‘Apathy and despair’ seep into Baghdad ahead of October elections in Iraq


War-scarred Iraq will hold parliamentary elections next month, but Sajad, a 23-year-old man sitting with his friends in a Baghdad cafe, doesn’t care.

“I see the posters of politicians in the street, but I do not know the names or the programs,” said the man, the shaved head and tattooed forearms.

“I think they all have the same agenda: ‘We will do this, we will do that.’ These are just promises, ”he scoffs, a sentiment shared by his friends.

Iraq is emerging from nearly two decades of war and insurgency, since the 2003 US-led invasion overthrew dictator Saddam Hussein and vowed to bring freedom and democracy.

Although parliamentary elections are due on October 10, there is little popular hope for major change through the ballot box and widespread disillusionment with a political caste widely seen as inept and corrupt.

Sajad, who works at a media production company, says he has no plans to vote.

Many people feel the same way, and there are fears that the voter turnout rate may fall below the official rate of 44.5% recorded in the last parliamentary elections, in 2018.

In Iraqi public squares and along main avenues, there are candidate banners, and rallies – often attended by local notables and tribal leaders – have sought to mobilize support.

But overall, there has been little buzz as most Iraqis worry more about a painful economic crisis made worse by low oil prices and the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Why should I vote? “

The polls were initially scheduled for 2022 but brought forward to June this year by Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhemi, then postponed to October.

The early election was a concession to a protest movement that erupted in the fall of 2019, expressing anger at corruption, skyrocketing youth unemployment and the collapse of public services.

Nearly 25 million Iraqis are eligible to vote, electing 329 lawmakers from a field of more than 3,200 candidates in 83 constituencies.

Iraqi Election Commission officials are participating in a mock election day in Baghdad on Wednesday. | AFP-JIJI

A 25% quota has been set aside for women in the Council of Representatives, the unicameral assembly located within Baghdad’s high security green zone.

A new electoral law increases the number of constituencies and abolishes list voting in favor of individual candidate votes.

But candidates can still run on behalf of a party or coalition, meaning traditional blocs and patronage networks are likely to remain strong.

Mohammed, an economics graduate who works in a store selling olive, almond and other types of oils, says he believes “the elections will not bring change.”

At 30, he constantly rejects the idea of ​​marriage because of the overwhelming economic difficulties.

“Basic services are not provided to me. Why should I go and vote? He said, as the country suffers daily power cuts.

“The last time roads were paved in my neighborhood was before 2003,” added Mohammed, who, like many Iraqis, prefers not to give his full name when discussing politics.

In his constituency of Baghdad, he said he knew two of the five candidates, but did not bother to check their electoral programs.

“The political factions have been the same since 2003; the only thing that changes are the faces, ”he said.

He denounced Iraq’s entrenched patronage policy, asserting that “the only people who vote are those who have been promised a job, or people who vote for a loved one or their tribe.”

Proliferation of arms

It’s hard to predict a winner in the race, where powerful blocs include the pro-Iranian Shiite camp around the Hashd al-Shaabi paramilitary network and the Sadrist camp of popular Shiite leader Muqtada al-Sadr.

Political scientist Marsin Alshamary said the election would take place in a climate of “apathy and despair, especially among young people.”

Campaign posters in Baghdad earlier this month |  AFP-JIJI
Campaign posters in Baghdad earlier this month | AFP-JIJI

“Most people think these elections will come nowhere,” added the researcher from the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, based in the United States.

Voter turnout “has declined in previous election cycles,” she said. “In 2018, it was very bad. There is a very high probability that this election will be worse.”

The gloom worsened after the protest movement that began in October 2019 ended with little change and many disappointed expectations.

Many activists have been murdered, kidnapped or intimidated. No one claimed responsibility for the violence and no one was held responsible.

Activists accuse the “militias” in a country where armed groups funded by Iran have continued to gain influence.

Another Iraqi who has said he will not vote is Ali, 28, who maintains that he does not want to be complicit in the “crime” the election represents for him.

“There will be no transparent elections,” the young man said.

“Politicians’ money dominates, there is a proliferation of weapons in every constituency. Whoever has the guns will win.”

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