Iraq Early Parliamentary Elections: October 10, 2021 (tentative – further delays possible)

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

Not Free
Government Type
Federal Parliamentary Republic
39 million
Provincial Elections
Early Parliamentary Elections
October 10, 2021 (tentative)
Kurdistan Parliamentary Elections
September 2023 (due)
Kurdistan Parliamentary Elections
September 30, 2018
Parliamentary Elections
May 12, 2018
Provincial Elections
April 20, 2013

Iraq’s government proposed holding snap parliamentary elections on June 6, 2021, one year early, following the demands of protesters. However, Iraq’s cabinet subsequently voted to postpone the elections to October 10. Moreover, further delays are possible. 

In addition, Iraq is overdue to hold provincial (sometimes called governorate) elections, 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).

Political Context

These elections are taking place in the context of widespread protest and political instability.

Iraq Elections Since the Fall of Saddam

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.

Iraq’s 2018 Elections and Brewing Political Crisis

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.

Iraq’s 2019-2020 Political Crisis

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.

Iraq’s Upcoming Elections

The elections will test the hypothesis that the 2019 protests represented a re-alignment of Iraqi politics.

Geopolitical Context

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.

Curated News and Analysis

Michelle Nichols, Reuters (February 16, 2021): Iran’s meddling must be tackled before Iraq elections, U.S. tells U.N.

Dana Taib Menmy, Al Jazeera (January 30, 2021): Iraqi anger grows after election postponement

Cathrin Schaer, DW (January 22, 2021): Iraq’s new protester parties plan to change the country

Reuters (January 19, 2021): Iraq delays general election to Oct. 10: state media

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

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

Munqith Dagher, CSIS (May 19, 2020): The New Three-Dimensional Political Situation in Iraq: An Iraqi Point of View

Al Jazeera (May 7, 2020): Who is Mustafa al-Kadhimi, Iraq’s new prime minister? Al-Kadhimi is viewed as pragmatic as well as having good relations with main players across Iraqi political spectrum

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?

21votes does not necessarily agree with all of the opinions expressed in the linked articles; rather, our goal is to curate a wide range of voices. Furthermore, none of the individuals or organizations referenced have reviewed 21votes’ content, and their inclusion should not be taken to imply that they endorse us in any way. More on our approach here

Updated February 17, 2021

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