The protests that swept through central and southern cities in Iraq between 2018 and 2020 reflect the growing popular anger and gap between society and the political parties established in the country or who returned from exile after 2003, based on the Muhasasa Taʾifia (sectarian apportionment) system. This system led to the rise of parties of one sectarian form, which rely on societal division to win over electoral votes. The number of parties and movements was excessive compared with the little influence ideologies had over them as they failed to determine agendas for a post-war Iraq, and disputes intensified around state structure and laws, including the Parties Law.

The development of the Parties Law since 2005 and the controversy it aroused show the desperate efforts that large parties put into evading any law that could regulate their work, or the attempts to ratify laws in congruence with their agendas. Following the widespread 2015 Iraqi demonstrations, the Iraqi Parliament ratified the Political Parties Law in August that year. Discussions about the law revealed negligence of internal party regulatory matters and a focus on other questions such as party external relations and funding, namely, the guiding logic to drafting the Law was essentially to allow parties to run in the elections, regardless of their internal regulations or political role in society.

Furthermore, there have been serious violations of the Law, especially, given the Electoral Commission’s disregard for the parties that owned militias, granting permits to existing militias to form political parties, the use of official institutions and public money to lure voters, including through providing accelerated services and purchasing voters with predetermined sums of money per vote, and failure to monitor parties for their funding sources.

Many Iraqi parties are founded on an individual dictatorship that subjects all members to their leader or to the family in control of the party and its decision-making, or combines both forms. Moreover, many parties have no real members that believe in them nor do they necessarily subscribe to their principles. Naturally, this does not apply to all parties, but many of them are still involved in this game, except for the major parties that place strict and bureaucratic conditions on membership, especially the Communist Party and al-Da’awa Party. In addition to lacking a real social base, the gap between those parties and society is reflected in party-organised demonstrations and celebrations, as they lure citizens to attend their events through providing meals, and often through handing out small sums of money that ensured attendance.

Parties, specifically larger ones, have penetrated deep into the state at both financial and legal levels. Whether among themselves, or in connection to society, Iraqi parties have dominated the political, supposedly democratic, process. Political money is used in party-to-party relations and internal party relations; to pass a law, appoint a minister or select an official in the interest of a certain party in parliament, members of parliament are bribed to ensure enough votes are garnered to that effect. Parties intervene in almost any money-generating dimension. They have footprints in all big corruption cases. Often, revenues generated from corruption deals go into party leadership and collaborating member pockets but are also used to carry favour with the more impoverished communities for their votes during election campaigns.

Loopholes in party laws, and mainly the failure to implement these laws, resulted in undemocratic practices within the parties themselves and in large-scale violations that affected the established political system and created a gap between the political powers and society. Internal party crises and party actions directly affect the political system and society at large. Thus, the party crisis exceeded the thorny and hostile relationship between the Iraqi population and their parties and developed to a point where people equated parties with the political system itself. As such, the only possible solution to fix matters in Iraq translated into demands to overthrow the regime and, consequently, the exclusion of those parties from political life.

Despite the domination of ‘undemocratic’ parties over the political arena, there have always been new parties that sought to birth political influence out of the protests Iraq is currently experiencing. Nevertheless, their organisation and effect remain limited in the larger political map, as they lack political experience and financial resources. However, the October 2019 protests, highly critical of the parties in power, revealed political organisations that seemed aware of the need for internal organisation, democracy, and decision-making processes within the party, as well as working with society to establish a meaningful relationship with the people. Still, the decision to engage in electoral competition has yet to be made; not only do these parties fear forgery, but also the violence that may be used against them through armed factions affiliated with certain parties, or the armed factions that now have their own parties. In fact, a number of these new party members were subjected to assassination attempts and violent threats.