Iraq’s December 2023 governorate council elections, the first local elections since 2013, resulted in major gains for incumbent parties and only a few minor wins for antiestablishment lists. Change-oriented political parties and independent Iraqi politicians won only a few, scattered seats across the country.

I have dubbed these reform-oriented groups “change politicians” because their primary objective is disruption of the status quo through the current political system.1 Change politicians rode the wave of antiestablishment fervor following the 2019 Tishreen protests to achieve modest but surprising success in the 2021 parliamentary elections. Their diminished success in the 2023 governorate council elections is the result of several factors, including a new 2023 electoral law favoring larger incumbent parties, boycotts, and other issues explored in this report. In the wake of their 2023 setback, change politicians are reassessing their strategies in preparation for the 2025 parliamentary elections.

Infighting and divisions have frustrated change politicians’ progress, as have leadership disputes and allegations of corruption and misadministration, among other issues undermining their credibility.2 Some analysts argue that these problems, combined with poor governorate council election results, portend the end for change politicians. The reality is more nuanced. Change politicians, while still marginal to the broader Iraqi political scene, are down but not out. Their long-term success or failure is far from decided, and can’t be discounted based on the results of a single election.

This report, based on fieldwork in Iraq between August 2022 and April 2024, argues that the December elections provide four major insights into change politicians’ trajectories, as well as into the nascent democratic politics of Iraq. First, change parties’ shortcomings, such as boss-style leadership and a lack of developed political ideologies, are not unique; rather, they are intrinsic to the condition of almost all post-2003 Iraqi political parties. Thus, such shortcomings do not predestine change politicians’ demise—their parties’ evolution is tied to the evolution of the Iraqi political system more broadly. Second, change politicians continue to evolve and grow, as evidenced by the formation of the Democratic Forces of Change political alliance and the electoral Civil Values Alliance.3 Third, if change politicians hope to win more votes, they will need to reexamine their voter support base and recalibrate their electoral machines, among other steps. The fourth and final insight is that the dominant political elite continues to pose a major barrier to change politicians and reform in Iraq more generally, and is a key variable in determining change politicians’ future path.

Movements take years, if not decades to build, and the process toward sustainable democracy is not linear. Declaring the end of change politicians now would be shortsighted. This is all the more true in Iraq, a country that has yet to become a consolidated democracy.

The analysis in this report is based on dozens of interviews in Iraq with change politicians, dominant Shia political party members, party supporters, election specialists, members of parliament, governorate council candidates and winners, activists, journalists, and others from across the political spectrum. Most interviews were conducted in Arabic in Baghdad, with some interviews conducted in Erbil, Sulaymaniyah, and Basra, and others conducted over the phone. Many individuals spoke on condition of anonymity due to the sensitivity of some issues, and are identified by their role, expertise, or affiliation.

Change Politicians since 2003

The Tishreen movement is essential to understanding the rise of reform-oriented politicians active in Iraq today. Tishreen emerged in 2019 as a leaderless, youth-driven, grassroots movement.4 Demonstrators wanted basic political and economic reforms, including jobs for youth. Once the state responded with violence to these peaceful demonstrations, demonstrators escalated their demands, calling for an overhaul of the political system. Although they were highly skeptical of the post-2003 political order, some activists still decided that peaceful reform from within was the best way forward. They joined emerging political parties or campaigned as independents and competed in parliamentary elections.5 In this way, Tishreen succeeded in unseating the government in 2019 and pushing parliament to adopt a new electoral law, and brought in Iraq’s first sizable bloc of nonaligned members of parliament.6

Tishreen protests occurred in mostly Shia Arab areas of central and southern Iraq, even though Sunni and Kurdish youth have grievances that are similar to those of their Shia counterparts.7 Similarly, emerging change political parties and independents are mostly drawn from majority Shia Arab regions of Iraq, and many senior change politicians (although not all) were part of the Tishreen protests.

But even though change politicians are mostly Shia, they do not base their program on a Shia identity to gain supporters, nor do they campaign on the need to “protect Shia interests.” Instead, they claim they are actively trying to recruit beyond their traditional bases, and foster a cross-ethnic following across the country, to represent all Iraqis. (This report focuses on change politicians’ activity in central and southern Iraq.)

Many change parties, such as Nazil Akith Haqi Democratic Movement, al-Beit al-Watani, and Emtidad, trace their roots to Tishreen. Others trace their roots to civil-minded parties that have emerged since 2003—such as former member of parliament Shirouk al-Abayachi’s National Civil Movement, or Ali al-Rufaie’s Social Democratic Current.8 The Iraqi Communist Party has also been involved, even though it is not new. Established in the 1930s, the party wielded a powerful presence in Iraqi politics during the mid-twentieth century and has, at various times, been aligned with status quo powers, in the opposition, or persecuted.9 But its coordination with parties that emerged out of the Tishreen represents a new outlook. Other change parties are smaller, sometimes operating at the governorate level.

Change politicians also include independents, such as some members of the al-Watan parliamentary bloc led by Yassir Askandar Witwit, a member of parliament from Babil. However, ahead of the governorate council elections in 2023, Witwit formed a political party called the Enlightenment Movement to enable the al-Watan parliamentary bloc’s affiliates to run candidates in the elections.10 In separate interviews, several Iraqi political analysts claim that, over the past year, the al-Watan bloc has become closer to Prime Minister Mohammed Shia al-Sudani.11In an interview with the author, Witwit denied that the parliamentary bloc has any formal affiliation with the Prime Minister.12 Change independents (as opposed to partisan or local leader independents) prioritize democratic reforms of the post-2003 political system, and their numbers are limited in the current Iraqi political context.13

Declaring the end of change politicians now would be shortsighted—especially in a country that has yet to become a consolidated democracy.

Most change politicians’ political ideologies are nascent and evolving, representing different, sometimes contrasting political ideologies.14 But they are united in their stated “third way” approach to politics and an Iraqi civil identity, known in Arabic as madani.15 The Iraqi civil identity—which is distinct from how “civil” is defined in other countries’ political contexts—focuses on equality and national, nonsectarian identities. Change politicians juxtapose their Iraqi civil identity with dominant elites’ focus on preserving their grip over the political system and dividing state spoils.

Interviews suggest that, while change politicians are still a long way from holding power, they are engaged in often genuine attempts to build a politics separate from the status quo scramble for shares of state resources. The Iraqi civil concept prioritizes national citizenship, rule of law, inclusivity, human rights, equality, and the strength of institutions. Change politicians seek democratic change and reject Iraq’s informal ethno-sectarian apportionment system (known as muhassasa), corruption, and uncontrolled weapons.16 Cognizant of Islamist and conservative critics, change politicians emphasize that the Iraqi civil concept advocates for the separation of religion from politics but does not denote “secular,” a term that is often synonymous with atheism in Iraq, and which Iraqi society largely rejects.17Change politicians distance themselves from sectarian political rhetoric, and instead endeavor to reconceptualize Iraqi identity and the relationship between the state and its citizens. (All of the above being said, my categorization of certain politicians as change politicians is not a normative statement but rather an approximate assessment of their public political work thus far).

Political Backdrop to the 2023 Elections

Iraq has yet to become a consolidated democracy, a fact that has stifled the development of political parties and obstructed those seeking to challenge the status quo. Since 2003, the customary practice following elections has been for dominant parties to form a consensus government (or tawafuq). Parliamentary opposition, considered by some experts to be an essential tenet of democracy, has so far been absent in Iraq. The political elite collude to divvy up governmental postings. While some politicians’ power has waned and other, new entrants have amassed power, dominant political entities generally persist. Individuals may be voted in and out of office, but political cartels can’t be voted out of power without the prospect of violence. Compounded by weak rule of law, these factors leave politicians generally unaccountable to their constituents, discouraging many citizens from voting.

This context means that nearly all post-2003 political parties are underdeveloped. Overreliance on boss-style leadership, lack of developed political ideologies and programs, and ego-driven personality politics affect dominant and change political parties alike. Political evolution—among all politicians, parties, and voters—is key for Iraq’s development into a consolidated democracy and the success of parties looking to shake up the status quo. Criticism of change politicians is warranted and needed to hold change political actors to account, but failure to contextualize shortcomings obfuscates the reality of underdeveloped systems for political parties and democracy more generally.

Shortly after the success of change politicians in the 2021 parliamentary elections, the 2022 power struggle over government formation immobilized the political scene, pitting the Sadrist Movement, led by populist Shia cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, against the Coordination Framework, a political alliance of Shia parties united mostly by their opposition to Sadr.18Sadrists tried to form the first majoritarian government since 2003, but failed. Sadrist members of parliament resigned from parliament; then, a series of escalating confrontations ended in bloodshed and Sadr’s “resignation” from politics. The current prime minister, Mohammed Shia al-Sudani, backed by the Coordination Framework, formed a government in October 2022. Today, the Coordination Framework dominates the political space among Shia parties, as the Sadrist Movement remains outside of government; the Sadrists boycotted the 2023 governorate council elections.19

Since Sudani’s assumption of the premiership, Iraq has witnessed a modicum of quiet stability, but unresolved issues—political, legislative, administrative, or otherwise—continue to churn under the surface, as they have with past administrations. Real solutions have yet to be found.

Most dominant Shia parties formed since 2003 (and other dominant elite parties for that matter) do not have well-defined political ideologies, and instead differentiate themselves through carefully crafted political identities. Indeed, most parties’ “political programs,” to the extent that one can refer to them as such, have historically been quite similar and fail to address underlying structural flaws in the Iraqi system. For example, successive governments’ economic packages, regardless of the political coalition leading the government, have generally embraced the continued overreliance on oil revenues. They inflate the government payroll to appeal to populist tendencies, and heavily allocate the budget toward operating costs, while neglecting investment spending.20

Successive governments’ economic platforms—regardless of party affiliation—have continued to over-rely on oil revenues and inflated government payrolls.

High Iraqi population growth and global trends toward more renewable energy make the reliance on the petrostate increasingly unsustainable. Meanwhile, basic services—such as clean water, a reliable electricity supply, and adequate education and health services—remain in disarray.21 Better service provision remains a core demand of the Iraqi people. The lack of mass protests in the last few years doesn’t necessarily indicate acceptance of the status quo. Instead, it points to some Iraqis’ exhaustion after the violent suppression of the 2019 Tishreen protests and a shift in tactics by some toward political organizing.22

Ever-Changing Electoral Laws

Another factor that has shaped election outcomes, and which helps explain the 2023 results, is that Iraq has repeatedly revised its electoral laws in the last two decades. In particular, two recent electoral laws, which affected the 2021 parliamentary elections and 2023 governorate council elections respectively, had different effects on the prospects for change politicians’ electoral wins.

The electoral law for the 2021 parliamentary elections was one of the few tangible achievements of the Tishreen movement, because it created electoral conditions in which it was more feasible for smaller parties and independents to win. The law made several reforms, including lowering the minimum age of candidates from thirty to twenty-eight and creating district-based rather than governorate-based constituencies. Perhaps most importantly, it created a single, non-transferable vote; this allowed a first-past-the-post method for awarding seats, which removed the need for a seat allocation system.23Under the new law, change politicians did better than they might have otherwise. But many dominant Shia parties (besides the Sadrists) did not perform well in the 2021 elections. Those parties’ political machinations in the two years that followed—helped by the Sadrists’ mass resignation from parliament—gave the previously dominant parties a new edge, and in 2023, the newly empowered Coordination Framework managed to promulgate yet another new electoral law.

The 2023 electoral law for governorate council and parliamentary elections reversed some of the effects of the 2020 law.

For governorate and parliamentary elections, the 2023 law designated entire governorates as single electoral districts, undoing the creation of district-based constituencies, and reestablished a system of proportional representation using the Sainte-Laguë method—the same method of vote-counting that existed before the Tishreen protests.24 Research conducted by Iraqi civil society organizations indicates that the Iraqi public did not generally welcome the new law—and it’s likely that the law discouraged some voters from participating.25 Governorate councils, whose existence is required by the Iraqi constitution, remain crucial for building patronage and party influence networks, and therefore are important to political parties; dominant parties reportedly spent vast amounts during the 2023 governorate council elections.26

Not all aspects of the new electoral law are bad for change politicians and smaller parties, and some politicians have defended certain aspects of the law. However, it’s clear that, in general, the law made it more challenging for smaller parties and smaller coalitions to win.

Noor Nafea, a change politician with the Enlightenment Movement who successfully backed governorate council candidates in 2023, speaks at a conference for youth in Iraq in May. Source: Noor Nafea (@NoorNafeaAli) X post, May 7, 2024.

Change Politicians Unite

Despite the apparent setbacks of the 2023 election, there were other developments that indicate that change politicians and parties are growing and evolving. Change political movements, while still minor players within the political system, succeeded in coalescing into a somewhat unified political coalition and electoral list ahead of the 2023 governorate council elections. They won seats despite significant challenges. The current political formations may disband and reconfigure over time. Leaders or parties more committed or successful in achieving change may emerge years later. But these formations are an important, albeit modest step in their growth. Movements take decades to build and the process toward sustainable democracy happens in fits and starts.

In attempts to overcome divisions and strengthen themselves under one banner, change politicians and activists rallied together to form a consultative council, which subsequently evolved into the Democratic Forces of Change, a coalition that was launched in October 2022.27Some of the founding parties have subsequently withdrawn, but the coalition remains active. In August 2023, most of the remaining parties of the Democratic Forces of Change joined with the Enlightenment Movement, smaller parties, and independents to launch the Civil Values Alliance, an electoral coalition that competed across nearly fifteen governorates in the 2023 governorate council elections.28 The formation of the Democratic Forces of Change political alliance and the Civil Values Alliance are examples of achievements of growth and evolution, even though they didn’t win many seats.

The Civil Values Alliance is co-led by the Social Democratic Current’s Ali al-Rufaie and Sajad Salam, a member of parliament who is the al-Watan parliamentary bloc spokesman.29 The joint leadership is a testament to the alliances’ attempt to merge various parties onto one electoral list: parties that emerged from the Tishreen movement; civil parties (such as the Iraqi Communist Party and the National Civil Movement) that competed in the pre-2019 political process and share similar Iraqi civil and change politics; and other independents. The electoral alliance is not an ideological alliance, but is rather an alliance of opposition to the status quo and endorsement of change and Iraqi civil politics. The Civil Values Alliance also ran or supported candidates on other lists in various governorates, such as Jamhour Muthanna in the governorate of Muthanna, on Fao Zakho lists in the governorate of Karbala, and other candidates in the governorates of Anbar and Kirkuk.

Despite some success at unifying their electoral list, the Civil Values Alliance failed to get out the vote on a large scale and apparently overestimated their capacities, budgets, and voter base. Most campaign workers were volunteers—often working at their regular jobs in the mornings and contributing to campaigns during the evenings. Coalitions and candidates under the new alliance only had a short window of time to register, which proved difficult for a new electoral alliance composed of many political newcomers who faced a steep learning curve.

Change politicians who tried to get out the vote in the December 2023 elections faced additional challenges that depressed potential voters’ turnout. Elites used institutions to push back against political opponents. The revolutionary mood that had mobilized voters following the Tishreen protests had evaporated. Further, some voters were frustrated with the perceived poor performance of emerging change parties elected to parliament in 2021 (such as some members of parliament from the Emtidad Movement party), and with the fact that some change representatives ended up allying with dominant party interests (either by choice or under intense pressure).30 There were also more general feelings in the electorate of frustration and political apathy. These feelings had roots in apathy toward the governorate council system specifically; unfavorable opinions of the Sainte-Laguë law; calls for boycotts by activist groups that may have otherwise been part of change politicians’ voter base; and the influence of “shadow parties” or opposition coalitions controlled by traditional parties that may have confused Iraqi civil voters away from change lists.31 According to one Dhi Qar politician, the total votes for Iraqi civil lists from the governorate—which was once a center for Tishreen protests and electoral success for change politicians in 2021—dropped by more than half between 2021 and 2023.32

The Civil Values Alliance’s Performance

The December 18, 2023 governorate elections took place in all of Iraq’s federal fifteen governorates (the three governorates of Iraqi Kurdistan did not participate). The official participation rate was announced at 41 percent—though a more accurate number would have been 30 percent, which is the proportion of eligible voters who participated. (The government calculated turnout by dividing the total votes by the number of registered biometric cardholders—a smaller number than the total number of eligible voters.)33

In Shia-majority areas, the strongest performers were Shia Islamist lists led by Hadi al-Amiri’s Nabni Alliance, former prime minister Nouri al-Maliki’s State of Law Coalition, and the National State Forces, led by Ammar al-Hakim.34 Some governors’ lists performed exceptionally well within their respective governorates, with Basra governor Asaad Al Eidani’s party winning the majority of the seats in that governorate.

In contrast to the success of the abovementioned lists, change politicians generally struggled to win seats. The Civil Values Alliance only won six seats in the election: three in Qadisiyah, one in Dhi Qar, one in Najaf, and one in Babil.35 Although the Democratic Change Forces helped drive a significant number of votes to the Civil Values Alliance list, none of the Forces’ candidates won. This lack of success was a blow not only for emerging political parties that grew out of the Tishreen movement but also for established, secular parties like the Communist Party—raising questions about the size of those parties’ voter base and the extent to which their political messaging resonated with Iraqi voters. All change politician election winners were Enlightenment Movement candidates (who are aligned with and supported by the al-Watan parliamentary bloc members of parliament) or independents with strong local networks in their respective governorates, or both. Such networks included tribal networks, professional associations, or public sector employees. Various politicians expressed change-related and Iraqi civil concepts during campaigns. But some electoral observers criticized aspects of the campaigns because, they claimed, the campaigns used dominant political parties’ tactics to get out the vote. Critics also questioned whether some of the winning candidates would have the ability to maintain and promote change and Iraqi civil policies in office.36

“This is a lesson for the 2025 elections—the importance of managing relationships and strategies between electoral partners.”

Qadisiyah governorate is a prime example to illustrate the Civil Values Coalition electoral successes and challenges. Two al-Watan parliamentary bloc legislators and members of the Enlightenment Movement from Qadisiyah—Nathim Shabli and Noor Nafea—supported the three winning governorate council candidates in that governorate: Tariq al-Barqaawi, Ahmad Sakr al-Badiri, and female quota winner Anwar al-Ziyadi.37 All candidates appear to have been known to their constituents before the election.38 Their wins at the ballot box appear to be tied to their blocs’ focus on local issues and services, interactions with their constituents in their home governorate, and their use of a 2019 Federal Supreme Court ruling that members of parliament could act in the role of governorate council members when the councils were suspended.39 Nafea said that she and Shabli maintained close coordination with their Qadisiyah constituents following their election to parliament and leading up to the governorate council elections.40 They opened offices in their home governorate to interact with constituents on local issues, which were later used for governorate council campaigns—Nafea focused on central Qadisiyah, where she is from, while Shibli focused on his home area in the countryside and his tribal connections.

Winning three seats in one governorate is no doubt a feat. But all together, the three candidates brought in just 12,696 votes of the nearly 36,000 votes for the whole Civil Values Alliance list in Qadisiyah. Democratic Change Forces candidates and other independents on the list therefore contributed substantial votes to their success.

In fact, members of the Civil Values Alliance did not all agree on the registration of their groups’ candidates in Qadisiyah. The discord within the Alliance had a direct effect on the elections: the Civil Values Alliance representatives tasked with registering candidates with the Independent High Electoral Commission reportedly failed to register candidates from the Social Democratic Current (a Civil Values Alliance member) with the apparent aim of giving their preferred candidates an advantage.41 “This is a lesson for the 2025 elections—the importance of managing relationships and strategies between electoral partners,” said Mohammad al-Sheikh, a member of the Civil Values Alliance and Social Democratic Current.42

Beyond the issue of registering candidates, structural issues also affected the performance of the Civil Values Alliance. A lack of effective internal mechanisms for mediating disputes and resolving conflict has long plagued the emerging politicians in their efforts to coordinate together. “The Civil Values Alliance framework was written down but was not very clear, and some therefore didn’t abide by it,” Sheikh said. Ahead of the 2025 elections, “the Social Democratic Current is building their database based on election results to know what to focus on during the next phase. We are working on party development, not just development of the coalition.”

Other Change Politicians’ Performance

Several political parties and politicians who could be considered close to change politics also won seats, but competed on electoral lists separate from the Civil Values Alliance list. The following paragraphs identify winning candidates and examine the reasons behind their success at the polls, reflecting on trends as these movements evolve and grow.

Fao Zakho, established in 2021, is led by Ammar Abdul Jabbar Ismael, one of Basra’s representatives in parliament, who is the former minister of transportation.43Political analysts describe Fao Zakho as a Iraqi civil party that is focused on economics, with an agenda centered around the party’s leader.44 In the 2023 elections, the party coordinated on shared lists with the Civil Values Alliance in some governorates, but never joined the electoral alliance. Fao Zakho’s winning candidate in Babil, Mohammed al-Mansuri, is actually an independent who participated in the Tishreen protests, and simply ran on Fao Zakho’s list.45

Ishraqat Kanoun is a political party that emerged after the Tishreen protests, transforming from a humanitarian network into a political organization.46 It has mostly kept a separate identity that is simultaneously Iraqi civil and conservative and religious. Its stated aims, which are similar to those of change parties, are to combat corruption and foster gradual political and economic reforms. Ishraqat Kanoun currently has seven members in parliament. In interviews, Iraqi political and election experts agreed that the party is the administratively best-organized emerging party.47 This fact is significant, as one Iraqi electoral expert said, because while politicians come and go, parties with a strong political organization persist.48 “The party has not achieved anything that exceptional,” one Iraqi political analyst said.49 “And like all parties, [it] has internal issues. But those issues are dealt with internally and not splashed in the media for all to see. . . . This is a major strength.” Critics claim that the party’s origins remain murky, and some allege that it has ties with the religious shrine institutions. Ishraqat Kanoun denies it has any official ties with the shrine institutions.

Ishraqat Kanoun won five seats in the governorate council elections of 2023—one in Dhi Qar, one in Qadisiyah, two in Babil, and one in Baghdad. These results are impressive considering the party ran separately on their own list—under an electoral law which favors large coalitions.50 A politician familiar with the inner workings of the party attributed its electoral success to a rigorous process of candidate selection, expanded social media presence, strong campaign messaging, a well-developed electoral machine and database of voters, and the provision of services and humanitarian assistance.51 Like change parties, Ishraqat Kanoun emphasizes the importance of achieving tangible results and better services for their constituents in the coming period in order to retain and grow its support base. To continue to succeed, one Iraq politics expert said, Ishraqat Kanoun, like the change parties, “can’t just focus on negative messaging about corruption. They need some positive messaging, too. . . . They need to show the voters they can achieve results.”52

Does Ideology Matter?

Building political ideologies and policies is important for political party development, especially for change politicians seeking to break away from the mold of elite politics. But it is important to differentiate between factors contributing to the evolution of political parties and the consolidation of Iraq’s democracy, and electoral strategies that change parties might implement in the immediate term to win more votes. Based on the election results, it appears that change candidates may have overestimated their voter support base or their capacity to mobilize those in the Iraqi “silent majority” that are fed up with the status quo but don’t vote. Still, change candidates won a number of seats on par with some shadow electoral alliances that enjoyed superior funding and powerful political backing, which is no small feat. But turnout was too low for major success.
Many election postmortems have focused on the criticism that change politicians haven’t properly developed their political ideologies and programs. But some analysts say that change politicians simply need to get better at campaigning. After all, dominant parties suffer from the same programmatic deficiencies. “Sophisticated political programs don’t win elections,” one Iraqi electoral campaign expert said. “Employing our electoral machine, we have done a lot of assessments on this over the past year. Studies show that campaign slogans and messaging are most important, with political programs ranking third.”53

“Sophisticated political programs don’t win elections,” an Iraqi campaign expert said. “Studies show that campaign slogans and messaging are most important.”

“Most Iraqis wouldn’t even read a political program if parties issued one,” one Iraqi politician said. “Governorate council elections are more about services. . . . Of course, programs are important over the long term so that people and voters know where the party is going. . . . It’s like a contract between the party, its supporters, and the Iraqi people.”54

A change politician offered a similar analysis: “A lot of Iraqis from poor, southern governorates just want an immediate result. They are simple people who are impressed by the paving of a main street in the city center, because where they are from is so poorly underserved that this shows progress for them.”55 And detailed reform programs have their risks. “Articulating comprehensive reform programs may be seen as an attack on dominant elites’ interests or efforts to expose high-reaching corruption,” an international campaign expert said.56

Indeed, effective electoral machines and campaign messaging, combined with election law expertise and mathematical strategies to achieve the best possible outcome, are key to winning elections. Limited staff and budgets made it harder for change politicians to campaign across the governorate-wide electoral district, instead of the smaller districts under the previous electoral law. Change parties also rarely ran a full list of candidates in each governorate—a key strategy for getting enough votes to pass the threshold for winning seats under the Sainte-Laguë electoral law.

Political elites’ electoral wins do not necessarily mean that they enjoy broad-based support in the Iraqi population. Rather, the parties’ success is a reflection of their ability to mobilize and secure votes—mostly from their loyalist base, but also from those who may be weakly committed to the party, but who voted based on incentives, or those who voted out of fear of the potential repercussions of not supporting their “identity leader.”

Before the election, most change candidates told the author that, to the extent they were campaigning beyond their existing bases, they were targeting “the silent majority”—those Iraqis who don’t typically vote. But while swaying nonvoters may seem easier than attracting existing voters, neither strategy is easy: unlike more established, better-funded traditional parties, change politicians generally lack the funds for advanced technological platforms to quantify their voters, or for electoral machines to mobilize those voters to go to the polls.57

Change politicians also complained that the concept of democracy in Iraq is nascent, which frustrates campaigning efforts because voters’ expectations are misguided. “They think governorate council members are responsible for fixing everything,” a change politician said. “But there is a fundamental misunderstanding of what they really are mandated to do.”58

If change parties are to perform better in the future, they will need to honestly assess their generally weak showing in the governorate council elections. They will need to measure the extent of their voter support base; tweak their messaging; manage the expectations of their base; and devise strategies in parliament and governorate councils that would aim not only to identify potentially achievable reforms, but also to pursue actions that will resonate with and gain the support of voters. Even small wins at the governorate level matter as they provide opportunities to assess politicians’ performance in office—how they manage themselves, whether they can provide tangible benefits to their community, and whether, under extreme pressure, they stay true to change or Iraqi civil principles.

External Challenges

As described above, change politicians suffer from internal challenges complicating their political trajectory. But their biggest challenge is external. Many dominant elites appear willing to use any force at their disposal—whether legal, illegal, or violent—to maintain their positions of power.59

Several change politicians told the author that they fear that elite politicians’ consolidation of power at the central and governorate levels will allow them to settle scores with their perceived opponents. “They want to get back what they lost from the fallout over Tishreen and make sure this doesn’t happen again,” one politician said.60 Elites’ strategies have also evolved. The violent crackdown on the Tishreen movement earned international and domestic condemnation, so status quo powers have turned to bribes, reputational smears, the control of state institutions, and limits on speech to constrain change parties and politicians. (Some of these measures, however, have also generated criticism.)61

Ultimately, change politicians command little tangible power and face difficult odds, and it is difficult to know what they can achieve in a system intent on their failure. At the same time, however, it is sometimes unclear what change politicians want to achieve. As in any political system, egos, money, security, and other considerations may take precedence over reforms promised to constituents.

Political experts aren’t optimistic about change politicians’ 2025 electoral bid—but the tumultuous, unstable nature of Iraqi politics means it’s hard to predict the future course of events. Iraqis continue to blame the political elite for their failure to address structural problems, and, in theory, are looking for alternatives. Shia Islamist parties are therefore worried about their future, including what change politicians could take away from them. In efforts to diversify away from their traditional shrinking voter base, some established shadow civil parties and election coalitions to tap into the Iraqi civil voter pool and create a fresh, untainted image for the 2023 elections.62 It is likely that this trend will continue and expand in the coming election cycle.63 Monitoring how change politicians interact with these new formations will also be important to follow.

Still, change politicians’ near-term odds of major success are not good, especially considering the recent uptick in state repression. But failure over the long term is not certain. The themes outlined above provide a framework of inquiry for a more nuanced assessment of the trajectory of Iraqi change politicians in the years to come.

This report is part of “Networks of Change: Reviving Governance and Citizenship in the Middle East,” a Century International project supported by the Carnegie Corporation of New York and the Open Society Foundations.

Header Image: Iraqis on election day, as seen in a photo shared to Facebook on December 18 by the Iraqi Intellectual Movement, a change party and part of the Civil Values Alliance. Source: Iraqi Intellectual Movement Facebook page


  1. Haley Bobseine, “Under Pressure, Iraqi Activists Plot ‘Third Way,’” The Century Foundation, September 28, 2022, Haley Bobseine, “Iraq’s Change Politicians Face Difficult Odds in Upcoming Provincial Council Elections,” December 13, 2023,
  2. Haley Bobseine, “Under Pressure, Iraqi Activists Plot ‘Third Way.’”
  3. In an interview with a senior member of the Civil Values Alliance in March 2024, the person claimed that the Civil Values Alliance is not just an electoral alliance but is also a political alliance. At the time of writing, the future of the Civil Values Alliance as a political alliance is not totally clear, so I refer to it as an electoral alliance in this report—but it should be noted that this issue is evolving.
  4. Haley Bobseine, “Iraqi Youth Protesters: Who They Are, What They Want, and What’s Next,” The Middle East Institute, October 14, 2019,
  5. Other prominent Tishreen activists continue their activism outside the political system, espousing more radical approaches to change or denouncing the current political system as not conducive to fundamental change. Others were co-opted by dominant political parties. But not all have continued their activism—many were killed, fled the country due to threats, or withdrew from activities due to family, health, work, security, or other concerns. Security remains a top concern for most people publicly critical of the system or working to reform it.

    For more details, see Bobseine, “Under Pressure, Iraqi Activists Plot ‘Third Way.’”

  6. Ibid.
  7. Bobseine, “Iraqi Youth Protesters.”
  8. Emtidad has suffered from internal challenges and did not participate in the 2023 governorate council elections. On the Social Democratic Current, see the Facebook profile of the Social Democratic Current (al-Tiyar al-Ijtima’i al-Demoqrati),
  9. Faleh Abdel Jabbar, “The Iraqi Communist Party,” in Returning to Political Parties?, ed. Myriam Catusse and Karam Karam (Beirut: Presses de l’Ifpo, 2103),
  10. Interview with the author, Baghdad, April 4, 2024.
  11. Various political analysts, interviews with the author, Baghdad and Sulaymaniyah, December 2023–April 2024.
  12. Interview with the author, Baghdad, April 4, 2024.
  13. On change independents: In basic terms, independents are politicians who are not official members of a political party. But in reality, independents in Iraq exist along a broad spectrum and may be classified into three different subcategories, defined loosely as follows: The first group might be described as “partisan independents”—those who have partisan inclinations but are not formally members of a political party. (The extent of their partisanship varies.) The second group might be called “local leader independents,” who lead or have strong ties to local establishment interests, such as tribes, businesses, and religious institutions. The third category might be called “change independents,” who claim to push for democratic reform of the post-2003 political system. Change independents’ numbers are limited in the current Iraqi political context. For more details, see Bobseine, “Iraqi Youth Protesters”; and Bobseine, “Iraq’s Change Politicians Face Difficult Odds.” See also Bobseine, “Under Pressure, Iraqi Activists Plot ‘Third Way.’”
  14. Ideologies range from leftist, liberal, communist, and so on.
  15. Bobseine, “Under Pressure, Iraqi Activists Plot ‘Third Way.’”
  16. Fanar Haddad, “The Waning Relevance of the Sunni–Shia Divide,” The Century Foundation, April 10, 2019,
  17. Bobseine, “Iraq’s Change Politicians Face Difficult Odds.”
  18. See these reports for more details on the 2022 government formation crisis: Haley Bobseine, “Iraq: A Crisis of Elite, Consensus-Based Politics Turns Deadly: The Sadrists,” Middle East Institute, September 15, 2022,; and Haley Bobseine (@haleybobseine), Twitter status update, August 7, 2022,
  19. Iraqi political analyst, interview with the author, Baghdad, March 16, 2024. Despite formally being outside of government, Sadrists still enjoy political, security, and economic power. Sadrists wield influence through governmental positions (as other parties do) such as through the secretary of the Council of Ministers and governmental special-grade positions within ministries, such as director general positions, to influence policies. The Sadrists’ Saraya al-Salam, which is part of the Popular Mobilization Forces, also remains powerful.
  20. Bobseine, “Iraq’s Change Politicians Face Difficult Odds.” See also Ahmed Tabaqchali, “Iraq’s Investment Spending Deficit: An Analysis of Chronic Failures,” American University of Iraq Sulaimani, December 2018,
  21. Ibid.
  22. Others, disparaged by the trajectory of politics, disengaged from protest activism or politics altogether. Others have calculated that the more strategic move is to align with dominant parties favored by the system.
  23. Victoria Stewart-Jolley, “Iraq’s Electoral System,” Chatham House, October 6, 2021,
  24. “Iraqi Parliament Passes Controversial Vote Law Amendments,” Al Jazeera, March 27, 2023,
  25. “Sainte-Laguë Is a Close Vote and a Closer Escalation,” uploaded to the YouTube channel Utv (@Utviraq) on March 5, 2023,
  26. Iraqi political and electoral experts, interviews with the author, Baghdad and Sulaymaniyah, December 2023– April 2024. See also the newsletter Inside Iraq Politics 245, November 2023, which is published by Kirk Sowell at Utica Risk Services: Governorate councils were established under the 2005 Iraqi constitution in part as a check on the expansive powers wielded by the central government during Saddam Hussein’s times. Governorate elections select governorate council members, who in turn have the power to elect and dismiss the governor. Funded by the national budget, the councils perform legislative and monitoring functions but remain dependent on the central government’s set budgeting, for which they may amend projects accordingly.

    See Inside Iraq Politics 23–27 for further information about decentralization and governorate councils; the newsletter is published by Kirk Sowell at Utica Risk Services,

    See also “Is the Decentralisation Process in Iraq being Reversed?,” London School of Economics, Middle East Centre, December 2, 2019,; and 

    “Iraq’s Provincial Elections: The Stakes,” International Crisis Group, January 27, 2009,

  27. Bobseine, “Under Pressure, Iraqi Activists Plot ‘Third Way.’”
  28. Members of the Civil Values Alliance include the Iraqi Communist Party, the Social Democratic Current, National Civil Movement, al-Beit al-Watani (the National Home), Nazil Akith Haqi Democratic Movement, the Enlightenment Movement, the Iraqi Intellectual Movement, the Iraqi Sport Party, the Iraqi Republican Assembly, the Democratic Current, the Kurdistan Communist Party, and independents. The Enlightenment Movement is linked to the al-Watan parliamentary bloc. For more information on some of the parties, see the following X profiles and Facebook pages: al-Beit al-Watani (the National Home, @bwiqorg),; Nazil Akith Haqi Democratic Movement (@naaziliq),;

    Iraqi Intellectual Movement, See this report for more information on the Civil Values Alliance, see “The ‘Civil Values’ Alliance Holds Its First Conference in Baghdad (in Arabic), Asharq Al-Awsat, September 24, 2023,العالم-العربي/المشرق-العربي/4565996-تحالف-«قيم-المدني»-يعقد-مؤتمره-الأول-في-بغداد.

  29. Sajad S. Hussein (@sajadShussein), X profile, See also Mustafa Al-Obaidi, “Head of the ‘Civil Values,’ Alliance, Ali al-Rufaie: Our Coalition Is a National Project for Change in Iraq, and Corruption Has Reached Frightening Level” (in Arabic), Al-Quds Al-Arabi,رئيس-تحالف-قيم-المدني-علي-الرفيعي-تح/.
  30. Emtidad (@emtidadiraq), X profile,
  31. For more information on calls for boycotts ahead of December elections, see Salah Alarbawi (@SalahAlarbawi), X post, November 13, 2023, On opposition coalitions, see “New Electoral Alliances and Opposition Prospects in Iraq’s Elections,” Emirates Policy Center, December 11, 2023,
  32. Interview with the author by phone, January 2024.
  33. “The Dialectic of Participation Rate: Is 28% the Closest to Accuracy in the Provincial Council Elections?” (in Arabic), December 19, 2023,جدلية-نسبة-المشاركة-هل-النسبة-28-هي-الأقرب-للدقة-في-انتخابات-مجالس-المحافظات؟.
  34. See the Independent High Electoral Commission for detailed election results: “The Final Results of the Irregular Governorate Council Elections in the 2023 Region Approved by the Board of Commissioners” (in Arabic), Independent High Electoral Commission,
  35. Salam Jabbar, Facebook profile, After winning his seat, Salam Jabbar from Dhi Qar left the Civil Values Alliance and joined former Dhi Qar governor and current governorate council member Mohammad Hadi’s Makana bloc in the governorate council.
  36. See Inside Iraqi Politics 247, Utica Risk Services. Iraqi electoral expert, interview with the author by phone, January 2024.
  37. Nadhim Shibli, Facebook profile,; Tariq al-Barqaawi, Facebook profile,; Ahmad Sakr al-Badiri, Facebook profile,; Anwar al-Ziyadi, Facebook profile, One of Ziyadi’s election posters shows her alongside al-Watan Bloc member of parliament Nathim al-Shabli:
  38. Al-Barqaawi enjoys a wide network within the education field. Al-Badiri is a lawyer with connections to community leaders and claims to have defended protesters with local demands related to work and living conditions. Al-Badiri previously ran as a candidate on former Najaf governor Adnan Zurfi’s Fidelity list in 2021 but failed to win a seat. Al-Ziyadi enjoyed support for her candidacy through her educational work and tribal network.
  39. It is important to note that, following the suspension of the governorate councils, the Federal Supreme Court ruled to transfer the institutional power of governorate councils to the House of Representatives, so members of parliament working at the governorate level should also be understood from this context.
  40. Interview with the author by phone, January 2024. See also the X profile of Noor Nafea (@NoorNafeaAli),
  41. For details of the tensions in Qadisiyah and elsewhere between the Civil Values Alliance in other governorates, see “Alliances Distract the October Compass: ‘On the Fourth Hand,’ with Mona Sami” (in Arabic), published to YouTube on September 12, 2023 by Al Rabiaa TV (@alrabiaatv),
  42. Interview with the author by phone, January 2024. See also the X profile of Mohammed al-Sheikh (Amojammedalshee6),
  43. See the Facebook profile of Fao Zakho,

    Member of parliament Ammar Abdul Jabbar Ismael was briefly part of the State of Law Coalition in 2010. He also ran as a candidate in the 2023 governorate council elections, ostensibly just to drive votes to his party’s list in Baghdad and not to leave his position as a member of parliament, but he didn’t win.

  44. Bobseine, “Iraq’s Change Politicians Face Difficult Odds.”
  45. Interview with the author by phone, January 2024. See also the X profile of Muhammad al-Mansuri (@MAlmansuri),; and his Facebook profile,

    In an interview, Mansouri described himself as a “revolutionary” from southern Babil governorate who participated in protests and who sought to use his notoriety to enter politics to improve the situation in Babil. Mansouri was frequently shown in the media participating in protests alongside Durgham Majid, a prominent Central Committee for Demonstrations protester from Hilla. See “Political Blocs Reject the New Governor of Babil and Call for Demonstrations (Video Clips)” (in Arabic), Shafaq News, February 6, 2024,سیاسة/كتل-سياسية-ترفض-محافظ-بابل-الجديد-وتدعو-لتظاهرات.

  46. Ishraqat Kanoun, Linktree profile,
  47. Iraqi political and election experts, interviews with the author, Baghdad, June 2023 and December 2023.
  48. Iraqi electoral expert, interview with the author by phone, January 2024.
  49. Iraqi political analyst, interview with the author, Baghdad, March 2024.
  50. Ishraqat Kanoun increased its total votes from 100,000 during the 2021 parliamentary elections to approximately 130,000 votes in the governorate council elections. While it benefited from having members of parliament to win governorate council seats, this was not true everywhere in Karbala, despite having three members of parliament, it didn’t win a governorate seat, whereas in Dhi Qar it has no members of parliament, but won one governorate seat.
  51. Iraqi politician, interview with the author by phone, January 2024. See also Bobseine, “Iraq’s Change Politicians Face Difficult Odds.”
  52. Iraq politics expert, interview with the author by phone, January 2024.
  53. Iraqi electoral campaign expert, interview with the author, Baghdad, July 2023.
  54. Change politician, interview with the author, Baghdad, June 2023.
  55. Change politician, interview with the author, Baghdad, November 2023.
  56. International expert on Iraqi politics, interview with the author by phone, June 2023.
  57. Another difficulty in motivating nonvoters is that, for one reason or another, many are not properly registered. “Thirty percent of . . . otherwise eligible voters did not obtain biometric cards, so were not able to vote,” said a member of a change political party who helped to manage its electoral campaign program. Iraqi change politician, interview with the author by phone, January 2024.
  58. Iraqi change politician, interview with the author, Baghdad, July 2023.
  59. Bobseine, “Under Pressure, Iraqi Activists Plot ‘Third Way.’”
  60. Interview with the author, Basra, July 2023.
  61. Iraqi analyst, interview with the author, Baghdad, June 2023. See also Hayder Al-Shakeri and Alfadhel Ahmad, “The Evolution of Repression in Iraq: The Shiite Coordination Framework’s Bid to Maintain Power,” London School of Economics, December 12, 2023,
  62. Bobseine, “Iraq’s Change Politicians Face Difficult Odds.”
  63. Iraqi political analyst, interview with the author, Sulaymaniyah, April 18, 2024.