In the ideal world, national elections are viewed by citizens as a time of optimism that heralds a fresh start in their lives.
Iraq’s world, sadly, is not ideal and the parliamentary elections held there on Sunday, the fifth since the US-led invasion in 2003, had the lowest turnout on record, attesting to how disenchanted the majority of the electorate are with their political system and how sceptical they are about whether casting their votes would make a difference.
In effect, the choice by a large segment of the population to stay at home rather than head down the street to a voting station in their neighbourhood was itself a kind of referendum on what everyday Iraqis appear to consider a dysfunctional system of government — one mired in mismanagement and corruption — not responsive to change.
Let’s face it, apathy at the ballot box can be as eloquent a statement about the mass sentiment of the electorate as any ardent vote cast in it.
An Iraqi uprising
Sunday’s elections, we are told, took place seven months earlier than planned in a bid by the authorities to appease those protesters who participated in the mass demonstrations, known as the Tishree uprising, which erupted in October 2019, after hundreds of thousands of young Iraqis took to the streets demanding, along with jobs and a better infrastructure, that armed militias affiliated with political blocks be held accountable for beating, kidnapping and often killing opposition activists.
Those protests, which stretched to months, didn’t come cheap. At least 600 protesters were killed, although other estimates put the figure at 800. And since then, no less than 35 protest leaders, reformers, journalists, lawyers and other civil society members have been killed and 80 others wounded in assassination attempts.
Ironically, but also most tellingly, it was among young Iraqis, the largest demographic in the country — effectively the very protesters of the Tashren uprising, whom the government sought to appease by moving the election forward — that reluctance to go out and vote was most prevalent, with many expressing the view that the system itself was immune to change, convinced as they were that the election would bring back to power the same old faces who were responsible in the first place for the ills that plague their nation, such as crumbling public services, growing poverty and rising unemployment, ills that had implacably remained in place since — for some — the day they were born.
In short, these young folks’ conviction is that with or without their participation in the electoral process, the old political blocks, well-entrenched parties that had dominated parliament since 2003, would win the most seats in the 362-member parliament. So why bother?
Tribal, ideological contradictions
All this is happening in Iraq today against the backdrop of 18 years of political turmoil and bloody conflict that followed the US-led invasion, a pivotal event in the country’s modern history that went on to unlock a Pandora’s box of tribal, ethnic, sectarian and ideological contradictions across the entirety of Iraqi society as a whole.
That political leaders have failed, close to two decades after the fact, to resolve these contradictions should be seen as the primary reason for the malaise that today afflicts the “land between the Euphrates and the Tigris”, as Iraq is engagingly dubbed by peoples of the Arab world, who are cognizant of the illustrious role it has played in their long history as a civilisation.
In principle, Iraq is an oil-rich nation whose wealth should enable it to provide economic prosperity, political stability and social well-being for its citizens — and do so with impressive ease, given the ample resources it commands. In reality, however, it appears to have fallen short at meeting these challenges that modernity presents nations with, from time to to time, in their evolution as nations.
This is all the more unfortunate, given the fact that Iraq was always in the past, as it remains in the present, a pivotal actor in the region, often playing the indispensable role of impartial mediator among rivals in the region, thus determining shifts in the balance of power there.
A stable Iraq, where the lives of its populace are defined by prosperity not despair, by a genuine truly genuine — social contract between ruler and ruled and not by paramilitary groups operating above and beyond the law of the land, is of paramount significance to all peoples across the Middle East.
Clearly, Only Iraqis and Iraqis alone — not outsiders from across another ocean trying to “introduce” them to democracy — can change what effectively is a dysfunctional system that has dragged their country through two decades of deprivation.
Yet, as the African proverb has it, however long the night might last, dawn will break.
— Fawaz Turki is a journalist, academic and author based in Washington. He is the author of The Disinherited: Journal of a Palestinian Exile