BDC Snapshots: The Iraqi state’s crisis of legitimacy

An Iraqi female demonstrator waves an Iraqi flag during an ongoing anti-government protest, in Baghdad, Iraq November 1, 2019. REUTERS/Ahmed Jadallah - RC164BCA0C20

Content from the Brookings Doha Center is now archived. In September 2021, after 14 years of impactful partnership, Brookings and the Brookings Doha Center announced that they were ending their affiliation. The Brookings Doha Center is now the Middle East Council on Global Affairs, a separate public policy institution based in Qatar.

Editor's note:

This post is the second in a series of infographics and analysis presented by fellows at the Brookings Doha Center (BDC) that cover socioeconomic and geopolitical challenges facing the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region. Previous post in the BDC Snapshots series can be found here: GCC countries must redouble their efforts to reduce oil dependence, by Nader Kabbani.

Protests in Iraq since October 2018 have rocked the country’s political class to its core, trapping the state in a legitimacy crisis that has threatened the post-2003 political order. The crisis has been precipitated by country-wide grievances and demands for jobs, services, and accountability. Public trust in the government has never been so low, including in 2014 when high levels of dissatisfaction in the predominantly Arab Sunni northern provinces enabled the emergence of the Islamic State (ISIS).

While public trust levels improved in the early days of Haider al-Abadi tenure as new Prime Minister, between 2014 and 2015, disappointment in al-Abadi’s leadership followed, along with country-wide protests that have gripped Iraq since 2016. Public opinion polls have since indicated a significant decline in public confidence and trust in Iraq’s institutions and leadership.

Low voter turnout is a crucial indicator of public dissatisfaction. Since the fall of Saddam Hussein’s regime, voter turnout has shrunk with each passing election. In 2005, 80 percent of eligible Iraqi voters went to the polls, constituting a resounding success for the nascent democratic process. However, that figure dropped to around 60 percent during the 2010 and 2014 parliamentary elections, and plummeted to 45 percent in 2018. In the face of corruption and weak institutions, elections are among the few accountability measures left that the Iraqi public has at its disposal. The formation of the new government in May 2020 has helped stabilize the political environment. The Iraqi public is now looking to the new government to achieve an incredible feat: address the diminished legitimacy of the state, keep the peace, alleviate the economic crises, and establish an effective COVID-19 response strategy.


“Iraq: Voter Turnout by Election Type,” The International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance (IDEA), accessed June 2, 2020,

Steve Crabtree, “Faith in Iraqi Government Falls Sharply in Sunni Regions,” Gallup, June 27, 2014,

Travis Owen and Jihad Fakhreddine, “Iraqis Have High Hopes for New Prime Minister,” March 19, 2015,

Jihad Fakhreddine, “Attack Tests Iraqis’ Failing Faith in Leadership,” Gallup, July 13, 2016,