The political coalition of influential Shia religious leader Muqtada al-Sadr took an early lead in Iraq’s national elections in partial returns announced late on Sunday by the Iraqi electoral commission.
An alliance of candidates linked to Iraq’s powerful Shia paramilitary groups was in second.
The Fateh Alliance is headed by Hadi al-Amiri, a former minister of transport with close ties to Iran who became a senior commander of paramilitary fighters in the fight against the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL, also known as ISIS) group.
Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi performed poorly across majority Shia provinces that should have been his base of support.
Iraqis voted on Saturday in the first election since the defeat of Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) inside the country. The vote was widely seen as a verdict on Abadi‘s tenure and his pledge to be more inclusive of Iraq’s Sunni minority.
Turnout was 44.52 percent with 92 percent of votes counted, the Independent High Electoral Commission said – significantly lower than in previous elections.
Abadi heads the Nasr Coalition (Victory of Iraq), its name capitalising on his government’s victory over ISIL in 2017.
Many analysts have seen the British-educated Abadi, a Shia who as prime minister nurtured ties with Washington and Tehran, as potentially winning a second term as prime minister.
“The country has just overcome ISIL which has affected the way voters see the election. Everyone is hoping for change and they see Abadi as a possible force for that change because of his victory over ISIL,” Ahmed Tariq, an Iraqi professor of international relations at Mosul University, told Al Jazeera ahead of the vote.
According to a recent nation-wide poll conducted in March, 79 percent of Iraqis accepted Abadi as prime minister.
Because he is seen as a rare ally of both the United States and Iran, some analysts say his continuation in government would nurture Iraq’s regional and international ties.
“Abadi is acceptable to all major stakeholders including regional powers, Iran and the US,” Fanar al-Haddad, a research fellow at the Middle East Institute, National University of Singapore, told Al Jazeera before the vote. “Everyone feels they can do business with him.”
Abadi has been mainly concerned with fending off Shia Muslim groups other than Sadr’s alliance, which are seeking to pull the country closer to Tehran.
He has therefore faced stiff competition from Hadi al-Amiri, a paramilitary commander heading the Fateh alliance, and Nouri al-Maliki, a former prime minister who is seen as a possible kingmaker in the vote.
Both leaders are closer than Abadi is to Iran, which has wide sway in Iraq as the primary Shia power in the region.
Sadr, who led uprisings against US troops, appeared to make a remarkable comeback in Iraq’s parliamentary election after being sidelined for years by Iranian-backed rivals.
He leads the al-Sairoon Coalition (The Marchers) that brings together his Sadrist Movement and the Iraqi Communist Party. The coalition has pushed an anti-corruption and anti-sectarian campaign.
According to the nation-wide poll conducted in March, 66 percent of the Iraqi people viewed Sadr favourably across most of Iraq’s provinces.
Sadr made his name leading two revolts against US forces in Iraq, drawing support from poor neighbourhoods of Baghdad and other cities. Washington called the Mehdi Army, the Shia militia loyal to Sadr, the biggest threat to Iraq’s security. In June 2014, Sadr rebranded the militia as the Peace Brigades.
Sadr is one of the few Shia leaders to keep a distance from Iran, and instead shares Saudi interest in countering Iranian influence in Iraq. Sadr sought to broaden his regional support, meeting Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman in Jeddah last year.
Sadr, of Lebanese ancestry, comes from a family of Shia scholars. He is the fourth son of the late Grand Ayatollah Mohammad Sadeq al-Sadr, a highly regarded scholar throughout the Shia Muslim world.
Mohammad Sadeq al-Sadr was murdered, along with two of his sons, allegedly by the government of Saddam Hussein – the former Iraqi president.
Sadr is also the son-in-law of Grand Ayatollah Mohammad Baqir al-Sadr. His father-in-law was executed by Iraqi authorities in 1980. Sadr’s cousin is Moussa al-Sadr, the Iranian-Lebanese founder of the Amal movement.
Despite his lineage and connections, he lacks the religious education and degrees required by Shia doctrine to take the title mujtahid – or a senior religious scholar – and he lacks the authority to issue religious edicts known as fatwas.
He rose to prominence in the unrest and chaos that erupted in Iraq after US troops toppled Saddam in 2003. Armed mostly with AK-47 assault rifles and rocket-propelled grenades, Sadr’s militia challenged the world’s most powerful military as it tried to stabilise Iraq.
No one group is expected to win the 165 seats required for an outright majority. Instead, the bloc that wins the most seats will have to bring together a majority by getting the support of smaller alliances.
The process of choosing the next prime minister is expected to take months and will likely result in power being dispersed across different political parties with clashing interests.
If initial results are confirmed, Abadi may have to form a coalition with Sadr. Abadi will, in any case, remain in office retaining all his powers until a new prime minister is confirmed.
In the past, forming a government has taken up to eight months. In 2005, allegations of vote-rigging delayed the ratification of election results for weeks.