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Iraq’s protest movement seeks to find voice in the parliament

AL-NASRIYAH: Alaa Al-Rikabi, Secretary-General of the Imtidad (Extension) Party which emerged from Iraq’s October 2019 protest movement, gives an interview at his home in Nasiriyah in the southern Dhi Qar province. – AFP

NASIRIYAH: For the first time in Iraq, a new breed of representatives is entering parliament, born from a civil society movement fed up with the corruption that has long tarnished politics. Among the newcomers is pharmacist Alaa Al-Rikabi, 47, whose party Imtidad (Extension) emerged in the aftermath of the October 2019 protest movement against the entrenched political elite. Imtidad positions itself as the “opposition” to governments that have emerged through an informal ethno-sectarian quota system that has been in place since the US-led invasion of 2003, Rikabi told AFP.

Despite campaigning with extremely limited finances, the party secured nine of the 329 seats in the Iraqi Council of Representatives in the October 10 election, according to preliminary results. “I’m aware that our size in parliament will not allow us a lot of leeway” to push a political agenda, Ribaki said, stressing that his party instead aims to perform a watchdog role.

“We will not participate in any government set up on the basis of quotas, so that we will be able to hold leaders to account,” Rikabi said in his home in Nasiriyah, a flashpoint of protests in Iraq’s mainly Shiite south. Overall, big political blocs retained their dominance in the election, which was marked by a record abstention rate. The biggest winner was the Sadrist movement, led by firebrand Shiite cleric Moqtada Sadr. It took 70 seats, according to the results that are expected to be finalized within a few weeks.

Search for allies
Behind the scenes, there have been discussions over the formation of blocs to create a parliamentary majority that would distribute the upcoming cabinet posts. But it is specifically against this system that the protest movement, and by extension Imtidad, was forged. Imtidad is seeking its own alternative alliance to make its presence felt.

With only nine seats, the party “will not be able to extend its influence in parliament”, said Saleh al-Alawi, a judge and a political scientist. Rikabi pointed out that, “according to the constitution, we need at least 25 MPs to be able to question a minister”. To this end, he said, “we are trying to come to an understanding” to team up with other parties. In particular, Imtidad has been in talks with a small Kurdish party, the New Generation Movement, which has similar leanings and also holds nine seats.

Protest movement
The unprecedented protest movement that broke out two years ago railed against the political class running the oil-rich but poverty-stricken country where youth unemployment is soaring. The streets of Nasiriyah still bear witness to the anger, and posters of the “martyrs” adorn the walls, honoring many of the hundreds of activists who paid with their lives.

Factions of the Hashed Al-Shaabi-a paramilitary group integrated into the armed forces and represented by the pro-Iran Fatah (Conquest) Alliance in parliament-have faced accusations of targeting activists. Hussein Ali, 28, said he has been in a wheelchair for two years since being shot in the back during a demonstration. “I voted for Imtidad because I hope they can fight for the rights of the demonstrators,” he said. “Ever since I was injured, I haven’t received any compensation from the government.”

Changing ‘stereotypes’
Unlike many established Iraqi politicians, newcomers like Rikabi have little money and had to run low-cost campaigns. Imtidad spent four million dinars (about $2,700) for posters and events in the province of Dhi Qar, of which Nasiriyah is the capital-a fraction of the tens of millions often spent by larger parties. In a bid to break with what he calls the “stereotype of the representative,” who is out of touch with voters and with reality, Rikabi drives his own car and does not have an office.

Others have been even more frugal, such as Mohammed al-Anouz, who came to be known on social media for putting up his own campaign posters in the Shiite shrine city of Najaf. For him, opposition is the only option, he said. “The big parties have contacted me to find out my position,” he said. “I will not form an alliance with the parties that have led the country in past years. “It is they who got us into this situation where there are no public services and corruption reigns.” – AFP

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