Last week's election, the fifth in Iraq's history since liberation in 2003, shows that despite many ups and downs caused by historic and cultural bumps on the road, the process of democratization is still well on its course. Pictured: A woman voter casts her vote at a polling station in Baghdad on October 10, 2021. (Photo by Ahmad Al-Rubaye/AFP via Getty Images)
This was the phrase that automatically came to my mind the other day as the Iraq's latest general election was completed without incident.
The kudos was deserved for several reasons.
First, last week's election, the fifth in Iraq's history since liberation in 2003, shows that despite many ups and downs caused by historic and cultural bumps on the road, the process of democratization is still well on its course.
It also reaffirmed the invaluable consensus reached among Iraqis of all political persuasions that winning and holding power is legitimate only through the free expression of the people through elections. Though nothing in history is irreversible, the traditional culture in which power was won and lost in rebellions, coups d'etat, street riots, foreign invasions or assassinations of the ruler may have had its day in Iraq.
Because the parliament is the sole conduit for the exercise of people power, the results of the election will also determine who will serve as president of the republic and prime minister.
Next, because of the proportional representation system in force, no sect, party or group could hope to win a monopolistic hold on power. In a country that suffered decades under a brutal one-party system, the election has the healing power of unity in diversity.
The very fact that the election took place is also a cause for celebration. Key players, including some foreign powers and political barons addicted to power and perk, did all they could to prevent an early election that they sensed might reduce their share of power.
For months, the official media in the Islamic Republic of Iran had played mood music against early elections in Iraq. And when it became clear that the process would not be halted, Tehran circles started mobilizing for affecting the outcome. "Supreme Guide" Ayatollah Ali Khamenei released $200 million from a "national emergency fund" to enable the Quds Force, Tehran's foreign legion operating in several regional countries, propel its proxies back into power. The Tehran media called this Iraqi election "Qassem Soleimani's election" with the subtext that Iraqi voters would pay tribute to the assasinated general by massively voting for his local proxies.
Because Iraqis living abroad could not vote this time, the Quds Force organized day-trips for an unknown number of dual-nationals living in Iran, sometimes for decades, to vote for Quds Force candidates.
However, as the results show, Tehran's proxies did worse than anyone imagined.
The militia-dominated bloc led by Hadi al-Ameri lost 35 of its 50 seats. The biggest winner on the Shiite side was Muqtada Sadr's maverick bloc, which has called for limiting the holding of weapons only to the state; in other words disbanding the Iran-controlled militias.
In the past few days, Tehran media have tried to seek some solace in the fact that former Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki has managed to remain in the game as a victory for "martyr Soleimani's way." However, Maliki, though always close to the Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, was never a Soleimani stooge as the late general could not tolerate anyone with an ego himself. Soleimani's ideal lackey is Hassan Nasrallah, leader of the Lebanese branch of Hezbollah, who, according to the late general's only lengthy interview, "would not drink water without consulting with us."
To belittle the impact of the Iraqi election, Iran's official media also harped on the theme of "low voter turnout." True, the latest election attracted only 43 percent of registered voters, one or two points below that of the previous exercise. However, Tehran official media quickly abandoned the theme because it reminded people of an even lower voter turnout in Iran's own recent presidential elections.
The latest Iraqi election has other interesting features.
It was the first to take place in 83 constituencies instead of 18 mega ones. The new rule allows the voter to make a choice based on his opinion of individual candidates rather than lists presented by party coalitions. The use of biometric cards also helped with ensuring the process against organized fraud.
The fact that a large number of candidates, almost 3,500, contested the 329 seats at stake, indicated the abiding attractiveness of the democratic process for a growing segment of politically active Iraqis. Those who entered the competition included the largest number of young activists, women and individuals standing as independents.
We have not completed a breakdown of the results, but at first glance it is clear that a new generation of Iraqi politicians is taking shape. The fact that young activists representing pre-Covid street protesters won more than 8% of the seats may point to new directions in Iraqi politics.
The results also indicate a faster exclusion of former exiles and dual-nationals that until recently dominated the political scene in Baghdad.
The parties and groups representing the Sunni Muslim community emerge from this election with a heightened profile and a more credible leadership, something that could speed up the healing of sectarian wounds inflicted on it since 2003.
The election also marked the marginalization of the Shiite clerical institutions based in Najaf both because the grand ayatollahs adopted a lower profile and because many candidates realized that endorsement by masters of the turban may prove a kiss of death in politics.
The Kurdish parties, still enjoying control of more seats than warranted by the demographic strength of the Kurdish community, emerge with more or less the same profile as before. This means that they would continue to play a key role in the formation of the next government. That could be a positive thing if the aim is to prevent wild swings of the pendulum. But it could also be negative if the Kurds let themselves be tempted by sectarian gains at the expense of broader national interests.
The ruling mullahs in Tehran had hoped that the election would turn out to be a referendum on American military presence in Iraq. That didn't happen, as the Iraqi political elite preferred to focus on the need for foreign military presence in all its forms be ended. The 2,500 US troops still in Iraq could be withdrawn at any moment under the status of forces mechanism in place since 2008. The same could not be said about the Iran's proxy units in Iraq that include many dual-nationals at all levels including their high command.
Last week, the Tehran media labelled the Iraqi election as "the first test for Gen. Esmail Qa'ani" the lackluster bureaucrat who has replaced the bombastic Soleimani.
Well, Qa'ani emerges as the loser that he deserves to be. As for Soleimani, who died in Baghdad, his ghost now witnesses a second death in Iraq, this time of Soleimanism.
Amir Taheri was the executive editor-in-chief of the daily Kayhan in Iran from 1972 to 1979. He has worked at or written for innumerable publications, published eleven books, and has been a columnist for Asharq Al-Awsat since 1987.
This article was originally published by Asharq al-Awsat and is reprinted by kind permission of the author.