RCL Exclusive

Why the Iraqi National Election Was Successful

Though turnout was low, voting was free, fair and without violence.

Politics By

Unqualified successes in the Middle East are difficult to come by. And yet it appears that the national election in Iraq on May 12 was just that. The voting was untainted by violence, and the results—despite lower than usual turnout—are widely regarded as free and fair. When the incumbent (and U.S.-backed) prime minister did not receive a plurality of the votes, he made what can only be regarded as a concession speech. The stage is set for yet another peaceful transition of power in Iraq via a democratic process, with concerns about possible fraud in Iraq’s Kurdish north as the only serious flaw.

It is difficult to overstate just how remarkable is Iraq’s recovery from the dark days of early 2014. While both of these authors were optimistic about Iraq’s future even then, we would have never dared predict an Iraq almost totally cleared of ISIS, having kept its finances together through an oil price crash, and having held such a successful election just four years later. And yet. It is time for us to put debates about the invasion of Iraq, the Surge, the 2011 withdrawal from Iraq and the origins of ISIS behind us. These are now historical debates. Whether despite or because of any or all of these historical moments, Iraq has arrived in a remarkably stable place. It is very much in the United States’ interest to make an entirely manageable package of investments that will continue the development of a key ally in such a fragile neighborhood.

Fortunately, the current administration seems to understand this—in no small part because so many senior administration officials either spent time in or have had deep engagement with Iraq. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s statement of Iraq’s successful election referred to the “long-term relationship of cooperation and friendship between our two nations.”

Iraq’s elections are just the first step in the selection of a government, and the deeply fragmented parliamentary system will now have to select a President, Prime Minister, and cabinet. From a U.S. perspective, the bad news is that the Western-backed Prime Minister, Haidi al-Abadi, underperformed. This resulted in the Sadrist victory so widely reported. But the Sadrists are the only major party in Iraq whose leader was not himself a candidate. They may well not find an internal figure acceptable to other parties as the lead for the government and may not even be looking for one.

So, it is entirely possible that a Western-leaning candidate could still emerge, particularly given the abysmal showing of Iran’s preferred candidate, former Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki. Maliki and the Iranian-backed Shia militia party received only about half the seats won by the various anti-Iran or pro-Western Shia lists. So for those who read the election as a US/Europe vs. Iran competition, Iran had the more inauspicious day. The real winner was Iraqi nationalism, which ultimately squares more with Washington’s goals than with Tehran’s.
While Iraq has come far and its electoral success is noteworthy, the country remains plagued by a host of very difficult issues, almost all revolving around governance and the economy. It is on these issues that the United States (with Europe) remains the indispensable ally. One hardly turns to Iran for credit and finance, revitalizing one’s economy, or solving deeply rooted corruption problems.

This last issue is Iraq’s most troublesome. Corruption was the key issue for both the Sadrist victory in the elections and the disenchantment. That drove much of the low turnout. While Prime Minister Abadi is himself relatively clean, and the Oil Ministry is notably technocratic, much of the Iraqi state is corrupt from top to bottom. Corruption permeates every type of transaction from billion-dollar contracts to minor interactions with petty bureaucrats. And all parties—Sunni and Shia, Arab and Kurd, Secular and Islamist—are involved. To step back from corruption means not only not to enrich oneself, but to lose political power. And while Prime Minister Abadi made some encouraging first steps towards a solution, it was clearly not fast or far enough to impress the electorate. The next government will have to do more.

Reconstruction of Iraqi’s cities and infrastructure will be a long-term effort in Iraq. Iraq received what was essentially a $30 billion line of credit at February’s Kuwait Conference, and its expanding oil sector should be able to pick up the balance in the longer term. Iraq’s oil production should continue to grow each year (although with reforms it could grow faster). While there are familiar hazards to this “free money,” petrodollars—if properly channeled—can provide capital to revitalize other sectors, such as agriculture and health care.

Iraq’s banking system and stock market also don’t provide the benefits of a 21st-century economy to its citizens. Neither system provides the access to capital that Iraq’s increasingly entrepreneurial youth crave and require.  Both still labor under the shadow, if not necessarily the legal regime, of the socialist Baath party. Bringing an entrepreneurial spirit to these institutions will be a great challenge.

Iraq has other important issues to deal with, including repairing relations with the Kurds in the north, reintegrating the Sunni Arabs who were both ISIS’s collaborators and their largest victims, and the integration and demobilization of the so-called “militias” or Hashd forces. All three of these issues require delicate negotiations to accommodate relevant interests and—just to complicate it more—are of great interest to outside powers.

Iraq has come a very long way in a very short time, overcoming repeated obstacles while deepening its fledgling democracy. But there remain serious challenges for the next government. The United States should be offering diplomatic support, military training, and modest amounts of aid wherever possible. These reasonable offerings should be seen as investments in a rising power that will one day rival Saudi Arabia as an oil producer. (Iraq is already the number two producer in OPEC and the number four in the world.) The United States must find a “just right” level of engagement that neither threatens Iraqi sovereignty nor leaves this new democracy to find its own way in a rough neighborhood.

Douglas Ollivant is a managing partner of Mantid International, a global consulting and compliance firm with offices in Beirut, Baghdad and Washington, D.C. He is also an ASU Senior Fellow in the Future of War project at the New America.

Bartle Bull is an author, journalist, and co-founder of Northern Gulf Partners, an Iraq-focused investment firm. A former member of the RAND Corporation’s Iraq Study Group, he sits on the Visiting Committee of the Department of Ancient Near Eastern Art at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.