Last year, violence marred more than half of the world’s national elections, the highest rate in four decades. This past Jan. 6, the United States saw its own election-related violence with the invasion of the Capitol by pro-Trump activists. Yet in Iraq, a country where the U.S. planted democracy, an election on Oct. 10 has seen little violence in the final weeks before the vote. That’s quite a change from the violence of the four previous elections since the 2003 U.S. invasion.
The reasons for this progress are complex, but perhaps the strongest one is that young Iraqis rose up in 2019 to protest years of violent conflict and government corruption. In response, Iran-backed militias and the government killed hundreds of pro-democracy activists. But the movement did result in a new and reformist prime minister, Mustafa al-Kadhimi. And it also led to a major shift in how elections are held.
Under Mr. Kadhimi, the elections for parliament are being held early to meet the protesters’ demand. He has also beefed up security for the vote. The number of voting districts has been increased, putting a focus on independent candidates rather than on parties.
Polling stations will have five times as many foreign monitors as in the 2018 elections. Voters were given biometric voting cards to curb fraud. Political parties and candidates were asked to sign a pledge to reject intolerance and violence during the campaigning and voting.
Many Iraqis have emphasized the need for these elections “in order to move from a prolonged political standstill to finally addressing the urgent challenges facing Iraq,” says Jeanine Hennis-Plasschaert, the United Nations representative to Iraq. According to a poll by the Al-Bayan Center for Planning and Studies in Baghdad, more than half of young Iraqis will not be voting for the same party or candidate as they did three years ago.
“If the balloting unfolds in a free and fair manner, without major violence, it may restore a degree of confidence in electoral democracy,” states the International Crisis Group in a report. And, according to Reuters, “Violent sectarianism is less of a feature and security is better than it has been for years.”
Iraq remains a nation fractured by tribes, religion, and ethnicity. Yet its young people, who voiced a demand for government to rise above those divisions, may be setting a new social contract. The relative lack of preelection violence is a sign that they are being heard.