Election apathy in Baghdad. Does anybody really care? (photo: جيتي : احمد الربيعي)
It is just a few days before the Iraqi elections and there is a major campaign underway on Iraqi social media. But this is no election campaign. The most popular hashtags include ones that say things like: I’m not voting, boycott the elections, or stay at home. Hundreds of Iraqis changed their Facebook pictures to a logo that said, “I will not vote”.
Those who support the boycott had plenty of arguments to offer. They reminded voters about the lack of change after past elections and the laws that regulate how parties get into parliament that, boycotters say, unfairly exclude smaller parties and help to maintain the status quo.
The movement has been so noticeable that Iraqi politicians have been forced to respond. Senior Sunni Muslim politician, Salim al-Jibouri, said the elections presented a historic opportunity to put Iraq on another path after so many crises, and asked voters not to boycott the polls.
Al-Sistani didn’t ask Iraqis to go and vote. He simply said whether one participates in this election or not, is up to the individual.
Former Iraqi prime minister, Nouri al-Maliki, who heads one major Shiite Muslim group campaigning, said that the boycott campaign was the result of external interference and was meant to mislead the public. Another Shiite Muslim leader, Muqtada al-Sadr, said that if voters boycotted the elections they would be leaving the country to the corrupt.
Some of the activists behind the online campaigns did not see it that way. One popular blogger on social media wrote about his distrust of the authorities running the elections. “All I see is privileged politicians in a time of struggle. And this war on corruption appears to target only certain sectors of society,” he complained.
“I won’t vote because I won’t legitimize thieves and murderers,” another Facebook user added.
“We decided to boycott the election because we believe it is futile,” explained Safaa Subhi, the name used by one blogger on Facebook. “There is no real chance for change and we are trapped in a black hole that was dug by the political elites; they used their power to pass laws to ensure that the bigger parties remain in government and get to continue with their corrupt ways. They don’t even give the voters a chance to remove them from power.”
The problems with Iraq’s election laws, which have changed several times, started in 2006. The first set of electoral rules made Iraq one single constituency and voters were simply asked to vote for a relatively anonymous list of politicians. Voters did not know who was part of the list and it was only after the election, that party leaders nominated MPs who would represent them in parliament. The votes given by locals in Baghdad could ostensibly be transferred to a politician from Basra or Anbar.
Wide spread criticism of this system saw the rules change again in 2010 and 2014. Iraq was split into 18 constituencies, in line with the different provinces, and politicians were no longer so anonymous.
In 2013, Iraq passed new rules that brought in the so-called Sainte-Laguë system, a mathematical formula used to count votes and ascertain representation. The Sainte-Laguë system stops larger parties from gobbling up the votes smaller parties have won, if the smaller parties haven’t won enough votes to pass a certain threshold. Politicians eventually decided the formula should use a divisor of 1.7 to allocate seats. But this is considered high, with most other countries who use this system opting for a divisor of between one and 1.4. And Iraq’s divisor puts smaller parties at a disadvantage.
The Sainte-Laguë formula has come in for much criticism and it appears to have helped Iraq’s larger parties stay in power.
Researchers and analysts have also been calling for other changes. They want voters to be able to choose politicians from within their own constituency, who they may know more about. At the moment locals are bombarded by campaign materials from thousands of candidates, many of whom are just meaningless faces on a poster to them.
If one wanted to read between the lines, one might even suspect the religious authorities are getting in on the boycott. Last Friday, many in Iraq were focused on the words of Iraq’s pre-eminent Shiite Muslim spiritual leader, Ali al-Sistani.
Even if only 1 million Iraqis vote, out of the over 24 million who are eligible to, the results still count.
Al-Sistani comes from the quietist tradition of clerics, who do not believe that theocrats should interfere in government. Al-Sistani often declares his neutrality, saying he doesn’t support any particular party but that he thinks participation in the ballot is important.
Before the 2014 elections, al-Sistani encouraged Iraqis to vote, saying they should all participate because elections were “very important for the fate of the country”. Interestingly in last Friday’s speech, al-Sistani didn’t ask Iraqis to go and vote. He simply said whether one participates in this election or not, is up to the individual.
There are real fears about the impact the boycott campaign could have on voter turnout this Saturday. Iraqis appear to have become disillusioned with their democracy. In the first elections after Saddam Hussein was removed from power, almost 80 percent of eligible voters went to the polls. But in 2010 and 2014, the percentage dropped to around 60 percent. Observers now fear a further drop because up until now, there hasn’t ever been a campaign as big as this calling for voters not to vote.
Having said all that though, it is also important to note that Iraq’s voter turnout is not as bad as it sounds. In the US, turnout usually hovers between 50 and 65 percent and in the UK around 70 percent.
Any kind of boycott or low turnout will only benefit the larger parties, Adil al-Lami, an elections analyst and former head of IHEC, Iraq’s Independent High Electoral Commission, told NIQASH. The larger parties will be better able to mobilise their supporters and there is no rule about turnout thresholds in Iraq. Some countries have a law that says at least 50 percent of those eligible to, must vote or the results don’t count. But in Iraq, if even only 1 million Iraqis bother to vote, out of the over 24 million who are eligible to vote, the results still legally count toward the next government.
"Iraqi election law does not specify a certain percentage who must participate for elections to be legal and binding,” al-Lami explained. Clearly, whatever happens, those who boycott will end up unhappy.
This story was amended on May 11 to reflect an error in the Sainte-Laguë system divisor.