Sumera B. Reshi
“Your vote is an honour for us”, twitted Muqtada al-Sadr, moments after the official announcement of election results. Sadr, an influential Shia cleric’s political coalition has won the most seats in Iraq’s national parliamentary elections, according to complete results released by Iraq’s electoral commission.
The May 2018 election was historic in many respects and saw 7,000 candidates vying for just 329 seats. The Iraqi parliament, known as the Council of Representatives, consists of 329 elected seats, with a quota for women and minorities, stating that no less than one-fourth of parliament members must be women. Nearly 2,600 women are running for office this year. Certainly, the winning party needs a majority of 165 seats to form a cabinet and appoint a PM. For a new prime minister, the road is quite thorny. He has to take Iraq out from years of mayhem, rebuild infrastructure and prevent the return of the Islamic State.
The announcement of the results came nearly a week after Iraqis cast their votes on 12 May. The top four winners in May 2018 Iraqi elections are the Sairoon (Forward) Alliance, al-Fatah Alliance, al-Nasr (Victory) Alliance and the State of the Law (SOL) Coalition and the KDP sharing the fourth place. Sairoon, which won with 54 seats, is led by the prominent Shi’ite nationalist figure, Muqtada al-Sadr, in alliance with the Iraqi Communist Party. Al-Fatah came in second with 47 seats and is led by pro-Iran Hadi Al-Amri, leader of Badr Corps, a guerrilla force formed by Iran to fight the Iraqi army during the Iran-Iraq war. Al-Amri is also known for being one of the Popular Mobilization Unit’s (PMU) main leaders. Prime Minister (PM) al-Abadi’s al-Nasr came in third. His position at number three came as a surprise, as most were betting on his victory following the government forces’ defeat against ISIL and his impressive diplomacy in dealing with the Kurdish referendum, retaking Kirkuk without causing a civil war. Finally, there was a tie at 25 seats between former PM Nouri al-Maliki’s SOL and Barzani’s Kurdistan Democratic Party.
The present election win marks the most significant victory of Sadr’s political career. Experts believe that the vote was marked by record low turnout that benefited Sadr who maintains loyal supporters who made it out to the polls when apathy kept many millions away. While Sadr’s coalition won the largest number of seats, it is yet unclear if the next prime minister will come from his camp. Prolonged negotiations could result in a compromise candidate from a rival coalition.
Following the 2003 US-led overthrow of Saddam Hussein, Sadr burst onto the scene as a renegade champion of poorer Shias, leading militant fighters who carried out a deadly assault on the US forces and were notorious for sectarian killings of Sunni Muslims.
However, over the years, Sadr has gained popularity as a nationalist voice, opposing Iranian influence and waging a public campaign against corruption. To come out successful, Sadr artfully ran a non-sectarian campaign focused on issues of social justice, allying with secularists and Iraq’s communist party, and broadening support beyond his traditional base.
Over the years, Sadr’s group emerged as the largest party in Iraq’s election, which indicates that he holds the power in Baghdad and craves for a change. May 2018 elections isn’t a small change, rather it is a seismic change which reflects deep structural shift’s in Iraqi society. Muqtada al-Sadr’s party won the most MPs, but not a majority and he himself did not stand. There seems to be an apparent change in his stance from a sectarian anti-Western, pro-Iranian cleric to an anti-Iranian, anti-corruption nationalist.
Since the fall of Baath regime in 2003, Iraq witnessed turmoil and anarchy at the top and as the time passed, Iraq recovered itself from a crippling conflict and jihadi insurgency. It is now re-evaluating its position in the region and its relationships with ostracized Iran. In case of coalition formation with Haider al-Abadi, the bond might prove incompatible and inappropriate. Nevertheless, in current situations, Sadr and Abadi have somewhat similar priorities. At present, Abadi-Sadr alliance will be a critical moment for Iraq, the Middle East and Western policy-making in the region, as faultline in regional politics shifts away from zero-sum sectarianism and towards a choice between modernization & extremism.
Sadr who was a rebel rose to a level of a champion, has been the main lead of these elections. Sadr hails from a revered clerical family and an Islamist ideologue of the same persuasion as Iran’s Shia revolutionaries. He earned international fame for his command of the sectarian Mahdi Army militia. But, accompanying the reboot of his private army as the anti-Isis “peace companies”, Sadr has undergone a political transformation – especially in his thinking about Iraq’s alliances, culminating in high-profile meetings with the Saudi leadership. Sadr’s transmutation indicates of a wider shift in the Iraqi electorate, away from ideological and identity-based voting towards pragmatism and a will for an effective governance. As of now, voters are increasingly leaving behind religious sectarian identifications and sub-identities, shifting instead towards a nationalism that seeks to cast off the shackles of outside influences and international interests, according to an opinion poll conducted by the Centre for Strategic and International Studies.
As the Saddam regime collapsed, many international players entered into the ring to meddle into the affairs of Iraq and the US being the major player along with the coalition partners fighting insurgents and sectarian forces tore Iraqi society into pieces. Then came ISIS which literally ravaged northern and western Iraq for three and a half years but ISIS insurgency seems to have a positive effect on the Iraqi nation as per experts, as it brought the embattled country together, rather than, as many believed, driving further sectarian division.
Undeniably, the success of tacking the ISIS insurgency goes into Abadi’s kitty, yet the new administration has so much at stake, they need to address Salafi-jihadi militancy, sectarian grievances, the politicization of religion and poor governance. No doubt 12 May results were an optimistic sign – yet the upcoming administration has to face big challenges and the priority will be tackling corruption and rebuilding Iraq’s economy and this is what Sadr campaigned for throughout the elections. Sadr’s election pledge was “Iraq first”, thus he was able to reach out beyond sectarian divides and his renewed views led him to success.
Moreover, Sadr’s about-face on Iran’s role in Iraq is of great significance as he realized that Tehran had a destabilizing influence in the country. As per Sadr’s political ally, Dhiaa al-Asadi, Sadr visited Saudi Arabia and asserted them that the Shiite of Iraq won’t be an extension of the Iranian revolution.
Also, meeting with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman with Sadr is what experts believe a part of a wider realignment across the Middle East, away from competing for sectarian interests and towards a faultline of modernizers and secular reformists on the one hand and those stimulating sectarian division and extremist violence.
In view of the Sadr’s inherited religious ideology, most of the people believe Sadr as anti-West but the reality is altogether different. Sadr favors the presence of the US troops in Iraq in view of their stabilizing effect and in light of his clear preference to work with Abadi who is open to building bridges with the West. Further, Sadr has criticized the internationalization of Shia militancy by openly endorsing the US government’s label on Iranian-backed Iraqi militias fighting in Syria as terrorists. Since Sadr dreams of a new stable and prosperous Iraq, he needs Western support so that he can reconstruct Iraq which has been devastated since the fall of Saddam Hussein. Likewise, West has to calibrate its stance towards Iraq so that it can move towards greater economic upliftment. In the current situation where none received absolute majority and Sadr leading the number slot, he is likely to strategize his relations with Western power, using Abadi as cover. Surely Sadr has a chequered career in the past but symbolizes a changing Iraq. At this moment, this equation will go well and in favor of Sadr.
In addition, a victory in 2018 elections paved a way for Sadr who was otherwise sidelined by Iran backed rivals as Tehran began asserting its influence in Iraq after the fall of Saddam’s regime in 2003. Sadr was unknown to the outside world but he became the symbol of resistance after the US invasion. He was first to form Shia militia fighting the US troops after the 2003 war. Such was his influence that the Pentagon termed his Mahdi army the biggest threat to Iraq’s security after he led two uprisings against the US forces. Soon after the results were out and his coalition was declared victorious, his followers chanted ‘Iran out’.
In the recent past, Sadr vehemently resisted the US presence and influence in Iraq. Sadr’s Mahdi army played a key role in fueling Iraq’s devastating sectarian conflict. His victory, experts believe, has turned the US’s Iraq policy upside down.
At this moment, the US faces a severe political crisis in a country where it has invested substantial blood and treasure. But it is the change of stance and the nationalist waves that led Sadr to the victory despite the fact that he had been a staunch rebel in the recent past? There are doubts. Sadr being a lead Shia champion known for his deadly assaults on Suunis definitely has subtle US backing. The US willed to eliminate Saddam Hussein, so it created an ambience. The US doesn’t want to decimate Hassan Nasrullah, General Secretary of Hezbollah, so it doesn’t. Similarly, despite Sadr’s opposition, the US wants Sadr to stay in order to balance Sunni block in the Middle East. The US has been acting like a stimulus and rest as a response. The US policy in Iraq since the war on ISIS started has been focused on counter-terrorism and to defeat ISIS and contain Iran-aligned groups, the US has banked on Premier al-Abadi.
The poll results made it clear that there was a level of anger among the masses that led to a major popular boycott of 2018 elections. Statistics reveal that there was a drop from 62 per cent participation to 44. 5 per cent and that is why no party got a clear mandate. In this case formation of the government is even more difficult. The only reason which led Moqtada al-Sadr to victory was he campaigned on four issues that addressed Iraq’s future rather than the victory in the fighting: creating a truly national government, stopping the selection of ministers to meet sectarian quotas, fighting corruption, and allowing independent technocrats to manage key government agencies. He also formed a coalition that went far beyond his own Shi’ite roots. He reached out to Sunni businessmen and technocrats and included the Iraqi Communist Party. In effect, he gave “national” a tangible meaning.
However, none of the party in Iraq got a sweeping mandate rather it showed that both many Iraqis who did vote, and many who did not, were looking beyond the past fighting and factional divisions. Many of those who won seats did so because their party supported better governance, real efforts at unity, and progress towards recovery and development based on real-world development plans, functional efforts to reform governance and the economy, and honesty instead of gross corruption, cronyism, and factional gains.
Now the biggest practical challenge is to form a new government within 90 days of the announcement of the official results of the election. Succeeding in this task is even more critical in practice. Iraq desperately needs strong political unity and leadership to deal with its security, governance, development, and corruption problems. In current situations, Iraq cannot afford to wait indefinitely for a new government or be led by a coalition too weak and divided to act and that is driven by the interests of competing leaders and factions. Coming days will tell where Iraq is actually heading to.
This Story Earlier Published in Print Edition Of ‘ The Legitimate’