Iraq: Democratic Forces Rekindle Uprising’s Call for Change

Iraq’s new President and PM designate will only perpetuate the country’s politically bankrupt system, argues Salam Ali. But democratic forces and movements who are getting organised, holding a major conference in Baghdad earlier this month in the wake of mass protests marking the third anniversary of the Popular Uprising

On 1 October 2022, tens of thousands of protesters in central Baghdad and other provinces marked the third anniversary of the October Popular Uprising. The demonstrators denounced the ethno-sectarian power-sharing system, the endemic corruption, and the government measures that tried to block their way to the protest squares. They repeated the demand for change, expressing their desire for a truly democratic Iraq, based on the principle of citizenship, respect for human rights, and achieving social justice.

These protests took place against the backdrop of a continued political impasse, one year after the so-called “Early Elections” in October 2021, and following intensified infighting among the ruling forces.

The courageous Popular Uprising erupted 3 years ago, on 1 October 2019, against deteriorating economic conditions, corruption, unemployment, and lack of basic services. As a result of vicious repression by security forces and militias, targeting young peaceful protesters, more than 800 were killed and 20,000 injured. Tens were also victims of enforced disappearance, and the fate of many of them is still unknown.

Root cause of crisis

The root cause of the deep political and structural crisis is the ethno-sectarian power-sharing system – the governing system that was installed after the US war, invasion and occupation and the end of Saddam’s dictatorship in 2003.

One of the main demands of the Popular Uprising was early elections, as peaceful and democratic means for change, putting an end to a politically bankrupt system. The government of Prime Minister Mustafa Kadhimi was endorsed by Parliament in May 2020, and given the task of preparing for early elections. He also promised to bring the killers of peaceful protesters to justice and fight corruption, and face up to the armed militias.   

Early elections

However, the so-called “Early Elections” only took place in October 2021 – two years after the Uprising. By then the dominant political forces managed to manipulate the Electoral Law and electoral system to their advantage. Kadhimi also failed to deliver on his promises.

As a result, the elections were effectively boycotted by almost 80% of the eligible voters. with about 1 million people casting blank votes.

Political impasse

A political impasse followed, with the failure of the parliament to elect a new President and form a new government. The crisis was further deepened by the resignation last June of 73 members of parliament (the biggest bloc led by the Sadrists) out of a total number of 329. This has meant a further erosion of the Parliament’s questionable legitimacy of representation.

After Sadrists stormed the Parliament building in the Grean Zone in Baghdad last July, and bloody clashes with armed militias of rival groups, more than 40 people were killed.

Democratic forces for change

In response to the deepening political impasse, several democratic civil forces announced last August the formation of a new umbrella or front, under the name of the “Democratic Forces for Change”. Along with other protest movements, they called for the dissolution of parliament and the formation of an interim or transitional government, made up of competent figures who are untainted by corruption, to prepare for Early Elections. This will require effective measures to ensure fair and just elections, including a truly independent Electoral Commission and supervision by the UN.

The “Democratic Forces for Change” held a big conference in Baghdad last Saturday, 15th October 2022, which was attended by hundreds of activists of democratic political forces and movements from all over the country. They presented a political document for discussions, explaining their vision for change, to end the corrupt governing system and build a democratic civil and prosperous Iraq based on citizenship and social justice.

External interference

Only such an alternative can also ensure that Iraq regains its national sovereignty, putting an end to continuing foreign interference in its internal affairs, whether by the US and its allies or by regional powers. The recent escalation of Turkish and Iranian military aggression and attacks on areas in Iraqi Kurdistan are further evidence of this continuing foreign interference.

Rentier economy

An important factor in Iraq’s political scene is its rentier economy. It relies heavily on oil revenues which account for more than 90 percent of Iraq’s income. Despite its immense natural wealth, and due to rampant corruption and mismanagement, about 30% of Iraq’s population of 42 million are under the poverty line. The gap between the rich and the poor is growing. Unemployment, at 30%, is much higher among the youth. About 60% of the population is under the age of 25.

UN warns of “highly volatile” situation

On 4th October, the U.N. Special Representative for Iraq, Jeanine Hennis-Plasschaert told the U.N. Security Council that the situation in the country was “highly volatile”, with “risks of further strife and bloodshed still very tangible”. Her briefing was an outright condemnation of the existing political system and endemic corruption, leading to a dysfunctional state.

However, the solution presented by Plasschaert for the political impasse, as proposed in her briefing to the UN Security Council, was for Iraq’s political leaders “to engage in dialogue”. But such a dialogue, among forces that are themselves responsible for the crisis and its continuation, will be futile. It cannot address the root-cause of the deep structural crisis.

A truly national dialogue must involve other forces in society, and not only those in parliament. These should include political forces, protest movements, trade unions, civil society organisations, professional associations, academics ..etc. The aim of such a dialogue should be to respond to the urgent demands and desire of the overwhelming majority of the people for change.

During recent days, the parliament (which lacks representative legitimacy, as described above) was able to elect a new President (Abdul Latif Rasheed), who nominated Mohammed Shia alSudani as the new prime ministerdesignate.

Taking into account that the parliament is dominated by the forces that have strongly defended the ethno-sectarian power-sharing system, and resisted the people’s desire for change, their new government will only perpetuate this politically bankrupt system. They may attempt to use the big increase in oil revenues (Iraq is the second-largest producer in the Middle East), with the sharp rise in oil prices, to contain popular anger.

But with the lack of effective measures to tackle the root causes of the crisis and combat endemic corruption, for which the ruling blocs are fully responsible, such attempts will be short-lived.

All the factors that led to the eruption of the October Popular Uprising three years ago continue to exist.

Salam Ali is a member of Liberation

Photos: Protests at Tahrir Square in central Baghdad, on 1 Oct. 2022, marking the 3rd anniversary of the October Popular Uprising.  

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