Youth in Iraq protest hub vow to boycott 'rigged' polls

Iraqi youths chat at a coffee and tea shop in the southern city of Nasiriyah, Iraq, on Sept 1, 2021. PHOTO: AFP

NASIRIYAH, IRAQ (AFP) - Iraq will hold early elections on Sunday (Oct 10) as a concession to a youth-led protest movement, but in Nasiriyah, the city at the heart of the revolt, most young people won't vote.

Ahead of the parliamentary polls, the mood in Nasiriyah and much of Iraq is sombre with little hope the election will bring much-needed change to the war-scarred country.

"Elections in Iraq are rigged," said 21-year-old Anas, echoing a common sentiment among young adults in the impoverished southern city. "They are corrupted by arms and money, and I can't be made to vote with a gun to my head."

Mr Anas, who declined to give his full name, is an economics graduate but, like 40 per cent of Iraqi youths, he is unemployed.

In October 2019, anti-government protests erupted in Baghdad and cities in the mainly Shiite south like Nasiriyah against corruption, unemployment, poor public services and neighbouring Iran's influence over Iraq. Two years on, the protests have died down across much of the country. But in Nasiriyah, simmering public anger is still palpable.

From time to time, young demonstrators still take to the streets, which are filled with posters of "martyrs" killed in clashes with security forces.

Mr Anas said the protests changed his life and opened his eyes to the problems facing his country.

"Before, I was a normal person who went to university. I studied or texted my girlfriend," he said. "But after the October revolution, I felt I had a responsibility to assume, a place to fill within society, and that my voice was being heard."

Nearly 600 people died across Iraq and tens of thousands were wounded in violence related to the protests. More activists have been murdered since, kidnapped or intimidated, but there has been no accountability.

Activists have blamed pro-Iran armed groups, part of the Hashed al-Shaabi paramilitary coalition that helped defeat the Islamic State extremist group.

Aside from insecurity, Iraq is grappling with an economic crisis exacerbated by diminished oil revenues and the coronavirus pandemic, as well as infrastructure dilapidated by decades of conflict and neglect.

Nasiriyah reflects it all: poverty is rampant, there are severe power and water cuts, and investment in infrastructure is sorely lacking.

The country is emerging from almost two decades of war and insurgency since the 2003 United States-led invasion that toppled dictator Saddam Hussein. But promises of a new beginning for the oil-rich country have remained elusive, with many blaming corrupt politicians for Iraq's ills.

Mr Haider Jaafar, 23, said that two years ago, he thought elections "were the only means to change things".

Like Mr Anas and other young graduates in Nasiriyah, he is now disillusioned. "How can we hold polls when the country is awash with weapons... when political parties wield a lot of influence and control big money?" he asked.

With so much anger bubbling, candidates hoping to be elected to the 329-seat Parliament have kept a low profile in Nasiriyah.

Instead of canvassing the streets of the city of half a million inhabitants, they have taken their campaign to social media. The few who put up campaign posters in Nasiriyah have had them torn down.

"It's difficult for a candidate to campaign in Nasiriyah, especially after October (2019) and the massacres that took place," said Mr Jaafar. "Some people believe that every candidate is linked to the death of a friend."

Mr Jaafar said that some of the 85 demonstrators killed on a single day in November 2019 in clashes with security forces were friends of his. "At our age, we should not see friends die, lie in a pool of blood," he said.

The government had vowed to bring those responsible for the deaths to justice "but nothing has happened", said Mr Jafaar.

On a cautiously optimistic note, Mr Muntazer, a medical student, said independent candidates with no links to traditional political parties could make a difference.

"If one or even 10 independents win seats in the election, they could exert pressure (in Parliament) and form the nucleus of a real opposition," he said.

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