supported the party they were associated with. This could play a significant role with more independent candidates in power.

Another factor that may play a significant role in the election is a recent statement issued by Iraq’s higher religious authority, Ayatollah Sayyad Ali Sistani, who called for a high turnout. The timing of the statement could not have come at a better time for Prime Minister Mustafa al-Khadhimi, who is relying on a higher turnout to make a point that his work and effort on reforming the election process has been effective.

Another aspect that could play a significant role is the tribes, of which there are many large ones in Persian Gulf Arab nations. For example, the very large tribe of al-Suad is the ruling monarchy in Saudi Arabia. In Iraq, there are also large tribes, and while they do not rule the country, an entire tribe does tend to vote for the same person.

In any case, the traditional parties remain popular, and as with every election, it is impossible to tell in which direction the vote will swing in favor.

Early special voting had already started with Iraq’s armed forces, inmates in prison, and the internally displaced people who have already cast their ballots on Friday, two days ahead of Sunday’s general vote.

There are estimated to be more than 1.5 million security personnel who are eligible to vote, as well as over 120,000 internally displaced persons and hundreds of hospital patients and prisoners who also cast their ballots. The turnout on Friday’s special elections had been reported at 69%.

Al-Kadhimi also went on a small touring mission Friday, in several Baghdad neighborhoods, to oversee the election stations, saying he was satisfied with the turnout on the day and declared that the initial voting process had passed by smoothly. There are 3,449 candidates fighting for 329 seats.

More than 24 million of Iraq’s estimated 40.1 million people are eligible to cast their ballot. After the results are announced (expected to be the following day), negotiations will kick off to form the largest alliance that gets a parliamentary majority tasked with choosing the country’s next prime minister and cabinet ministers. Since elections in 2004, not once has a single party gained a majority; the most are around 65 to 70 seats, so forming an alliance is essential. As with every election, there are always surprises.

For example, in 2018, nobody expected the conquest alliance, a newly formed group of political parties that had previously been affiliated with the popular mobilization units (that liberated the country from Daesh terrorists), to come second in the elections. This time around, there are also new parties in town. For instance, the crowds that took to the streets in October and November 2019 demanding reforms have formed their party and fielded their candidates across the country. However, it remains unclear as to exactly how popular they really are.

There are many difficult challenges ahead for the next government. The protests in November 2019 were not limited to corruption. Essential services like 24-hour electricity, drinking water, farming in some southern provinces, other vital services, higher employment levels were among some of the other protesters’ demands. These are not easy to fix, and one of the biggest challenges and demands of the people is fulfilling a parliamentary bill that was passed after the state-sponsored act of terrorism on January 3, 2020, that unlawfully assassinated Iran’s Lieutenant General, Qassem Soleimani and deputy commander of Iraq’s popular mobilization units, Abu Mehdi al-Muhandis; to end the American occupation of Iraq and expel all American forces from the country.

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