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  • Writer's pictureKnox Thames

A New Test for Iraq’s Democracy and Stability

The 2021 election was hopeful. But forming a government, including minorities remain uncertain.

The sudden crisis around Russia threatens democratic norms and energy markets worldwide, only heightening the urgency of stabilizing Iraq, the world’s fifth-largest oil producer. Yet five months after Iraq’s elections, held in response to massive protests against ineffective governance, political factions remain dangerously deadlocked in efforts to form a new government. Shaping a more stable, peaceful Iraq—and responding to the 2019-2020 grassroots demands for democratic, accountable governance—will require a fuller inclusion of Iraq’s ethnic and religious minorities. Yet the prospects remain unclear. Iraq’s minority communities are watching carefully, as their future depends on it.

Iraq’s October election reflected the positive impacts of the protest movement, led largely by youth, which in 2020 forced parliament to pass an election law that, among other reforms, made it easier to elect independents. Iraqi and international observers generally agree the election was technically the cleanest since 2005 — in great part due to a new electoral commission and significant international monitoring. One outcome was that parties politically aligned with Iran lost seats. Separately, the election left Iraq’s many ethnic and religious minority groups feeling disenfranchised. While the new election law provides parliament seats to minority communities, its provisions have enabled larger political factions to take control of those seats, effectively sidelining those whose representation the law meant to advance. The government still being formed could mitigate this problem with appointments and policies to bolster minority voices, but it remains unclear whether it will be attentive to doing so.

Diversity in a Democracy: Iraq’s Extraordinary Task

The inclusion of minorities is a complex task for Iraq’s democratic system, as the country’s religious diversity astounds. Home to ancient faiths like Yazidism and Zoroastrianism, Iraq also has been a cradle of Jewish and Christian faith. Religious scholars say its verdant, southern marshlands are the historical inspiration for the biblical account of the Garden of Eden. Iraq hosts communities of other Middle Eastern faiths — Shabak, Sabean Mandeans, Kakai and Baha’is. Even the Muslim majority is diverse, with the two great branches of Islam, Sunni and Shia, dating back centuries.

Yet Iraq’s ancient minority communities are shrinking dramatically. Some still face violent attacks by ISIS or other armed groups, many still live in camps, displaced from their homes, and most struggle to survive economically. Waves of emigration have reduced Iraq’s Christian population from 1.5 million in 2003 to an estimated 250,000 or fewer — and many Yazidis and Kakai also have fled Iraq. Strengthening minority representation in government is essential to solving these problems.

The country’s 2005 constitution strengthened Iraqis’ efforts to reflect their diversity in their parliament. The 2020 election law reserved nine seats for non-Sunni Muslims, divided among faiths and regions. Christians are allocated five of these seats, and one each is designated for Yazidis, Shabak, Sabean Mandeans and the Faily Kurds (who are generally Shia Muslim). In addition, a quarter of seats are reserved for women, including a designated seat in each electoral district.

While not practiced in the United States, reserving seats for women or specific minorities is a method that many countries use to ensure minority representation in the highest law-making body and to give their communities voice and access to policymakers.

A Case of Disenfranchisement

Yet Iraq’s 2021 election saw larger groups abuse the new law to take control of the minority seats. In Iraq, any voter — minority or otherwise — can vote for a minority candidate, a provision that dilutes the ability of small communities to select their representatives. The new electoral law formed smaller electoral districts in each province, but this did not resolve the problem. Minority-rich localities were combined with others to form electoral districts that gave advantage to bigger, non-minority parties. Effectively, larger political groups won additional seats by coopting members of minority communities and then supporting them as candidates for reserved minority seats. In this way, winning candidates advance the interests of the larger political parties and are discouraged from prioritizing local community needs for better services or equal rights.

Four of the five seats reserved for Christians were won by the Babylon Movement, a Christian faction in Nineveh province known locally as Harakat Bablyoon. The Babylon Movement is an outgrowth of a local armed group, the Babylon Brigade — a part of Iraq’s Popular Mobilization Forces. (The Popular Mobilization Forces are the spectrum of communal fighting groups, many with links to Iran, that fought ISIS’ takeover of much of Iraq in 2014.)

Both the Babylon Movement and the Babylon Brigade are headed by Rayan al-Kildani, a Chaldean Christian whom the United States sanctioned for human rights abuses in 2019 under the Global Magnitsky Act. Both the movement and brigade enjoy the backing of the Fatah Alliance, a political coalition of Iran-backed groups under the Popular Mobilization Forces. The Babylon Movement’s win in four of the five seats nationwide surprised the Christian community and international observers. Iraqi Christian leaders have declared that Kildani and his organizations are not representative of Iraqi Christians. Seven Christian political parties went further, calling on Iraq’s Independent High Electoral Commission for a recount, calling the outcome “suspicious.” Their statement pointed out how the outcome places “the destiny of all Christian people in Iraq … in the hand of one political party.”

Certainly, the fact that older Christian parties lost does not necessarily equate to electoral fraud. But Christians, Shabaks, and Yazidis say the elections illustrated what they have been saying all along — that the bigger parties take their votes and their voice. Data from a USIP research project, the Iraq Conflict and Stabilization Framework, show that minority-rich communities in Nineveh province had low faith in the October elections. Almost 70 percent of communities in Hamdaniyah and Sinjar districts, and 53 percent in Tal Afar district, said elections represent them only “a little to not at all.” Similarly, respondents expressed low confidence that the elections will translate people’s expectations into positive change.

Seeking a Solution

As Iraq, and especially its brutalized minority communities, still struggle to recover from ISIS — and to build more stable, democratic rule — a vital step will be for the new Iraqi government to ensure authentic representation of minority communities in governance, and in government. USIP’s research data since 2018 show that this task has remained unachieved — and the October 2021 elections may have set it back further.

Iraq’s minority communities feel powerless, insecure amid Iraq’s instability — and uncertain about their futures. If unaddressed, this mix of problems will lead to new waves of emigration whenever countries in Europe and North America reopen their doors to immigrants.

Whatever the mechanics of the response, USIP’s data have shown consistently since 2018 that the parliament, federal government, Kurdistan Regional Government, and provincial and local governments need to be responsive to the minorities’ governance, economic, security and social needs. In the long run, further electoral reform may be needed. The quality of Iraq’s democracy and the fabric of its diverse culture are at stake. As democracies worldwide try to advance democratization and peace in the face of new warfare in Europe and serial coups in the Sahel, a consolidation of Iraq’s democratic impulse, reflected in its recent protest movement and elections, would be a valuable gain.

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