BASRA, Iraq (AP) – Wael Makhsusi blinked under the glaring lights of a hotel ballroom in southern Iraq in front of a young audience.
With the microphone in hand, the 30-year-old engineer stood on stage with other newcomers in Basra in the parliamentary elections on Sunday. Among them were independents and hopes from the protests that filled the streets two years ago with protesters angry about high unemployment, government corruption and the lack of basic services such as electricity and water.
If he was elected, Makhsusi told the crowd, he would fight tirelessly for their rights, but a man with glasses who stood up did not buy it. “You painted such a rosy dream for us, but I’m not convinced I should vote for you,” the man said as the crowd burst into applause.
Last month’s scene highlighted the difficulties faced by the candidates: they are telling Iraq’s disaffected youth, the country’s largest population, to trust an electoral process that has historically been fraught with manipulation and fraud. But apathy and distrust are rife, and some of the same reform activists whose protests led to the vote in 2019 are now calling for a boycott at the polls after a series of targeted killings.
“The election will not be perfect,” admitted candidate Noureddine Nassar in Basra, but added that the election, even if it is only a third better than the past, will be “better than the current system”.
Activists like Nassar put their hopes on a redrawn map of electoral districts – a concession to reformers – arguing that voting is the only way to change.
“We have a new generation born after 2001 who are now eligible to vote,” said Awatef Rasheed, an independent candidate in Basra. “I’m counting on this generation.”
The increased number of districts allows for better local representation and increases the chances of independence for the independents. Additionally, 70% of registered voters will use biometric cards, eliminating the multiple voting that plagued the 2018 elections.
In that vote, turnout was just 44% of the electorate – a record low since the US-led invasion that led Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein to the top.
The electoral law changes fell short of the protesters’ demands. Activists had wanted more from the smaller districts, but after eleven months of talks, lawmakers voted 83 out of 18.
The smaller counties also favor powerful local tribes and religious figures, and the mainstream parties have already forged alliances with them.
Still, the new law paved the way for parties that emerged from the protests, such as the Imtidad movement, which is expected to do well in southern Nasiriyah province, a focal point of the demonstrations. One of their candidates is Makhsusi, who says he wants to hack off the deadlocked political establishment.
But it also helped better-funded and more experienced mainstream grassroots parties like the Sadist Movement of populist cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, whose party won the most seats in 2018. Your members are already expecting a positive result.
“The sadistic movement will get a lot of voters because we have our people all over the city of Basra,” said Mohammed al-Tamimi, a sadistic official and deputy governor of Basra.
Their calculations are based on the assumption that people like Wissam Adnan do not vote. He is the founder of Jobs in Basra, a social media platform created to help the unemployed in the city.
“None of them changed anything for the people, so why should we vote for them?” Adnan said of those in power. This is a widespread belief in Basra, which, despite its oil wealth, is plagued by poverty, unemployment and crumbling infrastructure with dirty tap water and chronic power outages.
“Given the lack of credible alternatives and the overwhelming feeling among Iraqis that the system is immune to internal reforms, choosing not to vote may be the only means for a voter to express their disapproval of the status quo,” said Randa Slim from the Washington-based Middle East Institute.
Over 600 people died in the mass protests in October 2019, known as the Tischreen Revolution in Arabic for the month they took place. Security forces used live ammunition and tear gas to disperse the crowds.
The protests subsided after a few months due to the brutal approach and the coronavirus pandemic. However, since then 35 people have been killed in targeted killings of activists, protest organizers and independent candidates, creating a climate of fear and intimidation. Another 82 people were injured in attempted killings, many suspected of being carried out by militias, according to the Iraqi Human Rights Commission.
Calls for an election boycott were particularly loud following the murder of prominent activist Ehab al-Wazni in Karbala this summer. There have been loud calls for a serious effort to bring guns under state control – a major challenge in a country flooded with militias and guns.
The groups that want to consolidate their political dominance through the elections include Shiite hard-line militias supported by Iran.
The United Nations is conducting a rare surveillance mission that many hope will increase voter turnout, and the Iraqi Electoral Commission is working to correct system flaws exploited by elites. But some parties resort to the well-known tactic of buying votes through favors, jobs, and cash.
Ali Hussein, a young independent religious scholar, admitted that he did not know how to get people to vote for him.
“I was shocked by the inquiries from people asking for roads and electricity. Some candidates give people food to vote or take their personal information and tell them, ‘I’ll hire you if you vote for me,’ ”he said. “It has created confusion about what our duties should be and we don’t know how to talk to people.”
In the Baghdad suburb of Sadr City, women were promised new abayas – loose robes that many Iraqis wear – in order to vote for a particular candidate. In Basra’s Zubair district, a party is helping residents deal with the bureaucratic paperwork. Others said militias offered to protect their communities if they voted for their parties.
With such tactics emerging long before election day, few have confidence in UN election observers.
For months, the UN has been providing technical assistance to the Iraqi electoral commission to close loopholes that have been exploited by political parties. According to three UN officials, it was an important condition that the ballot papers not be transported to the individual polling stations before an initial count, in order to rule out tampering.
Back at the rally in Basra, a gloomy mood settled over the audience when Ali Abdel Hussein al-Eidani told the candidates that his son had been killed in the protests.
“Are you going to avenge him?” asked the older man with tears in his eyes.
The moderator, activist Ahmed Yaseri, stepped in to bring the discussion back to a rising turnout.
“We want to see the future. We don’t want any more blood, ”he said.