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Turnout in Transitional Elections: Who votes in Iraq?

Ahmed Ezzeldin Mohamed, Columbia University, presents the complexities of the elections in Iraq and its consequences.

Article previously published by the Journal of the Middle East and Africa.


Electoral turnout in Iraq is a puzzling phenomenon. Despite the country’s lack of a democratic past, undeveloped party system, volatile political alliances, inexperienced voters, ethnic politics, sectarian violence, and terrorism, Iraqis’ electoral engagement has reached impressive levels. Given the importance of political participation at the foundational stages of democracy, this article places the individual within a broad context to draw an image of the likely Iraqi voter using five nationally representative surveys covering the three Iraqi parliamentary elections of 2005, 2010, and 2014. The main findings indicate that the Iraqi voter is likely to be a middle-aged, educated male with interest in politics and trust in the political institutions. Surprisingly, the socioeconomic and ethnic identities of the voter are not related to that individual’s decision to participate. Provincial-level violence has a complex and unstable link to individual turnout, depending on its timing, scale, and frequency, but it does not hinder participation. These results challenge some of the common themes in the literature on Iraqi politics and democratization. With the alarming decline in the turnout rate of the 2018 elections, this study is a preliminary guide to understanding how to sustain citizens’ engagement in new democracies.

Keywords: democratic transition, iraq, violence, elections, middle east


After the fall of Saddam Hussein in 2003, Iraq started its democratic transition in tough conditions. With no democratic past, an undeveloped party system, volatile political alliances, and continuously changing electoral system, political decision making was a demanding task for the inexperienced Iraqi voter. Democracy benefited Iraqis disproportionally depending on their ethnic identity, with Sunni Arabs as the main losers.(1) Sectarianism escalated into violent conflicts that placed the country in the lowest tenth percentile in terms of political stability and the absence of violence.(2) Despite that and without compulsory voting laws, turnout rates remained impressively high for the parliamentary elections of 2005, 2010, and 2014. With such facts as background, it is intriguing to know who votes in Iraq.

Identifying the profile of voters in a new democracy spurs from the importance of the functioning of electoral engagement. High turnout in elections is a sign of a healthy democracy. Citizens’ participation in the transitional stages of democratization has the additional role of legitimizing the new political order and discouraging old elites from reviving autocratic rule. Turnout is linked to the survival, successful consolidation, and representativeness of democracy. Disproportional participation among social groups marginalizes those who abstain from participation from representing their preferences. In the early years of a democracy, this means excluding them from contributing to the future “rules of the game.” (3)

Empirically to determine the characteristics of the Iraqi voter, this study relies on five nationally representative surveys conducted after the parliamentary elections of 2005, 2010, and 2014. This work then standardizes the surveys to build a dataset of 9,000 individual-level observations and employs multi-level logistic regression to detect the predictors of individual turnout. The results show that the Iraqi voter is likely to be an educated, middle-aged male with a significant interest in politics and trust in the political institutions. Surprisingly, the class and ethnic identities of the voter play no significant role in participation. Ethnicity is related to turnout only in the 2014 elections after the rise of Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL). Another interesting finding is that Iraqis in more violent provinces were more likely to vote.

This study is a pioneering attempt to understand individual predictors of turnout in Iraq and it challenges some common beliefs about Iraqi politics. By showing that ethnic identity is weakly related to electoral participation, this work calls for defining the limits of sectarianism in shaping Iraqi politics. It also reveals that citizens’ participation persists despite political violence, which is promising for democratic consolidation in Iraq. Moreover, this study comes at a time of an alarming decline in turnout rates in the Iraqi parliamentary elections of 2018 to 44.5 percent from 60 percent in 2014. Hence, learning from past successful elections will help in an understanding of when Iraqi voters decide to participate, which is of increasing importance to academics and policymakers alike.

Suggested Citation:

Mohamed, Ahmed Ezzeldin, Turnout in Transitional Elections: Who Votes in Iraq? (March 4, 2018). Available at SSRN:


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