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Shia Cleric Wins Iraqi Elections in Surprise Upset

Iraq- Iraqi elections
Iraqi men celebrate during the general election in Baghdad on May 14, 2018. Photo AFP

Iraq’s 12 May 2018 parliamentary election, the first to be held since the toppling of the Islamic State (IS) in late 2017, brought some surprises.

While the coalition led by current Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi had been widely expected to win the vote, bolstered by the victory over IS, it was instead the coalition headed by Muqtada al-Sadr, a nationalist Shia cleric and former militia leader who fought against the United States (US), that took the lead, beating out both al-Abadi’s group and that of Hadi al-Amiri, another Shia militia leader who is closer to Iran.

The upset, according to preliminary results, put al-Abadi’s Nasr coalition in third place, with al-Amiri’s Fatah coalition in second and the Sairoon Alliance – composed of al-Sadr’s party and the Communist Party – taking first place, with 54 of the parliament’s 329 seats. Turnout was a record low of 44.5 per cent, compared to about 60 per cent in the last election four years ago. This is likely due in part to voter disillusionment and logistical issues, including problems implementing the country’s new electronic voting system.

Al-Sadr himself was not a candidate so is not eligible to take the prime minister’s seat, but he could be in a position to choose the next prime minister.

The results ran counter to a national poll conducted before the election that found a high level of support for al-Abadi, with 79 per cent of respondents nationwide viewing him favourably. However, the National Democratic Institute noted in a pre-election analysis that while the fight against IS had increased trust in and support for the Iraqi army and unified the country to an extent, deep divisions remain.

‘Military gains have not been met by political reforms, including measures addressing rampant corruption and unemployment, as well as the alleviation of the humanitarian crisis which has resulted in the displacement of over 3 million Iraqis and the widespread lack of basic service delivery to the country’s most vulnerable citizens,’ the analysis noted. ‘Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi’s efforts to strengthen Iraq’s fragile governing institutions and lift the country from crisis hinge on broader buy-in from all Iraqis, including Sunnis, Kurds and other ethno-sectarian groups, and an increase in opportunities for ethnic and religious minorities to participate in civic life.’

Likewise, other analysts noted the possible impact of the rivalry between al-Abadi and his predecessor, Nouri al-Maliki, which created a schism in the ruling Dawa party. The UK-based Global Risk Insights noted that Shia groups that were once united in their fight against Saddam Hussein are now ‘deeply divided’ over the best way to approach rebuilding the state. Those divisions have played out in each of the four parliamentary elections held since Iraq adopted its new constitution in 2005.

The International Crisis Group noted, ‘Shiite Islamist parties have invariably won; just as invariably, they have had to cobble together coalition-based governments because of political fragmentation; and whoever won the most votes did not end up as prime minister.’

Likewise, the rise of non-state Shia militias or Popular Mobilization Forces in response to the presence of IS has contributed to the divisions in Shia leadership. The Iraqi government has struggled to bring the largely Iran-backed militias under state control. Despite abuses and corruption, the militias have still enjoyed a large degree of popularity for their role in safeguarding the country when the Iraqi army was floundering, particularly after the collapse of the regular army in 2014.

A victory by al-Amiri’s coalition would likely have heralded greater Iranian influence on the direction of Iraqi affairs. Al-Amiri spent more than two decades in exile in Iran during the rule of Saddam Hussein. His Badr Organization at that time was the armed wing of Iraqi Shia opposition to the former dictator. More recently, it took a leading role in the fight against IS.

Al-Sadr, on the other hand, comes from a more nationalist perspective. His father, Mohammad Sadeq, who led resistance to Hussein among the Shia underclass in the 1990s, was assassinated in 1999. Subsequently, al-Sadr took over his father’s role. His Mahdi Army came to prominence in 2003 when it launched guerilla attacks against the occupying American forces.

Although he also spent three years in self-imposed exile in Iran and although his Mahdi Army helped to spawn the proliferation of Iran-backed Shia militias in Iraq, al-Sadr has distanced himself from Iran and has at times declared solidarity with Sunni groups – both those fighting the US in the wake of the 2003 invasion and those protesting al-Maliki’s government in 2013.

Al-Sadr’s surprise election win could be seen as a vote for Iraqi independence from foreign powers – meaning from Iran as well as the US. It might also give a boost to Iran’s regional rival, Saudi Arabia, which has been trying to strengthen its ties with Iraq. Last year, al-Sadr visited Saudi Arabia and met with Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.

Closer ties with the Saudi kingdom could mean more aid from Riyadh and a boost for Iraq’s flagging reconstruction efforts in the areas decimated in the fight against IS. The rebuilding has been hampered by a lack of funds, among other issues. In February, donors pledged $30 billion toward the reconstruction, a sum that falls far short of the $88 billion the Iraqi government says it needs.

Meanwhile, the impact of the election results on Iraq’s relations with the US and Iran remains to be seen. Al-Abadi had maintained cordial relations with both, despite the growing enmity between the two. Al-Sadr, on the other hand, has a history of bad blood with both.

In spite of this, a spokesman for al-Sadr said he will honour agreements between Iraq and the US with regards to training Iraq’s security forces and the sale of weapons if there is “no interference in the sovereignty of Iraq”.

The election may, in fact, be a greater setback for Iran, which is competing with Saudi Arabia for influence in the region.

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