Ambiguity regarding the next chapter of Iraqi politics

The result of the Iraqi election was a ruthless setback.

MOQTADA AL-SADR has won the largest number of seats in Iraq’s parliament. (photo credit: REUTERS)
MOQTADA AL-SADR has won the largest number of seats in Iraq’s parliament.
(photo credit: REUTERS)
On May 12, Iraqis cast their votes in the first general election following the overthrow of Islamic State (ISIS). Turnout was only 44.52%, the lowest since the defeat of Saddam Hussein’s regime in 2003. The current prime minister of Iraq, Haider al-Abadi, entered the election campaign as the front runner, but surprisingly he seems to be losing his grip on power. His political bloc, Al Nasr (victory) was preparing to celebrate, with a clear mandate to form the next government, however, they gained fewer seats than most polls and experts had anticipated.
The result of the election was a ruthless setback.
His rival, Muqtada al-Sadr, who fought against the American occupation in 2004, is the clear winner in most southern parts of the country as well as in Baghdad, which has the most allocated seats. Al-Sadr is the leader of both Saraya al Salam, a military wing of the Shi’ite militia, and his own political party, the “Sadrist Movement,” creating a coalition under the name of the Sa’irun Alliance – a coalition between his Shi’ite movement, the Iraqi Communist Party and mostly secular groups. The results have come as a shock to the Americans, who were convinced that the incumbent prime minister would gain enough seats to create a coalition with the moderate parties and thereby form a new government.
Although the final results have already been declared by the Independent High Electoral Commission, the drama of the election is far from over.
The complexity of the Iraqi political landscape in the post-Saddam era requires a political party or a political bloc to win 163 seats to be able to form a government. No political party is capable of this yet; there has to be a coalition of some sort between the main election winners.
The victory against ISIS and the crushing of the Kurdish demand for independence was not enough for Iraqis to trust al-Abadi. Three major factors turned out to be crucial for voters: security, economy and corruption. While unemployment is high and security hasn’t improved much in most parts of Baghdad and the south, there appears to be a lack of trust in the government and political system to eradicate corruption. Al-Abadi and his political party came third in the election, behind both the Al Sa’irun and the PMU (Popular Mobilization Units) led by Hadi al-Amri.
The main question for Iraqis, regional powers and Western allies now is who will become the next prime mister and form the government. Will it be a grand coalition between the main Shi’ite groups? Or will it be a coalition between all the ethnic and religious groups of Iraq? In the past there were coalitions between the Kurds and Shi’ite modernists but now this option appears to be difficult to manage.
Although the Sa’irun Alliance might find it difficult to convince some major leaders and political parties to collaborate in the forming of a government, they do appear to be a strong element to lead the next chapter of Iraqi politics.
Now, the Americans can influence the modernist parties to build a coalition but the regional powers, namely Iran, will have a lot more to say about this election. In the last election in 2010, Ayad Allawi’s group won the largest number of votes and seats, but he was blocked from becoming prime minister because of Iranian objections, as he has claimed.
Some prominent politicians now believe that al-Abadi is still the favorite to form the next government despite losing.
However, Muqtada al-Sadr is projecting a strong nationalist personality at the moment and is not favored by Iran or the Americans. It will be clear in the next a few days whether his alliance can convince other Iraqi blocs to jointly form a government or whether it is possible that the regional powers will intervene once again and support their proxies to lead Iraq for another four years. Neither of these options is easy or straightforward. In fact, this complicated reality could lead to weeks if not months of negotiation to form the next government. Thus, this might be only the beginning of Iraqi political cacophony and the country once again descent into further chaos.
The author is vice president of Soran University and writes for local and international newspapers and academic journals, mainly focusing on Kurdistan’s socio-political affairs within the wider Middle Eastern context.