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Gaming The Voters?
In Baghdad, Formerly Religious Politicians Hedge Bets, Start Secular Parties

Ibrahim Saleh
Iraqi politicians, who usually play on religious affiliations, are starting new organisations with a more secular message. But do they mean it, or are they just paying lip service to angry voters?
23.03.2017  |  Baghdad
The Speaker of the Iraqi Parliament, Salim al-Jibouri (centre), at work in Baghdad. (photo: موقع البرلمان العراقي)
The Speaker of the Iraqi Parliament, Salim al-Jibouri (centre), at work in Baghdad. (photo: موقع البرلمان العراقي)

On February 26, 2017, the Speaker of Iraq’s Parliament, Salim al-Jibouri, announced the creation of a new political party he planned to run. This in itself is not unusual. Politicians in power in Iraq often launch new parties or defect to other groups – it’s almost common practice as the politicians lobby to increase their power and popularity by diversifying.

What was odd about this announcement though, was that al-Jibouri’s new party did not have anything obvious to do with religion or the Islamic party to which he originally belonged when he got his start in politics.

These changes are being made to curry favour with the Iraqi voters. But the voters are smarter than that. 

The name of al-Jibouri’s new party is not religious either – it is called the Civil Union for Reform. And al-Jibouri, the most senior Sunni Muslim politician in the country, justified this name, saying that the country is moving away from religion-led politics and towards a more secular democracy. 

Al-Jibouri and his colleagues in the new party believe that Iraqi people are tired of Islamic rhetoric and religion in politics, which many believe is at fault for the ongoing political chaos in Baghdad. This new party will listen to the voters and respect their desire for change, they say.

“This party doesn’t have a specific Islamic ideology but it has in mind more general goals, the kinds of goals that respond to the needs of the Iraqi people, ones they have been demonstrating for, for years,” says Abdul-Malak al-Husseini, the media adviser for the new political party. “People want reform and they want to see an end to corruption. Civil society-minded politicians have been the first to agree with that. The fact that other political parties did not respond in kind to those demands reflect that there is something wrong with those political parties,” he argues.

Protests against corruption and for reform really began in earnest in Iraq in 2011. There were several waves of these kinds of protests, often repressed by local security forces. The most recent wave has been different because of the participation of Islamic politicians, who say that Iraq’s Islamic parties need to admit their mistakes and make a change. The fact that the Sadrist movement, led by the cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, took part in these protests – and in some cases, initiated them – alongside civil society organisations was a turning point and, some now suggest, bodes well for successful reforms in the future.

Additionally it seems that al-Jibouri’s newly created political party will not be the only one of its kind. Sources inside the Independent High Electoral Commission, the body tasked with overseeing elections in the country, confirm they are reviewing several applications for new political parties with a secular bent. 

The sources, who could not be named because they were not allowed to comment to media, said that there were several more well-known political figures, who had tended toward the Islamic ideology in the past, behind the new, more secular parties. One might imagine that they were well aware of voters’ increasingly low opinion of religious politics.

Without knowing the names, it is also quite possible that some of the larger Islamic parties are maintaining the status quo within their own parties but, at the same time, starting smaller, more secular offshoots in order to have their electoral cake and eat it too. 

Other political parties are more likely to focus on nationalistic policies, rather than religious or secular ones, as a way of sidestepping both of those more divisive ideologies.

“These changes are being made to curry favour with the Iraqi voters,” suggests Moataz Mohi Abdul Hamid, director of local think tank, the Iraq Centre for Research and Strategic Studies. “But the voters are smarter than that and they know the parties are not acting in their interests, no matter what they call themselves.”

However other locals think the name changes are a positive thing even if they are just superficial. That is because even if they don’t mean it, at least they are being forced to pay some lips service to what the voters want, suggests local writer and political commentator, Rahim al-Shammari.

“Even the fact that more secular and civil society parties are being created is a radical change for the religious parties,” al-Shammari suggests. “It has become clear to them that the people of Iraq support the building of a secular state.”

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