Iraqis united by disdain for their leaders as they head to polls
In an alleyway hidden away from the election posters that line Baghdad’s main streets, men gather in a barbershop in Adhamiyah district to castigate their politicians and explain why they will not vote in Iraq’s parliamentary election. Across the Tigris River in Khadimiyah, half a dozen real estate agents are similarly disillusioned, complaining about electricity outages, potholed roads, unemployment and the stuttering economy. The two neighbourhoods were divided during the years of sectarian violence that erupted after the 2003 US-led invasion. The bridge that separates Adhamiyah, then a bastion of Sunni militancy, and Khadimiyah, once a stronghold of Shia militias, was sealed off by blast walls. But as Iraqis prepare to vote on Saturday they have been united by a common complaint: disdain for those who have governed them since Iraq began its experiment with democracy. “We’re just like a bank — the thieves [politicians] come and the money goes away. All countries have taxes, but when you take taxes you give services,” said Ghanem Jaffar, a realtor in Khadimiyah. “They did nothing.” The frustration underlines the task Prime Minister Haider Al-Abadi faces. He is trying to convince Iraqis that he deserves a second term so that he can rebuild the oil-rich nation devastated by cycles of conflict under the watch of dysfunctional governments that have ruled since Saddam Hussein was toppled 15 years ago.
In theory, Mr Abadi, an engineer with a PhD from the UK who has rebalanced relations with the west after Iraq drifted closer to Iran, has a positive message. His first four years in office were dominated by the battle against Isis and the struggle to keep his administration functioning as state coffers, hit by low oil prices, ran dry. But he declared victory against the jihadis in December and Iraq is safer than at any time since 2003: 68 Iraqis were killed by terrorism or conflict in April compared with 2,377 in February 2014, according to the UN. Baghdad is a city transformed. Some of the checkpoints that used to clog highways have been removed, shops are fully stocked, restaurants are packed and streets are alive with activity late into the night. Mr Abadi is also credited with easing sectarian tensions and is not tarnished with the graft allegations that blight many of his peers. But expectations have been raised and dashed multiple times since 2003, and the perception among many Iraqis is that their lives have not improved. Baghdad is a bright spot. In the west and north, towns and cities bear deep scars of the Isis conflict and 3m of Iraq’s 37m population are displaced. In the south, the stronghold of the Shia parties, there is disgruntlement over deteriorating services at a time when southern families’ sons and husbands fought jihadis in the north. A repeated grievance is that the “same faces” are running for office and politicians are “Ali Babas”, a colloquialism for thieves. “The Americans removed Saddam because he was bad, but they brought 200 Saddams,” said Jala Shakir, a 45-year-old driver in Adhamiyah. “They [politicians] get their posts because of us but don’t respect us . . . Iraqis aren’t demanding, they just want decent lives.”
Mr Abadi’s predominantly Shia political bloc, Nasr, or Victory, is forecast to gain the most seats in the 329-member parliament. But it is not expected to get anywhere close to a majority, meaning he will once again be forced to form a coalition with his rivals. Competing alliances include those led by Nouri al-Maliki, the former prime minister who shifted Iraq closer to Iran; Muqtada al-Sadr, a Shia cleric; and Iyad Allawi, who was interim prime minister from 2004 to 2005. But analysts expect Fatah, or Conquest, a new political bloc built on the success of Shia-dominated paramilitary forces in the fight against Isis and led by Hadi al-Ameri, who is close to Iran, to come second. The fragmented nature of politics among the Shia majority means Mr Abadi, 66, is not even guaranteed the premiership if his bloc wins but fails to secure a significant advantage over its competitors. The fractious landscape is often blamed for hobbling the state’s effectiveness as rivals, each with their own patronage networks, come together in government, with cabinet seats doled out on the basis of coalition building rather than ability. “Abadi wants to achieve, but he’s strangled by the pressure of other parties,” said Mr Shakir.
Aras Habib Kareem, a candidate on Mr Abadi’s list, blamed weak state finances and the battle against Isis for failing services. “Abadi kept the country from collapsing,” he said. “There’s 30 per cent less in the budget, there were more than 1,300 projects being worked on before 2014. None of them have been completed because there’s no money.” If Mr Abadi emerges victorious, his challenge will be to “fight corruption and start rebuilding the country through services”, Mr Kareem said. Waheem Zwayid, a store owner in Karrada neighbourhood, is optimistic the vote can usher new faces into power. “We should work hand-in-hand to replace those people — the country needs reconstruction, hospitals, schools, education,” he says. But other voters are far more disenchanted. It is not unusual to hear people across the sectarian divide hark back to Saddam’s era; not that they pine for the dictator, but because they miss order and stability. Haider al-Sudani was a polling station officer at the 2005 and 2006 elections, but has not voted since. “Most politicians only benefit their families and if we vote it’s like we’re just giving to their families,” said the decorator from Khadimiyah. “If we go back to Saddam’s time it would be better.”