The Sairoon Alliance of Shia leader Muqtada al-Sadr is set to win Iraq’s parliamentary elections in a remarkable comeback after being sidelined for years by Iranian-backed rivals.
With over 91 percent of votes counted in 16 of Iraq‘s 18 provinces, Iran-backed Shia militia chief Hadi al-Amiri’s Fateh (Conquest) Coalition was in second place, while Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi’s Nasr (Victory) Coalition once seen as the frontrunner, came in third.
Sadr’s bloc did not run in the remaining two provinces, Kurdish Dohuk and the ethnically-mixed oil province of Kirkuk. The results there, which may be delayed due to tensions between local parties, will not affect Sadr’s standing.
Reports indicate that Sairoon – an alliance between the Sadrist Movement and Iraq’s Communist Party – won more than 1.3 million votes, gaining 54 of a 329-seat parliament.
Saturday’s election was the first since the defeat of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL, also known as ISIS) group, but the turnout fell far short of previous elections with only 44.52 percent of registered voters participating. Turnout is 15 percent lower than that of 2014.
Commenting on the results, Rend al-Rahim, a former Iraqi ambassador to the United States told Al Jazeera: “The ascendancy of the list sponsored by al-Sadr shows that anti-establishment sentiment and anti-corruption have driven the choice of most voters.”
But according to Rahim, Sadr’s rise to victory was also based on emotionally-driven voting.
“None of the lists had an electoral programme that outlined priorities and a plan of action. All used vague terms to lure voters. Many of the lists also used populist and demagogic tactics that played on the emotions of voters.
“The success of Sairoon and Fateh clearly show that voters were ideologically and emotionally driven,” said Al-Rahim.
Move away from Iran, US?
Unlike Abadi, a rare ally of both the US and Iran, Sadr is an opponent of both countries, which have wielded influence in Iraq since a US-led invasion toppled Saddam Hussein in 2003 and thrust the Shia majority into power.
Sadr has led two uprisings against US forces in Iraq and is one of the few Shia leaders to distance himself from Iran.
He has instead sought to broaden his regional support, meeting Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman in Jeddah last year.
Because Sadr did not stand as a candidate and therefore cannot head the government, he appears set to play kingmaker.
Even Sadr’s bloc might not necessarily form the next government, as the other winning blocs would have to agree on the nomination.
In a 2010 election, Vice President Ayad Allawi’s group won the largest number of seats, but he was blocked from becoming premier for which he blamed Tehran.
In a similar fashion, Iran has already publicly stated it will not allow Sadr’s bloc to govern.
Ali Akbar Velayati, top adviser to the Islamic Republic’s Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, warned in February that he would “not allow liberals and communists to govern in Iraq”, a reference to the Iraqi Communist Party.
According to Al-Rahim, “All we know is that Sadr will not form a coalition with Maliki. Everything else is wide open”.
Former prime minister Nouri al-Maliki, who led Iraq between 2006 and 2014, headed the State of Law Coalition for 2018 election. For years, Maliki’s Shia-led army and police acted as a sectarian militia against Iraq’s Sunni communities.
On his part, Sadr said in a statement that he would be willing to work with a number of parties, among those Amar al-Hakim’s Hikma (Wisdom) Coalition, the Sunni al-Wataniyya Coalition and the Kurdish parties Goran and Komal.
He did not, however, mention Maliki’s State of Law Coalition or the Fatah Coalition, both of which are aligned with Iran.
Despite being third in the running, Abadi could still potentially remain prime minister after a coalition government is formed.
“We are ready to work and cooperate in forming the strongest government for Iraq, free of corruption,” Abadi said, referencing the issue that has been at the forefront of most voters’ minds.
Fears and apathy
Supporters of Sadr celebrated during the early hours of Monday in Baghdad’s Tahrir Square as early results from Saturday’s elections indicated that the Sairoon Alliance was on course for victory.
“Bye, bye Maliki. Iran is out. Iraq is free,” chanted the crowds as they sang, danced and set off fireworks while carrying Sadr’s picture and waving Iraqi flags.
But these feelings were not shared by residents of other Iraqi provinces.
Speaking to Al Jazeera from the majority Sunni province of Nineveh, Ahmed al-Ubaidi, 31, said: “I worry that Sadr’s Sairoon Coalition or Ababdi’s Nasr bloc will ally with either Maliki’s State of Law bloc or Amiri’s Fatah bloc. Both are sectarian and pro-Iran.
“I hope government formation negotiations will ensure that Maliki is not part of any government this time,” added Ubaidi.
While Sadr and Amiri both came in first in four of the 10 provinces where votes were counted, Mosul voted for Abadi.
For Rahim, this indicates the cross-sectarian nature of the majority Sunni province. “The higher than average turnout and support for the list led by PM Abadi in Nineveh indicates that at least in Mosul province there is renewed hope for a better future and an acknowledgement of the role of Abadi and the Iraqi army in liberating Nineveh,” added Al-Rahim, who also served as a senior fellow for Iraq for the US Institute for Peace.
Many voters had complained that most of the candidates running were part of the same political elite and many who they blamed for corruption and unemployment, with many across Baghdad’s Sunni neighbourhoods telling Al Jazeera they voted for “new faces as they were looking for change”.
Still, the majority of Iraqis did not vote, partly due to a boycott campaign spearheaded online by activists.
“Participation levels were quite low because many of us weren’t convinced that the election could bring change,” Ali Mahdi, a Shia resident of Baghdad, told Al Jazeera.
Saif Al-Haity, a 34-year-old journalist from the Sunni-dominated Anbar agreed: “The boycotters were more than those who voted. This has definitely had an impact on results.”
Additional reporting by Bakr al-Ubaidi from Baghdad.