Iraq’s Provincial Elections: Electoral Dynamics & Political Implications

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Where there were once billboards and posters promoting fragrance brands and cosmetics, residents of Baghdad’s Karrada neighborhood woke up on November 3 to find that hundreds of election advertisements had been installed overnight. The faces of former prime ministers and senior politicians gazed down alongside slogans promising everything from better services to more jobs. Some even proclaimed hope for a “new democracy.” The advertisements were plastered everywhere: on the walls of houses, streetlights, and shop fronts. During a media segment about declining popular confidence in election candidates, residents told a reporter that “it’s all false promises” and shook their heads at the brazen violation of campaigning rules.[1]

After years of delay, federal Iraq is finally set to hold provincial elections on December 18. These elections will pick new members for the provincial councils, who in turn will select governors and form local governments. It has been more than ten years since these elections were last held on April 20, 2013. Much has changed in national and local politics since then, making these polls significant in terms of assessing party standings. In fact, three parliamentary elections have taken place since the last provincial vote. The councils were dissolved in October 2019, so local politics are completely out of sync with the national scene. Some parties did not exist in 2013, but have gained great power over the last few years. Other parties were powerful in 2013, but have almost been wiped out in the intervening years. Added to this, governors have held power with almost no oversight since late 2019, making these elections absolutely necessary for reforming local government.

Governors have held power with almost no oversight since late 2019, making these elections absolutely necessary for reforming local government.

While some critics of provincial councils, particularly those who supported the October 2019 Tishreen protest movement, view them as an unnecessary layer of bureaucracy that adds to the corruption and inefficiency of Iraqi politics, the fact remains that they are a constitutional requirement and no alternative has been agreed upon. The US-led Coalition Provisional Authority pushed for decentralization of Iraqi governance in 2004, culminating with international backing for the 2008 law that created provincial governments. It was believed at the time that these political bodies would encourage more local accountability for service provision. Disappointingly, the political elite took over the councils in the same way that they captured ministries at the national level. As a result, citizens became disillusioned with the councils’ poor performance, mirroring their feelings about the national government. This is why there is little enthusiasm about the councils’ return, with fears that bigger local governments mean even more corruption.

In addition to accelerating the timeline for the provincial vote, the new elections law was designed to shift the national balance of power. The law includes several regressive changes favoring the large, established parties and disadvantaging independent candidates.[4] Chief among these reversions was designating entire governorates as a single electoral district and establishing a system of proportional representation using a Sainte-Laguë method divisor of 1.7. Analysis shows that this will likely lead to a significantly different outcome from what would have happened under the previous rules and primarily benefits the Shia Coordination Framework (CF). [5] Depriving voters of the ability to elect representatives at the local district level makes it more difficult to hold politicians accountable and discourages citizens from voting.

There are 16,158,788 registered voters across the fifteen federal provinces that will participate in this election cycle, according to the final electoral roll managed by the Independent High Electoral Commission (IHEC), the body tasked with conducting elections in Iraq.[6] Several million adult citizens have failed to update their biometric information, mainly due to apathy, and will not be able to vote. Voting will take place at 38,040 centers. A total of 6,022 candidates are running, the vast majority of them under the banner of one of 68 parties, coalitions, and electoral alliances approved by IHEC.[7] There are 275 provincial council seats available, with an additional ten quota seats reserved for minorities.

Depriving voters of the ability to elect representatives at the local district level makes it more difficult to hold politicians accountable and discourages citizens from voting.

This paper draws on information from fifteen in-person and phone interviews with officials from IHEC, the prime minister’s office, political parties, independent candidates, and activists. The primary questions sought to understand the level of participation in the elections, justification for forming or eschewing alliances, campaign strategy, and likely outcomes and results. IHEC’s website was consulted for raw data on candidates, voter registration, and electoral alliances. In addition to comments gathered from interviews, media articles are referenced to provide further detail and sourcing.

Challenges facing the elections

The success of the elections hinge on IHEC’s performance. The commission has faced much criticism in the past. Capacity issues and political interference plagued IHEC to the point that serious accusations of impropriety and demands for a recount arose after the 2010, 2014, and 2018 elections. In the aftermath of the October 2019 protests and resignation of the Abdul Mahdi government, pressure for reform led to passage of a new law governing IHEC, which gave the task of appointing IHEC’s Board of Commissioners to the Higher Judicial Council (HJC), instead of the political parties in parliament. The goal was to reduce political interference and this resulted in better performance during the 2021 elections.

Many of the major parties opposed the new regulations and have worked to reassert political control over IHEC and reinstitute the old elections law. Political pressure on IHEC reached a point where the chair of the Board of Commissioners resigned in April 2023.[8] This also led to changes to IHEC’s senior staff just three months ahead of the provincial elections.[9] Political parties debated whether to replace the IHEC commissioners, but failed to agree on a revised law. They now face a situation where the board’s term ends on January 7, 2024. Given that it usually takes around a month before the results are certified, IHEC’s work may grind to a halt at a critical phase unless a solution is found. Their options involve either extending the board’s term by three months or postponing the elections.

Even if the elections are conducted properly and successfully, there will be questions about their legitimacy if voter turnout falls again, as is expected.

The issue of when the elections will take place is not up to IHEC. Even though the government set December 18 as the date and preparations are ongoing, there are concerns that either external events that affect Iraq’s stability or political developments (e.g., failing to extend the board’s term) could cause a postponement. Some parties that are boycotting the elections — and even some who are taking part — are also calling for a postponement.[10] According to two senior officials in parties that are part of the CF, there is even a desire by some politicians to push the elections back so that both the provincial and national elections happen at the same time.[11] This would outflank the Sadrists and Sudani, give time to appoint new IHEC commissioners nominated by parties, and still fulfil a promise of early elections. There are three potential scenarios worth considering: first, and most likely, the elections happen on December 18, as the prime minister seems determined to keep to the official date and there do not seem to be any technical hurdles that will force a postponement; second, the elections are pushed back to March; and, third, and least likely, the elections are delayed to April or May and they are held concurrently with parliamentary elections.

Regardless of when the elections actually take place, there are serious concerns about whether they will be free and fair. Past cycles have seen serious allegations of irregularities, while the fact that some parties have armed wings or are in de facto control of territory creates unfair competition. In some areas, the elections could aggravate ethno-sectarian tensions if the results are challenged. Diyala and Nineveh governorates are hotspots to look out for, but Kirkuk, where local elections have not been held since 2005, could have the gravest consequences.[12] Kirkuk is an energy-rich province with a history of tensions between its Arab, Kurdish, and Turkmen communities. The political parties running in the elections have not been shy about exploiting ethno-sectarian grievances for their own ends. Combined with the disqualification of 197 candidates across the country for ties to the former Ba’ath regime, the elections may be perceived as overly politicized and used as a tool for settling personal scores, falsifying the political map, and laying the groundwork for inter-communal violence.[13]

Even if the elections are conducted properly and successfully, there will be questions about their legitimacy if voter turnout falls again, as is expected.[14] It is likely that less than 40% of registered voters will cast a ballot, but participation will likely be closer to 25% in terms of all eligible voters. Voter apathy stems from disaffection with politics in general. Opinion polls show that young people in particular do not believe that elections make an impact and struggle to identify with any party or candidate.[15]

The issue of representation extends to the decision by the Sadrists to boycott the provincial elections. As a result, a major force in Iraqi politics will not be taking part and potentially millions of people will not be represented. Some politicians who identify with the Sadrists are running as independents in certain provinces, but they are careful not to claim official endorsement and it is unlikely they will win a significant number of seats. This has repercussions for how provinces that had a large Sadrist vote in the parliamentary elections, such as Maysan, will be governed, especially since the incumbent governors are Sadrists. In addition, former Prime Minister Ayad Allawi’s Wataniya Alliance and the Tishreen protest movement party Imtidad both announced they will boycott the elections since they do not support a resurrection of the provincial councils.[16] Together these boycotts will skew the political map and add to concerns about the legitimacy of the elections and government. It will not be a surprise if protests organized by the boycotting parties break out soon after the results are announced.

The major parties and alliances

Two connected trends have shaped the approach of the political elite in the build-up to the elections. First, there is a longer-term dynamic where political mobilization is shifting away from strictly sectarian lines. While still not fully evolved, this change could lead to national parties in the future. In previous elections, no party was able to campaign in every governorate because their constituencies were based on a specific ethno-sectarian identity. This limited the places where they could successfully run to areas where their base group was prominent. Around 2017, this started to shift. Alliances between parties began to emerge, which could compete in different areas using local partners rather than a national-level approach. In this way, for example, Shia Islamist parties that had traditionally struggled to pick up votes in Nineveh or Anbar partnered with locally popular politicians. They formed alliances under new names without negating the ethno-sectarian identity of the constituent parties. It is a compromise, but represents political maturation. In the upcoming provincial elections, the major parties are using this tactic more than ever.

A second, shorter-term dynamic is caused by the success of some parties during the 2021 parliamentary elections. New, locally-focused parties that competed in just a few electoral districts were able to win seats against parties that were better established, but had faced criticism for being part of the elite that has failed to govern Iraq properly. These established parties realized that a complete rebrand would not work and so resorted to creating specific alliances in some provinces. That way, they could compete under different names simultaneously in different governorates. Combined, these two trends have led the elite parties to choose a multi-layered approach in order to maximize their vote in every possible province, even those where they traditionally have not been able to compete.

This means that the individual alliances that makeup the CF will be competing against each other in Baghdad and the nine southern provinces, but will engage in greater cooperation in the other five provinces. This is because the CF expects to win the vast majority of seats in their home areas and with little competition it is logical for the components of the CF to compete internally. The most prominent of these alliances are Dawlat al-Qanon (State of Law) led by former Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, an iteration of Fatah known as Nabni (We Build) led by Hadi al-Ameri, Quwa al-Dawla (State Forces) led by Ammar al-Hakim and former Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi, and al-Asas al-Iraqi (Iraqi Foundation) led by First Deputy Speaker of Parliament Muhsin al-Mandalawi. Other allies of the CF will also likely win seats, including Tasmim, which is led by Basra governor Asaad al-Idani, and Ibda Karbala, led by Karbala governor Nusayif al-Khattabi.

In Kirkuk and Salahaldin , the CF will be running together under a single banner called al-Itar al-Watani (National Framework). In three other provinces, the situation is not completely clear, but so far: in Diyala, there are two CF alliances running (Diyalatuna and Istihqaq Diyala); in Anbar, one CF alliance is confirmed (al-Aqd al-Watani) and another two are possibly running (Nabni and Quwa al-Dawla); and in Nineveh, the CF has two confirmed alliances (al-Hadba al-Watani and al-Aqd al-Watani) and possibly another (Quwa al-Dawla).[17] In these five governorates, the CF alliances will run local candidates who are Sunni Arab or from other backgrounds with the aim of winning at least three seats in each governorate.[18] While the CF may not gain majority control of any of these five provincial councils, it will achieve considerable formal local political power if this tactic is successful.

As for the parties that claim to represent the Sunni population, the recent dismissal of Speaker Mohammed al-Halbusi will have a significant impact. First, it will negatively affect the appeal of his party, Taqadum, particularly outside Anbar province. Second, if Taqadum does not retain the speaker position, some politicians will switch their allegiance to whichever party or alliance gets the post, further weakening Halbusi. Third, the fallout from Halbusi’s dismissal could mean there is even less incentive for voters to participate in the elections. Including Taqadum, there are three main alliances competing for Sunni representation, mostly in Baghdad and the five northern provinces. Taqadum’s focus is on Baghdad and Anbar, where competition for the Sunni base is less intense for Halbusi. It is also allied with al-Siyada led by Khamis al-Khanjar, al-Qiyada led by Planning Minister Mohammed Tamim, and Qimam led by former minister Khalid Battal. The second major Sunni party is the new iteration of Azm led by MP Muthana Al-Samaraie, which has been the main opponent of Taqadum. The third is al-Hasm, which is led by Defense Minister Thabit Al-Abbasi and includes other veteran politicians, including former speaker Usama al-Nujayfi. Additionally, there are several alliances running only in a specific province, such as al-Anbar al-Mutahid and al-Tahaluf al-Arabi fi Kirkuk. These local parties could pick up a seat or two and may ally with one of the three main alliances after the elections.

These elections will gauge how much progress Halbusi’s opponents have made since 2021. If they can get the smaller alliances in Anbar and Kirkuk on their side, it will give Taqadum’s opponents more bargaining power with the CF and provide them a better platform to compete against Halbusi in the next national elections. Halbusi’s dismissal — the timing of which is unlikely to have been coincidental — is a major step towards rebalancing power among the Sunni political elite and the results of the elections could solidify that shift. Additionally, the results will affect the local dynamic in Kirkuk. Sunni Arab alliances there are likely to ally with Turkmen parties to provide a solid majority vis-à-vis Kurdish provincial council members.

For the Kurdish parties, the elections will be important for the rivalry between the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) in the disputed areas. It will also show whether the KDP can exert significant control in Nineveh and Kirkuk in particular. Winning a solid number of seats may lead to a possible increase in Kurdish influence in the disputed areas because the councils select top positions at the provincial level, including the governor and deputy governor. Results in Nineveh could also affect control over key areas like Sinjar. In Kirkuk, the KDP wants to reinforce the notion that the PUK is in decline by wiping them out. On the other hand, the PUK hopes to gain enough seats to encourage the CF to agree to select a PUK candidate for governor. Moreover, the provincial elections in the disputed areas are a testing ground for the upcoming regional elections, as they will create momentum for one party or the other. In general, the KDP is competing as a single party, but in Kirkuk it is allying with the Maalim Kirkuk alliance, an Islamist grouping of the Kurdistan Islamic Union and the Kurdistan Justice Group. The PUK is mostly competing as a single party as well, but it is running with the Kurdistan Communist Party in Kirkuk, as the Kirkuk Quwatuna wa Iradatuna alliance, and in Nineveh under the Itihad Ahl Ninawa alliance, with al-Rafaa al-Watani party. The main opposition to the big two Kurdish parties, New Generation, is running as a single party. The Gorran Movement is not running at all, reflecting its rapid decline as a political force.

Emerging parties

The new and emerging or non-establishment/non-elite parties have struggled to form a cohesive opposition outside government over the past few years. As a result, their appeal to voters is limited. Nonetheless, they will compete in these elections in hopes of winning seats on provincial councils and finally being in a position to directly impact local issues. The largest alliance that has emerged is Qiyam al-Madani (Civil Values), which is competing in all fifteen provinces. It is made up of ten parties, including the Iraqi Communist Party, al-Bayt al-Watani, al-Haraka al-Madaniya, Nazil Akhuth Haqi, and al-Tayar al-Ijtimai. It is co-led by independent MP Sajad Salim and represents the Tishreen protest movement. Its strategy involves winning over young voters and those desperate for democratic change. The alliance does not have a strong rival and may be able to set itself up as the main opposition to the establishment parties, possibly winning some seats. Other new parties such as Wathiqun in Najaf, Tajamu al-Fayhaa in Basra, and Jumhur al-Muthana could also win seats in their provinces.

Doubts remain as to whether these emerging parties will be able to make any significant gains in the elections and whether they can affect the political process in a meaningful way. The post-2021 optimism that a large group of independents, new parties, reformers, and emerging alliances could form a cohesive and credible opposition ended with the bitter acceptance that these forces are not yet mature enough. The reality is that they may not get another chance like 2021 and, with the change in the elections law, it is likely they will lose most of their influence. According to a senior official in IHEC, the lessons learned by the established political elite, which began with the change to the elections law, will see the emerging parties lose most of their parliamentary seats and win very few in the provincial elections.[19] Even if these parties overcome the challenges posed by the law, it is unlikely they will do well enough to change the status quo given their limited resources and poor organization, the expected low turnout, and a political elite determined to use all tools to prevent their success. It may well be that these elections are the last opportunity for the parties that emerged after the Tishreen protests to make their mark. According to a senior leader of the Qiyam alliance: “We know we still have credibility among large parts of society. We hope the local election results will reflect this and the impact could be more meaningful than the national elections because we will be able to get members on the provincial councils and directly affect how services are provided in local areas.”[20] While this politician did not agree it was the last chance for Tishreen parties, the reality is that a poor showing in these elections would greatly reduce their chances for picking up any MPs in the next national elections.

Of the fifteen provincial councils available, the nine southern provinces and Baghdad are very likely to be dominated by parties in the CF or those allied with it.

In terms of results, it is difficult to make accurate predictions, but the expectation is that the largest parties and coalitions will retain primacy. This means that of the fifteen provincial councils available, the nine southern provinces and Baghdad are very likely to be dominated by parties in the CF or those allied with it. Anbar and Salahaldin will be divided between Halbusi and his rivals, though Taqadum will not win as many seats as they hope due to Halbusi’s dismissal from the speaker position. Diyala, Kirkuk, and Nineveh will be heavily contested between several of the large alliances. In Kirkuk, both the KDP and the PUK will try to win enough seats to control the governorship or at least stop the other from doing so. This could present Sunni Arab and Turkmen parties with an opportunity to ally with either of them in order to propose a compromise candidate. In Nineveh, the KDP may be able to increase its seats on the provincial council in order to retain a deputy governor position or even to push for the governorship. This could see the KDP exert more control over Sinjar, but, failing that, there will be a concerted effort by the CF and its allies to weaken KDP influence in Nineveh by making major changes to security and administrative positions where the KDP has nominal control. In no province will independents, new and emerging parties, or those outside government win a majority of seats. Given the boycott of the Sadrists, Halbusi’s loss of the speaker position, and increasing pressure on the KDP from Baghdad, there seems to be a rebalancing underway within the main ethno-sectarian blocs: the CF vs the Sadrists, Halbusi vs his rivals, and the PUK vs the KDP. The results may reflect this power shift, but it is unlikely to be a clear and permanent outcome.

Implications for national politics

The most obvious factor for the next parliamentary elections is how well the major political alliances and parties perform in the provincial cycle, both against each other and internally within each ethno-sectarian bloc. This will help determine the strategy and candidate listings for the next elections. Parties and candidates who outperform will negotiate from a stronger position. For the CF, the competition will be mostly internal. The absence of the Sadrists means there is no strong rival in Shia majority areas. It will be interesting to see how well the CF parties do in the other provinces, particularly where they have non-Shia candidates like in Nineveh. In general, however, they have an easier task than the other major alliances. The question will be if the CF can do well enough to suggest that it will convincingly beat the Sadrists in the next parliamentary elections. The CF lost out to the Sadrists last cycle and initially did not form the largest bloc in Parliament. With the absence of the Sadrists, a weak showing in these elections would be catastrophic for the CF and reinforce the belief that they cannot strategize and cooperate internally during elections. It could encourage the Sadrists to re-enter the political field, which is an extremely consequential factor.

Control of provincial councils and governorships will be important for the parliamentary elections because it allows incumbents to direct patronage and influence voters. Each governor is in effect the prime minister of their province and, further down, mayors are in charge of their districts and local areas. Political parties vie for these positions because they allow them to control budgets, public hiring, contracting, and local security control.

One person who will be intensely observing the results is Prime Minister Sudani, whose party is not taking part following an agreement with the CF.[21] He will most certainly be competing in the parliamentary elections and the results of the provincial polls will help him decide what strategies will serve him best next cycle. He has staked his entire political career on stabilizing Iraq after the events of 2019-2022. Successfully delivering provincial elections with limited negative fallout is a priority. Sudani’s aim is to get to the next parliamentary elections with his reputation enhanced and his allies willing to give him another term. Therefore, he is keen to maintain stability after the elections and learn from them to further his own ambitions.[22]

In the aftermath of the Sadrist withdrawal from parliament in 2022 and the formation of the Sudani government, there was a general belief among the political elite that there would be early parliamentary elections. This has subsided somewhat. At present, the revised elections law stipulate that the next parliamentary elections need to be held at least 45 days before the end of the current legislative term, which means by November 25, 2025. However, should the provincial elections be delayed, the prospect of early parliamentary polls would increase.

Holding successful provincial elections would also be an important milestone for the current political system and prove its continued viability. However, any major problems with the elections could cause a serious fallout and affect future parliamentary elections. These problems range from voting irregularities to violent protests challenging the results to delays in electing governors. A substantial number of seats and political power is up for grabs all over Iraq in a short amount of time — including regional elections in the Kurdistan Region in 2024 and the next national parliamentary elections in 2025 — and the 2023 provincial elections are the start of this period.


The effect of the provincial elections will be to define the political order in each governorate. In itself, this is an important issue for coalition building ahead of the next parliamentary elections and is crucial for allowing muhasasa and party patronage to be applied to local government positions and resources. Based on their electoral performance, each party will make a claim to these resources, access to which drives party revenues, membership, and networks. The battle for the governorships will be the most consequential follow-on to the provincial elections. The competition will be fierce in resource-rich provinces such as Basra and Kirkuk.

Should local governments begin to deliver more for residents and regain some confidence, provincial councils will be seen as a success. Otherwise, local elections will be regarded as unnecessary and a tool for enabling corruption.

Many questions remain: Will the elections take place on time? Will turn out fall? Will the results be free and fair? Will they accurately reflect Iraq’s political map without the Sadrists? However, if the provincial elections are conducted successfully, it would extend the period of relative stability Iraq and give Sudani’s government confidence to either hold early parliamentary elections or see out its term in full. For now, the implications of Halbusi’s dismissal as speaker are likely to be limited to the fortunes of Taqadum, given that they are not calling for a boycott or postponement of the elections as of writing, but there could be significant ramifications if their stance changes.

Provincial elections are important and a constitutional necessity. In theory, they make government more accountable and enhance the democratic process, but in practice Iraq has struggled with the added layer of elite political party control over local administration. Should local governments begin to deliver more for residents and regain some confidence, provincial councils will be seen as a success. Otherwise, local elections will be regarded as unnecessary and a tool for enabling corruption. These perceptions will also shape turnout for future parliamentary elections and impact the legitimacy of the Iraqi state as a whole.

DisclaimerThe views expressed in this article are those of the author alone. They do not purport to reflect the opinions or views of the Institute of Regional and International Studies (IRIS).



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