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
Kurdistan Parliamentary Elections
September 2023 (due)
October 2026 (due)
Early Parliamentary Elections
October 10, 2021 (tentative)
Kurdistan Parliamentary Elections
September 30, 2018
April 20, 2013
Iraq held early elections on October 10 (postponed from the original proposal of holding them on June 6, 2021, one year early) as a result of the pro-democracy protests that began in 2019.
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).
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 Shi’ite firebrand cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, one of Iraq’s most influential politicians, had announced a boycott, but ultimately reversed course and urged his followers to support the elections.
Sadr subsequently proceeded to win the elections, which had by some counts the lowest turnout in Iraq’s history, at 36 percent. Some figures from the 2019 protest movement did end up winning seats. Renad Mansour notes: “They share a distrust of and impatience with the Iraqi political system and seek to curb the entrenched corruption that has created a narrow ruling elite. This system has proved resilient to all challenges, but the burgeoning coalition of reform-minded political groups holds out the prospect of at least incremental change in Iraq.”
Pro-Iran Shi’ite parties challenged the election results. The Supreme Court rejected the challenge, and Sadr, who opposes both Iranian and American influence in Iraqi politics – will be the kingmaker as the new government forms. More
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.
Dave Gavlak, Voice of America (December 26, 2021): In 2022, Iraq Expected to Struggle for Sovereignty Amid Tug of War
AFP (December 13, 2021): ‘Fraud’ case against election results opens in Iraq court
Ali Mamouri, Al-Monitor (November 18, 2021): Sadr calls for majority government, ‘liquidation’ of Iraqi militias
Edith M. Lederer, AP (November 15, 2021): UN condemns attempts to discredit Iraq’s recent election
Renad Mansour, Foreign Affairs (November 10, 2021): Iraq’s Protesters Become Parliamentarians: A Tenuous Coalition Seeks to Topple Baghdad’s Elite Consensus
Qassim Abdul-Zahra, AP (November 7, 2021): Tension rises in Iraq after failed bid to assassinate PM
Louisa Loveluck and Mustafa Salim, Washington Post (November 5, 2021): Backers of Iran-linked militias try to storm Baghdad’s Green Zone after election losses
NPR (October 28, 2021 – audio): Why Iraq’s Protest Movement Led To An Election That Millions Sat Out
Louisa Loveluck and Mustafa Salim, Washington Post (October 12, 2021): Populist Shiite leader Moqtada al-Sadr dominates Iraqi elections marked by low turnout
Mustafa Shilani, Kurdistan24 (August 26, 2021): Boycott of Iraqi election ‘not an effective strategy’ for parties: UN envoy
Steven A. Cook, Council on Foreign Relations (August 23, 2021): Iraq Is the Middle East’s New Power Broker
Florian Neuhof, Daily Beast (August 12, 2021): Serial Murder of Young Progressives Plagues This Looming Election
The New Arab (August 12, 2021): Iraqi government to continue campaign to keep streets tidy started by assassinated mayor
The New Arab (July 27, 2021): Iraq election boycott grows over fraud, security fears
International Crisis Group (July 26, 2021): Iraq’s Tishreen Uprising: From Barricades to Ballot Box
Chloe Cornish, Financial Times (June 21, 2021): Iraqi activist assassinations create ‘climate of fear’ before elections
AFP (May 24, 2021): Killings in Iraq spark calls for election boycott
Layal Shakir, Rudaw (May 22, 2021): Iraqi election candidate assassinated: party leader
Neil Joseph Nakkash, Newsweek (May 12, 2021): Iraq’s Upcoming Election Likely to Disenfranchise Indigenous Assyrians | Opinion
Sura Ali, Rudaw (April 23, 2021): Controversy as protest groups seek to form political alliance ahead of elections
Miriam Berger, Washington Post (March 6, 2021): Why the pope’s visit matters for Iraq’s Christians
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
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
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 January 17, 2022