Iraq Gets A Modern Political System: Low Turnout, Surging Populism, Potential Chaos

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by John Rubino

Remember when Iraqis were first able to vote in national elections back in the 2000s, and huge numbers braved terrorist threats to go to the polls and celebrated afterwards? Their enthusiasm contrasted sharply with US elections where turnout was low and the voters that did show up tended towards ambivalence.

But fast forward a decade and Iraqis seem to have figured out that in the modern world of hyper-indebtedness and overpopulation no politician can keep their promises and life might therefore not get better after all. So why bother voting – and if you do vote why not swing for the fences with out-of-the mainstream candidates willing to take on the establishment? From today’s Wall Street Journal:

Firebrand Cleric Moqtada al-Sadr Gains in Iraqi Elections

MOSUL, Iraq—Iraqi voters appeared to deal a blow to Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi in this weekend’s election, giving surprisingly strong support to an unlikely coalition of communists and followers of populist cleric Moqtada al-Sadr in partial preliminary results.

Mr. Sadr, a firebrand whose militias once fought openly with U.S. forces and were implicated in sectarian bloodshed, has since entered the political mainstream. His new alliance with Iraq’s communists did well in a contest in which many Iraqis stayed home and those who did vote said they wanted to shake up a political status quo known for corruption and bad governance.

With preliminary results counted in 10 of Iraq’s 18 provinces, Mr. Sadr’s coalition came in first in four of them, including the country’s most populous city, Baghdad, and was near the top in all of them, according to preliminary results.

Mr. Abadi’s coalition didn’t come first in any of the provinces for which results were released, suggesting his chances of re-election may be slim even after his government led the country to victory over Islamic State last year. Neither Mr. Abadi’s coalition, seen as being implicitly supported by the U.S., nor Iran-backed groups were as successful as Mr. Sadr.

What does this mean for Iraq? Probably the same thing recent elections mean for Italy, where a coalition of left and right-wing populists just formed a government with – to put it mildly – unpredictable consequences. Or for the US where a populist government is tearing up treaties and throwing allies into confusion (see US threatens European companies with sanctions after Iran deal pull-out). Or for that matter Argentina, where an ostensibly rock-solid business friendly government has failed to stabilize the financial system and is now begging the IMF for help to avert a currency collapse.

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Political/financial turmoil is simply the new normal in a world where debt has been allowed to explode, leaving only unpalatable choices. Picture a family that has maxed out a series of credit cards, car loans, student loans and mortgages to the point that interest eats the income that used to go to gasoline, food, and private school tuition for the kids. Then imagine the dinner table conversation as everyone gets the news that their necessities are being cut to cover the costs of the parents’ previous bad decisions.

Now expand that emotional atmosphere to entire countries and you have modern political life.

This wasn’t inevitable. It’s the more-or-less direct result of the US decision to break the final link between the dollar – and by implication all the world’s major currencies — and gold in 1971. A society with a currency on this trajectory is absolutely guaranteed to descend into chaos eventually.

dollar purchasing power Iraq


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