Last update: 7 months ago

From 1979 until 2003 Saddam Hussein and the Baath Party ruled Iraq. It was a secular, but Sunni-dominated regime. In 2003 Saddam Hussein was overthrown when the US-led coalition invaded the country. Hussein was executed in 2006. When in April of 2014 parliamentary elections were held in Iraq, Haydar al-Abadi became the new Prime Minister and formed a government. One of the new government’s main aims was to re-establish security in the country. However, subsequent governments were unable to do so. In 2014 and 2015 Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) took control over large parts of Iraq. 

In the aftermath of the ISIS conflict, parliamentary elections were surprisingly won by the Shia cleric Sadr and his reform coalition. Adil Abdul-Mahdi was installed as Prime Minister and shortly after Barham Salih was appointed as President. In October of 2019, protests erupted in the capital with many other cities soon following suit. The protest movement was calling for a complete overhaul of the Shiite-dominated regime and demanded sovereignty, independence and clean government. Protesters pointed to endemic corruption and accused the political elite of putting the country’s oil wealth in their own pockets. It was brutally repressed, with 500 protesters being killed and almost 20.000 left injured.

After months of protests, Prime Minister Adil Abdul-Mahdi handed in his resignation. This happened after 40 demonstrators were killed by security forces on a single day. His government maintained its position as a caretaker government. In May of 2020, shortly after the country was struck by the COVID-19 pandemic, Mustafa Al-Kadhimi was installed as the country’s new prime minister. Protesters were glad to see Abdul-Mahdi resign, but are not satisfied yet. They have been ongoing, which is not unsurprising given the dire state of the country’s economy. In July of 2020, Al-Kadhimi announced that early elections will take place in June 2021, which have since then been rescheduled to October 10.

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Map of Iraq

Short facts

38,433,600 million (World Bank 2018 est.)
Governmental Type:
Islamic Democratic Federal Republic
Ruling Coalition:
Alliance Towards Reforms, Victory Alliance, National Coalition, Wisdom, Mutahidun
Last Elections:
May 2018 (parliamentary elections)
Next Elections:
10 October 2021 (early parliamentary elections)
Sister Parties:
Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK)
Image of Barham Salih

Barham Salih


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Image of Mustafa al-Kadhimi

Mustafa al-Kadhimi

Prime Minister

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Political Situation

Iraq gained independence in 1932, after being a League of Nations mandate under British administration since 1920. The coup d’état in 1958 led to an end of the monarchy and a republic was established. From 1979 to 2003 the country was ruled by President Saddam Hussein. Until 2003 Iraq remained a de facto Arab nationalist and socialist one-party state. In 2003 the government of Saddam Hussein was overthrown by the US-led invasion. The United States claimed they invaded the country because of the presence of weapons of mass destruction, such as chemical and biological weapons, and secondly to introduce democracy. However, these weapons of destruction were never found. 

Saddam Hussein was captured by American forces in December 2003, and executed by an Iraqi military court in 2006. His party, the Baath Party, was dissolved. Many Baathists, such as the former army and intelligence officers, later joined IS and have reportedly played a significant part in its rise. Elections were held in 2005 and 2010, while the country seemed to have become more stable. This image quickly changed with the emergence of the Islamic State of Iraq (ISI), a Sunni Arab rebellious group that was formed following a merger of different Iraqi insurgent groups.

In 2013 the ISI started expanding rapidly to parts outside Iraq. The group adopted the name of Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) in 2013 and proclaimed itself an Islamic State (IS) in January 2014. The militant group has spread over central and northern Iraq and Syria, leaving a trail of death and destruction. In response to this threat, a US-led coalition of regional and Western powers started a campaign of airstrikes in 2014. ISIS was defeated over several years. Leaving a country devastated behind. Iraq is plagued by sectarian violence, corruption and political infight. The 2018 elections yielded surprising results, but the Abdul-Madhi government had been unable to gain the trust of Iraq’s citizens. 

Ongoing 2019 protests
Mass demonstrations erupted in Baghdad on the 1st of October and rapidly spread to every major city in Southern Iraq. Dominated by young people (almost 3 in 5 Iraqi’s are under 25) the protesters are overwhelmingly Shiites. But since the beginning, these protesters have called for a complete overhaul of the Shiite-dominated regime that has ruled the country since the fall of Saddam Hussein, charging it with being corrupt, incompetent, and fatally infected by sectarianism, Islamism and Iranian penetration. The demands of the protest movement were also clear: sovereignty, independence and clean government.

Instead of starting a conversation with the protest movement and initiating reform, the government almost immediately chose the path of brutal repression. Since then, hundreds of people have been killed, abducted, tortured or disappeared. Around 20,000 have been injured. Iraq’s political elite has been mostly silent about the suppression of the protesters. Few spoke out and joined. However, in December of 2019 the mounting pressure caused Abdul-Mahdi to resign. When the COVID-19 pandemic hit Iraq in March of 2020, protests were temporarily interrupted, but have grown in size in recent times again. 

In an effort to calm those taking to the streets, newly appointed Prime Minister Al-Kadhimi announced early elections, which will take place on October 10, 2021. They were rescheduled because Iraq’s Independent High Election Commission (IHEC) needed more time to organise the polls. People have continued to take to the streets since then, demanding the entire political system to be dismantled. The unrest is unsurprising, considering the dire state of Iraq’s economy. Iraq is heavily dependent on its oil exports, which make up 90-95% of the state’s income. The combination of a sharp drop in oil prices and COVID-19 restrictions has proven lethal for its population. 

In 1974, the Kurdistan region in Northern Iraq was granted limited autonomy by the Iraqi government. However, Iraq continuously tried to get control of the area by military interventions up until 1991, after which a no-fly zone was established above the area in 1991. One year later, the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) was formed by the Kurdistan National Assembly. Iraqi Kurdistan consists of the governorates of Erbil, Sulaymaniyah, Duhok and Halabja. A period of fragile peace started after the no-fly zone was introduced. The Kurdish people started to rebuild their society creating a parliamentary democracy. 

The main political parties – the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) and the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) worked together during the 1990s. However, power-sharing arrangements between the two failed, erupting into a civil war from 1994 to 1997. The election in 1996 resulted in the creation of two separate Kurdish states: one state-based in Sulaymaniyah controlled by the PUK, while the other state-based in Erbil and controlled by the KDP. In 2005, Iraq officially recognized the autonomous Kurdistan Region by a referendum. The two administrations were unified into one government and the Kurdish parliament established the Kurdistan Region Presidency (KRP) as an institution. 

Masoud Barzani was elected as the first President of Iraqi Kurdistan in January 2005 and was re-elected in 2009. Kurdistan suffered from the ISIS advancement in Northern Iraq from 2014 onwards. Barzani’s term was prolonged during the war. The Peshmerga proved to be an effective force against the rapid advance of ISIS. The Kurdish government reconquered lost territory and even consolidated non-Kurdish territory in Iraq. In the political and military vacuum that existed in Northern Iraq in the aftermath of the ISIS conflict, Barzani called for an independence referendum, causing major international upheaval. 

Although the central government in Baghdad didn’t acknowledge the legitimacy of the referendum, the Kurdish government went ahead with a vote in September 2017. An overwhelming majority of 92.73% voted for independence. However, Barzani was hesitant to declare Kurdistan independent. No country supported the referendum. In the meantime, Bagdad started a military offensive to reclaim the non-Kurdish territory in Northern Iraq. Barzani eventually resigned as president, leaving the independence movement without a direction and the region without a president until regional elections in late 2018. Nechirvan Barzani has assumed office as president in June of 2019.

Women’s rights
The Iraq war and expansion of ISIS have had a negative impact on the lives of women in Iraq. Many women have become widowed, due to a series of wars and internal conflicts. Especially in the conflict zones, there has been an increase in the oppression of women. The 1970 adopted Iraqi constitution gave women equality and liberty, but since the US-invasion and civil war Iraq has backslidden on women’s rights. The in 2005 adopted consitution states that Islam is the core source of legislation, not contributing to women’s rights. Several components of Iraq’s family law are discriminatory towards women, especially when it comes to divorce, child custody and inheritance. A woman's testimony is also worth half of that of a man in some cases. Child marriages remain another challenge, with 24% of Iraqi girls being married before turning 18 and 5% were married before the age of 15, in 2018.

There is also still a considerable gender gap when it comes to education and women’s participation in the labour force. Only 12.3% of women were employed or looking for work in 2018. Meanwhile, 26.4% of Iraqi women were illiterate, with numbers above 50% in rural areas, according to a 2019 UNESCO estimate. This number is 11% for men. The education gap is narrowing though, partly because of the hard work of women’s rights organizations. They continue to struggle against harassment and intimidation. In 2008 polygamy was partially abolished in Iraqi Kurdistan regions and Female Genital Mutilation (FMG) was declared criminal. Since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic and its lockdown measures, media reported an increase in dometic violence against women.

LGBTI rights
A ban on homosexuality was introduced under British rule and mainatinaed when Iraq became independent in 1932. After the ousting of the Sadam Hussein in 2003, homosexuality has become legal on paper. However, in practice homosexuality is not legal, as LGBTI people can still be charged under public indecency law. When convicted under Paragraph 401, people can be charged with a fine and 6 months in prison. LGBTI individuals are subject to widespread discrimination and have no legal means to protect themselves. As such, executions, beatings, honour killings and torture are common. Being gay, or even looking gay, can mean a death sentence under the widely used Sharia law. Reports suggest that the situation has only worsened after the 2003 invasion of the country.

As a result of the harsh societal discrimination and violence, Iraq’s LGBTI community has been one of the most invisble communities in the world. There was barely any LGBTI activism, but the first LGBTI organizations have started working in Iraq now. Rasan was established in 2004 as a feminist women’s rights organization, but as a partner of COC Nederland started a “Pride Program” in 2012. Another organization is IraQueer, which developed from an underground Iraqi LGBTI community. Without any political parties advocating for the interests of the LGBTI community and the government denying persecution of LGBTI individuals, these organizations are essential to better the living circumstances for LGBTI individuals. 


Electoral system
According to the constitution of 2005 Iraq is a parliamentary democracy with a multi-party system whereby the executive power is exercised by the prime minister, president and Council of Ministers. The president is elected by the Council of Representatives. He or she nominates the prime minister, who has to be approved by the Council of Representatives. The power in Iraq has been shared along ethno-sectarian lines since 2003. Thus the position of prime minister is held by a Shia Arab, the speaker of parliament by a Sunni Arab and the presidency by a Kurd. The president serves mainly a ceremonial function. 

The prime minister is the head of government and is the executive authority. The legislative power is vested in the Council of Representatives and the Federation Council. From the 328 seats in the Council of Representatives, 320 members are directly elected in multi-seat constituencies by proportional representation. The remaining eight seats are reserved for minorities. There is also a 25% gender quota, making sure 26,4% of parliament is made up of women. The Council of Representatives is elected for four years. 

2019 Election Law amendments
With the pressure on the government mounting, the Abdul-Mahdi-led government approved the amendment of the Election Law. The alterations allow voters to elect individual legislators instead of choosing from a party list and make sure that each member of parliament represents a specific electoral district, instead of groups of legislators representing entire provinces. This gives independents a better chance of being elected. Previously, parties ran on unified lists and were able to sweep all of the seats in some of the country’s 18 districts, which are now divided into 83 districts.

Parliament of Kurdistan
The Kurdistan Parliament has 111 seats and consists of one elected chamber. In 2009 amendments were made to the election law to increase the inclusiveness of all groups. The minimum age of parliamentary candidates was lowered from 30 to 25. The quota of female MPs was increased from 25% to 30% of the legislature and seats reserved for minority Christian and Turkmen communities were increased to five seats each. Elections are held every four years. Every citizen of the Kurdistan Region with a minimum age of 18 years and on the electoral register is eligible to vote in a direct, universal and secret ballot.

Parliamentary elections

On May 12th 2018 Iraq went to the polls to vote for the first time since the defeat of ISIL and the Kurdish independence referendum in 2017. Originally the elections were scheduled to take place in September 2017 but were postponed because of the Iraqi Civil War. Voters could choose from a record number of 85 parties who organized themselves into larger alliances.

Voter turnout was 44.52%, the lowest since the first democratic elections in 2005 after the fall of Saddam Hussein. The vote was widely seen as a referendum on incumbent Prime Minister Haidar al-Abadi and his Nasr Coalition handling of the Iraqi Civil War. Although most analysts argued that al-Abadi had a good chance of winning the elections and securing a second term as prime minister, the Alliance of Revolutionaries for Reform of the Shia cleric Sadr won most seats. Sadr won the nationwide popular vote with more than 1.3 million votes and gained 54 seats. He was followed by Amiri’s Conquest Alliance with more than 1.2 million votes, translating into 47 seats, and Abadi with more than 1 million votes and 42 seats.


Seats in parliament

Sadr Coalition


Fatah Coalition


Nasr Coalition


State of Law Coalition


Wataniya Coalition







Observers and international reactions
The European Union Election Observation Mission in Iraq stated that the elections were a key step forward in the construction of Iraq's democracy and long-term stability. “Despite some regrettable isolated reports of violent incidents, the work of the Iraqi security forces and electoral authorities resulted in an orderly ballot, which allowed the Iraqi people to exercise their democratic rights in peace and security.” 

There were reportedly several instances in which the electronic voting system did not function. Another problem was the lack of functioning infrastructure in the country. Especially in the northern part of Iraq that was destroyed by ISIL, people had difficulties in reaching polling stations. The security measures that were in place to protect voters also made voting hard. People couldn’t enter large cities by car. Nonetheless was there one terror attack in Kirkuk, where two voters were killed.

Presidential elections

The President is elected by a two-thirds majority of the Council of Representatives, Iraq’s Parliament. The President is elected to serve a four-year term in office, after which he may be re-elected once. The President approves laws which have been passed by Parliament and is the ceremonial head of the Armed Forces. He also fulfils ceremonial duties for Iraq. The President is aided by two Vice-Presidents. Together they form the Presidency Council, which makes decisions by unanimous vote. Since he assumed office in October of 2018, Barham Salih has been the country’s president.

Political parties

Social Democratic Parties

Logo of Patriotic Union of Kurdistan

Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK)

Party Leader: Mam Jalal Talabani

Number of seats: 18 (Iraqi parliament), 21 (Kurdistan parliament)

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Other Parties

Logo of Alliance Towards Reforms

Alliance Towards Reforms (Saairun)

Party Leader: Muqtada Al-Sadr

Number of seats: 54

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Logo of Fatah Alliance

Fatah Alliance

Party Leader: Hadi Al-Amiri

Number of seats: 48

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Logo of Victory Alliance

Victory Alliance

Party Leader: Haider al-Abadi

Number of seats: 42

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Logo of Kurdistan Democratic Party

Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP)

Party Leader: Masoud Barzani

Number of seats: 25 (Iraqi parliament), 45 (Kurdistan parliament)

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Logo of State of Law Alliance

State of Law Alliance

Party Leader: Nouri al-Maliki

Number of seats: 25

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Logo of National Coalition

National Coalition (Al Wataniyah)

Party Leader: Ayad Allawi

Number of seats: 21

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Logo of National Wisdom Movement

National Wisdom Movement

Party Leader: Ammar al-Hakim

Number of seats: 19

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Mutahidun (The Uniters for Reform Coalition)

Party Leader: Osama Al-Nujaifi

Number of seats: 14

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Logo of Movement for Change (Gorran)

Movement for Change (Gorran)

Party Leader: Nawshirwan Mustafa

Number of seats: 5 (Iraqi parliament), 12 (Kurdistan parliament)

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Logo of Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq

Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq (ISCI)

Party Leader: Shaikh Humam Hamoudi

Number of seats: 2

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Logo of Islamic Union of Kurdistan

Islamic Union of Kurdistan

Party Leader: Salaheddine Bahaaeddin

Number of seats: 2 (Iraqi parliament), 5 (Kurdistan parliament)

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Image of Barham Salih

Barham Salih


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Image of Mustafa al-Kadhimi

Mustafa al-Kadhimi

Prime Minister

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Image of Nechirvan Barzani

Nechirvan Barzani

President Kurdistan Region

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Image of Masrour Barzani

Masrour Barzani

Prime Minister Kurdistan Region

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Image of Masoud Barzani

Masoud Barzani

Party Leader KDP

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Image of Kosrat Rasul Ali

Kosrat Rasul Ali

Party leader PUK

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U.S. Relations with Iraq
The World Fact Book

Global edge: Iraq Government

Kurdistan Region Presidency

Kurdistan Parliament


Patriotic Union of Kurdistan
Election Guide: Iraq
Kurdistan Regional Government
National Democratic Institute: Iraq election watch
State of Law Coalition

Reuters                                                                                                                                                                                              CNBC                                                                                                                                                                                                Euronews                                                                                                                                                                                          Reuters                                                                                                                                                                                              Metro                                                                                                                                                                                                Al Aribiya                                                                                                                                                                                          BBC