Voters in Iraq’s 2005 elections show their ink-stained index fingers – proof that they voted. Photo credit: United States Marine Corps/Staff Sgt. Jim Goodwin (public domain)
Freedom House Rating
Federal Parliamentary Republic
Early Parliamentary Elections
June 6, 2021 (tentative)
Kurdistan Parliamentary Elections
September 2023 (due)
Kurdistan Parliamentary Elections
September 30, 2018
May 12, 2018
April 20, 2013
Iraq’s government has proposed holding snap parliamentary elections on June 6, 2021, one year early, following the demands of protesters. However, parliament still has to pass a new electoral law and allocate a budget for the elections in order for them to actually happen. Therefore, the date remains tentative.
Iraq is due to hold provincial (sometimes called governorate) elections this year, in which voters will elect provincial councils. Originally scheduled for December 2018, these elections have been delayed multiple times following controversial national elections in May 2018 (the first since the defeat of ISIS).
These elections are taking place in the context of widespread protest and political instability.
Since the fall of Saddam Hussein, Iraq has held competitive – if imperfect – elections. However, the security situation remains tense, despite the defeat of ISIS in 2017 (ISIS, among other groups, continues to carry out attacks in Iraq). The country has nearly 2 million internally displaced people. Corruption continues to hamper political and economic development.
Sectarian fighting – both in the form of political tensions and also outright violent conflict between ethnic militias – remains an ongoing problem. In brief, Iraq is split between three major groups – Sunni Arabs, Shiite Arabs, and Kurds (with a handful of smaller groups such as Yazidis, Christians, Turkomen, etc). Shiites constitute a majority, but faced particular oppression under Saddam. However, following the collapse of Saddam’s Baathist regime, they became dominant politically. Nonetheless, Sunnis and Kurds are represented in parliament. Furthermore, the groups are not monolithic – both Sunnis and Shiites have factions that favor religious rule facing off against secularist factions, and there is a contingent of Iraqi nationalists who oppose sectarianism altogether.
In an unexpected result in the 2018 elections, Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr‘s Saairun (Forward) alliance pulled out a surprise victory and won the most seats – 54 out of 329 seats in the Council of Representatives (CoR), Iraq’s unicameral parliament. Sadr led the Mahdi Army, which fought against American troops following the 2003 invasion, and was a major combatant in the subsequent sectarian fighting. But in a change of tactics, the militia has re-branded itself and is now the Peace Brigades.
However, because Sadr lacked a majority, a rival group led by Hadi al-Ameri, commander of the overtly pro-Iran Badr Brigade (Iraq’s most powerful Shiite militia), and former Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki sought to form a government. After months of deadlock, the two rival groups agreed to make Adil Abdul-Mahdi, an economist and former oil minister, prime minister.
In October 2019, a political crisis began following mass protests over corruption, unemployment, and foreign involvement in Iraqi politics. The protests, which resulted in 500 deaths and thousands of injuries, led to the resignation of Abdul-Mahdi – the first ouster of a prime minister since the fall of Saddam. Even though the vast majority of the protesters were Shiite (and in fact Sunnis remained largely disengaged), they nonetheless called for the fall of the Shiite-dominated government, arguing that the Shiite parties haven’t delivered on their promises after 16 years in power. They also called for reduced Iranian involvement in Iraqi politics.
Moreover, protesters called for an end to the muhasasa system, which distributes positions to sectarian-based political parties. Although in theory the system was supposed to ensure representation for all of Iraq’s ethnic groups, in reality, it has fueled corruption and sectarian tensions, benefiting only a small number of elites.
As a result of the protests (and at the urging of Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, Iraq’s most important Shiite cleric, who has been an éminence grise in Iraqi politics since the fall of Saddam), Abdul-Mahdi announced his resignation at the end of November 2019. After months of deadlock and several false starts, former intelligence chief Mustafa Al-Kadhimi finally became prime minister. However, the cabinet remains incomplete, and many of the underlying issues remain unresolved.
The upcoming provincial elections (and early parliamentary elections, if they happen) will test the hypothesis that the 2019 protests represented a re-alignment of Iraqi politics.
Competition between Iran and the United States plays out in Iraq. Most notably, Iranian general Qasem Soleimani, commander of the elite Quds Force, was killed by an American airstrike in Baghdad. Similarly, Iraq also plays into the region-wide conflict between Iran and Saudi Arabia, with each backing various factions in Iraqi politics.
Iraq has the world’s fifth-largest proven oil reserves.
Council on Foreign Relations, Global Conflict Tracker (updated regularly): Political Instability in Iraq
Tamara Qiblawi, CNN (October 5, 2020): The approach of the US elections helps push Lebanon and Iraq to the brink
Shahla Omar, Rudaw (October 5, 2020): Iraqi president, UN’s Iraq chief talk early election integrity
Bobby Ghosh, Bloomberg (October 3, 2020): Why are protesters back on Iraqi streets?
Al Jazeera (October 1, 2020): Thousands mark anti-government protests anniversary in Iraq
Al Jazeera (September 30, 2020): Challenges in Iraq mount a year after anti-gov’t protests erupted
Hayder Al-Shakeri, Al Jazeera (September 26, 2020): The false promise of early elections in Iraq
AP (September 13, 2020): Iraq’s top Shiite cleric backs early parliamentary elections
Reuters (July 31, 2020): Iraq PM calls early election for June 6, 2021
Munqith Dagher, CSIS (May 19, 2020): The New Three-Dimensional Political Situation in Iraq: An Iraqi Point of View
Ghassan Adnan and Isabel Coles, Wall Street Journal (May 6, 2020): Iraq Gets New Government: After Months of Political Deadlock Intelligence chief Mustafa al-Kadhimi is sworn in as prime minister
Marsin Alshamary and Safwan Al-Amin, Washington Post’s Monkey Cage (November 7, 2019): Iraqi protesters demand constitutional change. Can they make it happen?
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Updated October 6, 2020