Sex scandals, boycotts and ISIS threats: Iraq prepares for elections

Almost 7,000 register to run in elections, one quarter of the candidates are women.

Vehicles drive under campaign posters ahead of the parliamentary election, in Erbil, Iraq (photo credit: AZAD LASHKARI / REUTERS)
Vehicles drive under campaign posters ahead of the parliamentary election, in Erbil, Iraq
(photo credit: AZAD LASHKARI / REUTERS)
The streets of Mosul in northern Iraq are full of election posters.
They hang from bridges and line the streets. Across the Tigris River in western Mosul, where the worst of the fighting against Islamic State took place, things are a bit more subdued – someone has still managed to paste posters on remains of destroyed houses and rubble.
It’s election season in Iraq, less than a year after ISIS was driven from 99% of the country, which now risks returning to the sectarianism ISIS preyed on in the past, if Sunni Arabs and Kurds remain marginalized and Iranian-supported parties sweep to victory.
These elections will set the tone for future stability of the country.
Voting in Iraq’s parliamentary elections is scheduled for May 12, in which 6,904 candidates have registered to run for 329 seats. That’s less than in 2014, when 9,000 candidates put their names in the ring.
According to Gulf News, around 90% of the candidates are incumbents and election turnout is forecast to be less than 60%.
In the south, the large Shi’ite parties will lead the way with Prime Minister’s Haider al-Abadi’s “Victory Alliance” polling well. Former prime minister Nour al-Maliki’s State of Law Coalition and Moqtada al-Sadr’s Alliance of Revolutionaries and Reform will pull many votes as well.
In the north, Kurds will choose from several large parties: the Kurdistan Democratic Party; the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan; the “Change” list of Gorran; or Barham Saleh’s Coalition for Democracy and Justice (CDJ). Smaller Islamic and socialist parties will also compete.
The last time Iraq held elections, in 2014, Maliki’s coalition won the elections with 92 seats while Sadr’s allies got 34.
This time, eyes will be on what happens in mostly Sunni Arab districts that were liberated from ISIS over the last several years. Abadi visited Fallujah, a Sunni city devastated by the conflict, on April 22. There are almost 100 seats up for grabs in Kirkuk, Ninewa, Diyala, Salah a-Din and Anbar governorates, where most of Iraq’s Arab Sunnis live. Turnout will also be watched closely in Kurdish regions.
Some Kurds have been calling to boycott the elections since Baghdad sent its army into Kirkuk, a largely Kurdish city in northern Iraq. Baghdad sought to reassert Federal control after the September 2017 Kurdistan independence referendum.
IRAQ’S 2005 constitution reserves a quarter of the seats in parliament for women, but in practice, women hold only about 17%. In this election women candidates, who feature prominently on many electoral posters, have been targeted by misogynistic attacks. A purported sex video circulated online ended the candidacy of Prof. Intidhar Ahmed Jassim, a member of Abadi’s party. Another video of Dr. Heshu Rebwar Ali, a KDP candidate, was circulated allegedly showing her in a short dress.
In another bizarre episode, two tribes in Najaf came into conflict after a video showed a 20-year old male from one tribe kissing the campaign poster of a female candidate from the other. In the end, $84,000 was paid to satisfy the “honor” of the woman’s tribe. The instances of targeting women illustrates the use of salacious rumors to harm candidates and tends to target successful women, reducing their chances of running and of other women’s willingness to do so.
In March, the Accountability and Justice Commission summoned 600 candidates, including former defense minister Khaled al-Obaidi, for questions on previous membership in the banned Ba’ath Party. In addition, the Independence High Electoral Commission fined 60 candidates for violations.
Even though the fighting against ISIS is mostly over, there are still millions of internally displaced persons (IDPs) in Iraq who had to move during the war. Some have gone home, but others may lose out due to their status. In Sulaimani in the Kurdish region, 33 polling stations will address the needs of IDPs. In Kirkuk, tens of thousands of Kurds have not returned to their homes since the crisis last October.
The KDP says it has not been able to campaign in the city, leading to calls to boycott. “Most of the campaign posters are from Arab and Turkmen parties,” Dana Zangna wrote in an article for the Middle East Center for Reporting and Analysis earlier this month. In addition, fear of ISIS attacks may lower turnout as the extremists have threatened to target voters.
In eastern Mosul, the recovery from ISIS is particularly evident.
It is as if the massive nine-month urban battle against ISIS and several years of ISIS occupation is forgotten.
Cafes are full. Shops show mannequins with women’s wear.
Gone is the depressing black of ISIS, replaced with all manner of candidates.
The most common are posters of Osama al-Nujaifi’s Decision Alliance. Nujaifi was born in Mosul and his powerful family are close to Turkey.
There are also many posters from Ayad Allawi’s al-Wataniya with its trademark crescent and palm tree.
A smaller Sunni party candidate, Hisham al-Jammas, a former Iraqi official from Saddam Hussein’s era, is also campaigning. Controversy has also come from near Mosul due to the presence of former supporters of ISIS. Upon seeing the poster for Raad Abdulsattar al-Salman, one man on Facebook mocked the elections: “Come on, this is an impartial government, instead of being punished and executed, he is being decorated and nominated for election.”