Iraqi protesters allege election corruption, vow to boycott polls

Iraq’s elections will be held on Sunday, but members of the country’s protest movement are already planning on boycotting the event. They say that the election process is corrupt, with paramilitary wings of incumbent parties attacking opposition supporters. With low turnout, the Shi’ite cleric Moqtada Al Sadr’s party is expected to win a large share of seats and possibly control of the government. Special Correspondent Simona Foltyn reports.

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  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    Tomorrow, Iraq will hold its fifth election since the U.S.-led invasion toppled Saddam Hussein's regime in 2003. The party led by Cleric Moqtada al Sadr is likely to emerge with the most power in parliament.

    Once a foe of the American military, al Sadr is now one ofIiraq's most powerful leaders.

    Huge street protests demanding a complete overhaul of raq's political order resulted in this vote, but protesters now fear the election will be neither free nor fair, and some are calling for a boycott.

    NewsHour Weekend Special Correspondent Simona Foltyn reports from Iraq.

  • Simona Foltyn:

    In central Baghdad, protesters gather to commemorate the second anniversary of Iraq's so-called October revolution, a large-scale protest that began in October 2019. It called for the toppling of the political system put in place by the U.S. after its 2003 invasion of Iraq that overthrew Saddam Hussein.

    Security forces and armed groups, some of whom are linked to incumbent political parties, killed more than 600 people, the faces of the victims imprinted on the flags and posters the protesters carry as they vow to stay the course.

    Alaa Al Sattar is an engineering graduate and a key organizer.

  • Alaa Sattar:

    Today we remember the martyrs who fell in this uprising and we remember the bloodshed that happened, while many demands have not been fulfilled.

  • Simona Foltyn:

    Al Sattar helped form one of the new parties that emerged from the protests. They want to abolish Iraq's power-sharing system, which divides ministerial posts between Shia, Sunni and Kurdish parties no matter how they did in the election and which is widely seen as fueling corruption and incompetence.

    In response to protesters' demands,elections are being held early, and there are now 83 districts up from 18. But Al Sattar says the new election law caters to the political establishment.

  • Alaa Sattar:

    The electoral districts were divided in a sectarian manner and according to the parties' interests, so as to exclude new parties and new faces from the parliament.

  • Simona Foltyn:

    But while the protesters were quick to reject the new election law, they haven't agreed on an alternative. Instead of the current system where political parties choose the prime minister in murky backroom negotiations, many protesters demand to elect their head of government directly, with some even calling for a presidential system.

    Al Sattar's party, like many protesters, is calling for the boycott of the elections. They say the playing field isn't level because the incumbents draw on state funds and their armed wings to succeed.

  •  Alaa Sattar:

    We in the streets are unarmed, we have no money, we don't have the experience to organize the protest in the face of authority, which during the day time tells us 'come and organize yourself and take part in the elections,' while at night, they go around the houses and kill us.

    The lack of organization is evident. At the protest, the attendees argue over how it should be run and the turnout is disappointingly low in the hundreds.

  • Simona Foltyn:

    Two years on the protest movement is still struggling to unite and even arranging a small demonstration like this sparked disagreements over what the goals and messages should be, highlighting the deep rifts within the protest movement. And this lack of unity is one reason why protesters have failed to translate the momentum on the streets into political capital.

    One hundred and sixty seven parties and 3,200 candidates registered to run for Iraq's 329-seat parliament . The level of competition reflects both the fractured political landscape and the intense competition to access state resources. But despite broad popular support for the protests, only three parties and 80 candidates represent the movement, in part because many protesters refuse to take part in a political system they see as irreformable.

    One of the movement's most promising contenders is Dr. Alaa Al Rikabi, a pharmacist turned politician who was a key organizer in Iraq's southern city of Nassriyah, one of the bastions of the uprising.

    Rikaby's campaign relies on his own funds, modest donations and volunteers like the owner of this workshop, who helps him make campaign posters.

  • Alaa Al Rikabi:

    It's a chance to make change for our country. We know it's a big challenge to compete with the political parties who have very big unlimited finances.

  • Simona Foltyn:

    Rikabi himself helps the volunteers prepare the rickety wooden frames to mount the posters. So far, his campaign has spent only $2,000, a very small sum in a country where parties often use money to win over voters. Rikabi, in turn, banks on the popular support for the protest movement.

  • Alaa Al Rikabi:

    We have the advantage that our public is with us. Hundreds of volunteers work every – every day.

  • Simona Foltyn:

    But in addition to money, many established political parties also have armed wings which they deploy to crush their opposition.

    As we follow him throughout the day, Rikabi learns that one of his volunteers was shot the night before. Rikabi tries to call him, but there's no answer.

  • Alaa Al Rikabi:

    His device is closed.

  • Simona Foltyn:

    Luckily, the volunteer survived the assassination attempt. We accompany Rikabi as he pays him a visit at home.

    Azhar Hatem says he was hanging up campaign posters for Rikabi late at night when the incident occurred.

    Hatem was shot twice in the right leg. The attack closely resembles 82 assassination attempts against activists and protesters, of which 35 were successful, that Iraq's human rights commission has recorded over the past two years.

  • Azhar Hatem:

    Anybody opposing these corrupt parties, be it through actions or words, will be exposed to threats and killing.

  • Simona Foltyn:

    Rikabi himself has been threatened many times. Should he win a seat, he could become even more of a target. That's because the new election law mandates that any elected parliamentarian who dies shall be replaced by the candidate who came next in his district. Rikabi says this could incentivize political parties and their armed wings to target winning opponents.

    But the new law – with its increased number of districts – has also made campaigning for smaller parties easier. Every evening, Rikabi's team holds small gatherings with his constituents. The main goal is to encourage them to vote.

  • Alaa Al Rikabi:

    In 2018, all the party loyalists turned out, didn't they? You have the ability to outnumber them by multiples through your awareness and participation. Aren't you looking for change? Do you like this situation? How else will this change happen if not through peaceful ways? Syria is right next door and they've had a civil war for 11 years.

  • Simona Foltyn:

    But one visit to a rally of the party belonging to populist Shia cleric Moqtada Al Sadr and it becomes clear why many Iraqis have such little hope for change.

  • Simona Foltyn:

    Al Sadr boasts a cult-like following and controls one of the most powerful armed groups in Iraq, which has been accused of targeting protesters. His party won the most seats in 2018 and has since consolidated its grip in power.

    Al Sadr and those running on his slate have made it clear that he expects nothing short of a sweeping victory.

  • Maha Adel Madhi:

    After we win the largest bloc in parliament and the premiership is handed over to us, there will be urgent and revolutionary measures."

    Such triumphalist statements raise concerns over what could happen should powerful incumbents not achieve the results they expect. Amid the abundance of armed groups, Iraq's post-election period could easily spiral into violence.

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