We boycotted the [Iraqi] elections [of May 2018] with a very active campaign. Now many political parties and candidates in particular those who did no won seats complain that there was corruption.
The Prime Minister says that the vote count was so corrupt that all the votes need to be recounted.
It has been agreed that votes need to be recounted. A new commission formed by nine judges took the responsibility for the recounting, instead of the election commission. Then a storage site housing half of Baghdad’s ballot boxes caught fire, and the government said they had arrested those behind it.
Again, in Kirkuk city, a suicide car bomb went off near a storage site housing ballot boxes two days before a manual recount was due to begin.
The old parliament has ended its term, but a new parliament has not been elected. It is a chaotic situation.
Opposing political Islam is a big issue. Supporting economic and social demands is a big issue, like the right to electricity, especially in July when it gets very hot.
All these things build towards our strategic aim: getting people organised to end the current political system.
Solidarity: What are the conditions of everyday life like in Baghdad now?
Nadia: Now there is the crisis with Turkey, the percentage of water that comes to Iraq has fallen. Electricity we still have on and off. The electricity supply is much better than it was ten years ago, or even three years ago, but we still have power cuts. Even in some areas of privatised electricity supply, there isn’t 24-hour electricity.
S: What about schools and hospitals?
Nadia: Conditions are horrible. No improvement. Families teach their kids because kids can’t learn in schools, unless the parents can afford private schools. Even when the government puts money into schools, the corruption is so high and so widespread, that the schools do not really get built.
Hospitals suffer from lack of medicines and equipment… People go to private hospitals, they don’t rely on government hospitals. Public hospitals are not clean, they lack everything.
Even in periods like 2011-2013, when the oil price was quite high, no-one benefits here. It goes to people in government, in power, people who have access to money.
Unemployment is very high, especially among young people. In general there is no recruitment to the public sector, in line with World Bank and IMF policies. They want people to go and work in the private sector, and we don’t have a strong private sector in Iraq.
When there are any jobs in the public sector, they are allocated by political parties to win the loyalty of the people they recruit.
The majority work in the informal private sector. Some young people find no solution but to go into the militias. The percentage of unemployed women is very high.
The unemployment level is increasing for two reasons: a) because there is very limited scope for state employment (the main two sectors are health and internal security, and b) the private sector is not active or dominant in Iraq. Thus the job opportunities are very limited.
Every year there are more people graduating from universities without jobs. Although there is a lack of accurate statistics, surveys show that in 2017, about 56 percent of young females were unemployed, compared to 29 percent for young males.
In the informal sector, people work in services, in restaurants, in construction, as market traders. Their number is more than four million, and they constitute 53% of the total number of workers, 55% of the total number of male workers and 48% of female workers.
Although the workers and state employed organised many sit ins and strikes, the unions in general are weak. This an be attributed to a number of reasons.
The trade unions are not allowed to work in the public sector in line with law number 52 issued in 1987. That law issued by the Saddam Hussain regime remains untouched.
Trade unions have few roots in the working class. They have become bureaucratic and isolated. They care about their relationships with the outside world, their invitations to workshops, their payments for travel. They look as if they are more accountable to international organisations than to Iraqi workers.
They compete with each other, and sometimes they mushroom and split from each other. We have about six trade union federations. They have come together under a new network called a “Conference of the Iraqi Unions and Trade Unions”, but still there is competition between them and other trade unions such as those linked to the government.
The government wants to introduce a new law in line with international norms regarding freedom of forming trade unions and their operation in the public sector. This is under discussion now between the government and trade unions.
They will observe whether or not a union has members within a given company. If they do have members and they can prove that, the government will register the union formally. We have to wait and see the first draft of this new law.
One change that has taken place is the social insurance law. This allows for workers in the private sector to be insured. Previously only public sector workers had the right to have social insurance.
The achievements of the trade unions seems to be their ability to shape some new laws regarding social insurance, and so on. They appear active on things to do with government and laws, but their role and impact on the daily lives and demands of the workers looks very limited.
S: The election result, according to European experts, was unexpected, with the high vote for the coalition of the Sadr movement and the Communist Party. What is your assessment?
Nadia: The turnout for the election was very low. The Sadr movement and the Communist Party, as parties that rely on their membership, mobilised their membership. Other parties do not have such influence, and neither do the other mainstream parties.
People are upset with Abadi and his allies, saying that they haven’t provided security or electricity or jobs. Al-Sadr is trying to position himself as a representative of the opposition.
Al-Sistani [the foremost ayatollah of Iraq’s Shias] spoke in a way that would encourage people who follow him not to vote for the incumbents. But Sadr has had ministers, too. So he is not really new.
S: I don’t see a good case for boycotting these elections. Often in history, especially in the 19th century, socialist parties built themselves by contesting elections, even though these elections were extremely undemocratic.
Nadia: We don’t see our boycott of the election as a passive action. We wanted an active boycott to spread the word, expose the ruling parties, and demand a different system. We used every method to expose them. We acted in order to make our voice heard.
The election was not just undemocratic. It was corrupt, violent, full of bribes. People bought ballot boxes. There were no normal conditions for elections. As we have seen later on the site of ballot boxes were burned ones the government decided to recount the votes.
S: What are the conditions for open political activity? I hear that Mutanabbi Street, the central bookselling street of Baghdad, has been rebuilt after being bombed in 2007. Is it still lively, offering books and pamphlets?
Nadia: Yes. And not only Baghdad. The culture of Mutanabbi Street has started to spread to other towns as well, like Basra, where they have a similar street, and Nasiriya. There is space for open political activities.
But also there are activists who have been kidnapped, with their whereabouts unknown. Faraj al-Badri, Jalal Al-Shehmani, and others were kidnapped and released through the intervention of the government itself, as it appears those who kidnapped them were known to the government.
It has been repeatedly said the militias now kidnap the activists, not the government. Yet these militias and their political parties are parts of the government itself.
There is still terrorism. An activist was kidnapped in Nasiriya because he called publicly for a boycott of the elections. We know who did it: an Iran-backed militia.
S: The Shia-Sunni sectarian conflict: is it sharpening or weakening?
Nadia: The Shia political parties, seeing how people are upset and angry at them, have started to change their names. For example, Amar al-Hakim used to lead the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq. Now he has established a new party called the Wisdom Party or al-Hikmah.
On the Sunni side, the speaker of the Iraqi Parliament split from the Muslim Brotherhood and set up a new Civil Reform Party.
These parties have changed their religious names to civil ones, but not their affiliations. People are so upset with religious parties that they want to appear as civil parties. Now everyone speaks against sectarianism, against corruption — they say, “we are all Iraqis, there is no difference between Sunni and Shia”, and so on. People can’t use the same discourse they used before 2010.
But when Maliki speaks about the “political majority” and needing a government of the “political majority”, he means Shia. And apart from sectarianism, what do the parties represent? Not Arab nationalism: they have no ideology or identity. The Kurdish party, it’s clear, it’s about their Kurdish nationality. So although they denounce their previous discourse, in fact they act in line with the same sectarian and nationalist base.
S: Has segregation in Baghdad eased?
Nadia: It might not be like sectarian conflict in 2006, but still there are Shia groups who claim control of some areas in Baghdad. The al-Sadr trend controls Sadr city. Recently Hezbollah in Iraq claimed to control Palestine Street in Baghdad and their militia has clashed with other government militia groups.
The conflict is still there... but it’s different now.