Civil Society Partners Lead Nationwide Campaign to Reinstate Iraqi Provincial Councils

  • Ahmed Ali Majeed, Mohammed Thamer

Following decades of authoritarian rule, Iraq is striving to build resilient democratic institutions. Prior to 2003, Iraq’s civic space was stifled with independent CSOs prevented from operating freely or collaborating with each other. In recent years, however, CSOs have played a vital role in assisting both government and citizens to navigate crises, including the massive internal displacement during the ISIS invasion from 2013 to 2017 and the challenges posed by the COVID-19 pandemic in 2019-2020. While these efforts were invaluable in addressing short-term emergencies, Iraqi CSOs still suffer from the legacy of authoritarian rule. Over the last two decades, for example, there have been few CSO-led initiatives focused on long-term democratic consolidation, particularly those that include broader CSO networks advocating for the same issues.  

IRI Iraq has been providing technical and financial support to a group of CSOs, all of which are working to strengthen democratic and governance processes in Iraq, to launch an advocacy campaign across 15 provinces. This campaign was the first of its kind in Iraq as is brought together CSOs across Iraq to collaborate on a one-year, nationwide advocacy campaign aimed at reinstating Iraq’s local government representatives (provincial councils) through free and fair elections, a key step to rebuilding citizen trust in democratic institutions. 

IRI hosts workshop for Iraqi civil society members to discuss provincial council election law reform.

Over the course of three terms, beginning in 2005 when the Provincial Councils were first established, these councils have been widely perceived as ineffective, an additional and extraneous layer in the political process, and plagued by corruption. This negative image was mirrored in the state of services and development in the provinces, despite the significant government funds allocated to them. Growing citizen discontent reached its peak during the 2019 uprising, as Iraqis flooded the streets to voice their demands and call for the removal of provincial councils.  

When functioning effectively, Provincial Councils are an essential part of Iraq’s constitutional framework and have the potential to play a vital role in advancing democracy in Iraq. They empower citizens to choose local representatives who can address their province’s needs, fostering greater political participation and strengthening Iraq’s democratic governance. Recognizing this, IRI worked closely with its network of CSO partners to design and launch a research study aimed at measuring key stakeholder perceptions of Iraq’s Provincial Council. The proximity of the Provincial Councils to the people makes this campaign crucial for enforcing and strengthening accountability efforts. During a six-month research phase, the CSO consortium held nearly 90 roundtable and focus group discussions (FGDs) with 957 participants across 15 provinces. The roundtables and FGDs were complemented by a nationwide 2,037-respondent citizen perception survey. The CSOs leveraged the data obtained through these efforts to develop ten key policy recommendations for Provincial Council reform. 

To gain stakeholder support for the campaign’s policy recommendations, the CSOs held over 100 outreach events across Iraq between November 2022 and March 2023, including events and conferences with legislative and executive authorities, dialogue sessions, and mass mobilization workshops with community leaders. Several civic-minded political parties chose to incorporate the campaign’s policy recommendations into their political platforms with their representatives in Iraq’s parliament advocating for the adoption of the recommendations. The CSOs’ advocacy efforts also garnered national and local media attention and the CSOs produced a series of short social media videos to further bolster the campaign’s reach.  

The CSO consortium worked directly with policymakers to draft legislation based on their research, and policymakers included recommendations in the amended Provincial Council Elections Law which was passed by Iraq’s parliament in March 2023. Notably, the amended law stipulates that voters register using long-term biometric cards to reduce election fraud and guarantees that initial election results are announced within a reasonable time period of polls closing, both of which were key recommendations from the CSO-led advocacy campaigns. 

This campaign is the first of its kind in that CSOs across Iraq leveraged a relatively open civic space to work together to influence policymaking at the national level. At the conclusion of the campaign, the CSOs had successfully formed a wider advocacy network of 285 CSOs, federations, media institutions, and legislative and executive authorities across Iraq, demonstrating the power that a coordinated, grassroots civil society movement can have in encouraging democratic reform. Iraqis will now head to the polls on December 18, 2023, and make their voices heard once again, but through the ballot box. The success of this civil society-led campaign in pushing forward citizen responsive legislation highlights how invaluable civil society advocacy networks in Iraq can be in building momentum for change.  

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