By Ihsan Noori
The Iraqi parliament failed to confirm a date for the country’s parliamentary and provincial elections after lawmakers from the National Alliance and Kurdish blocs withdrew from a session on January 18. Sunni MPs requested a secret ballot to postpone the election from the date submitted by the Council of Ministers, May 12, to the first of December this year. Shia and Kurdish MPs broke quorum, leaving only 123 MPs present, which is well below what is required to hold a vote.
Prime Minster Haider al-Abadi – who is riding high after leading the country to a victory over the Islamic State – wants the elections to be held in May. Badr organization leader Hadi al-Ameri, Dawa Chairman Nouri al-Maliki, and Kurdish parties Gorran and the Kurdistan Islamic Union made it clear that they oppose any delay to the elections. The United States also voiced its support for the Iraqi government’s plans to hold the elections on time, saying in a statement that postponing the elections “would set a dangerous precedent, undermining the constitution and damaging Iraq’s long-term democratic development.”
But Sunni lawmakers argue that the war-torn country is not ready to hold elections, citing destruction in Sunni cities and the hundreds of thousands of internally displaced people as obstacles.
Structural damage and displacement may sound like reasonable justifications for postponing the elections, but anyone who is familiar with Iraqi affairs will tell you that none of this is new. Iraqis went to the polls during equally turbulent and dangerous periods in the past. They voted in 2006 when many of them were living under the mercy of al-Qaeda, at a time when participating in the political process made one a ‘traitor’ and an ‘infidel’ deserving death.
During the 2010 election, 2.8 Million were displaced in camps across Iraq, as opposed to 2.6 Million or less this time around. Nonetheless, Iraqiya, a grand coalition encompassing mostly Sunni parties, won a plurality in the Iraqi parliament. In the last election, held in 2014, Sunnis voted with ISIS occupying Fallujah and large swaths of Anbar, as well as having de facto control of daily life in Mosul. Danger, devastation and internal displacement were never an obstacle.
Oddly, Sunni politicians are demanding a mere six-month delay to the elections. What do they expect to change in six months? For all internally displaced Sunnis to return home, their cities would have to be rebuilt and their communities to feel a true sense of security, which is a tall order to complete in six months. To create the perfect polling conditions, years are needed.
Sunni lawmakers and local politicians simply want to buy time to delay the inevitable change. They know that many of them will not return to office because they failed to build relationships with their voters and uphold their interests. Politicians such as former Deputy Prime Minister Saleh al-Mutlaq – who was assigned the IDP file along with one billion dollars and the prime minister’s spending authority – not only failed his constituents but, according to Sunni lawmaker Abd al-Rahman al-Luayzi, embezzled most of the funds allocated to house and feed them. Needless to say, Mutlaq’s party is not projected to keep the 10 seats it received in the last election.
The same can be said for local politicians. Ninawa Governor Atheel al-Nujayfi, for sample, went from receiving more than 300,000 personal votes in 2009 to 40,000 in the last election, and that’s before the fall of Mosul in 2014 and his mishandling of the crisis. The likes of Mutlaq and Nujayfi expect their constituents to penalize them electorally, and rightly so. Essentially, Sunni objections to holding elections in May stem from a justified fear that change is coming.
Postponing elections is a dangerous precedent that can bring about the downfall of Iraq’s democracy. Therefore, the Iraqi government should tame Sunnis’ fears and remove all plausible obstacles to hold the elections on time. The Independent High Electoral Commission can arrange so IDPs can cast their votes from areas where they currently reside and not necessarily from their original province or town. The Iraqi government should assign enough money to make certain that all IDPs who want to vote have chance to do so, and invite the United Nations to oversee the polling process in displacement camps to ensure that no violations are taking place.
Ihsan Noori is a political writer and a contributor to Inside Iraqi Politics.