Muqtada al-Sadr, the Shia leader whose bloc beat expectations to come out on top in Iraq’s parliamentary vote, has held separate meetings with rival political leaders, ushering in what could be an extended period of negotiations over the formation of a new government.
Al-Sadr first met incumbent Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi late on Saturday, before holding talks with Hadi Al-Amiri, the leader of the pro-Iranian Fatah bloc, a day later.
The meetings in the Iraqi capital, Baghdad, came after the Iraqi electoral commission announced the official results, which saw al-Sadr’s Sairoon coalition taking 54 out of 328 seats in the May 12 vote.
Al-Amiri’s bloc came in second with 47 seats, while al-Abadi’s Nasr Coalition disappointed by finishing third with 42.
With no bloc winning the 165 seats required for an outright majority, negotiations to form a coalition government are expected to drag on for weeks, if not much longer – such talks in the past have lasted up to nine months.
Al-Sadr cannot become prime minister himself, because he did not run as a candidate. However, as head of the majority coalition, he is expected to play a central role in the coalition negotiations.
Speaking alongside al-Abadi in the early hours of Sunday, al-Sadr said the meeting was intended to reassure Iraqis of his commitment to forming a government that speaks to everyone.
“Your government will be a caring and inclusive one,” he said. “It will cover everyone … in order to achieve reform and prosperity”, he told reporters, adding that his “door is open to anyone – as long as they want to build the nation”.
For his part, al-Abadi echoed the willingness to cooperate with other political powers, saying that he and al-Sadr shared “identical” views that the different forces must work together to ensure stability.
“We are not against any political bloc,” he said.
“We work with others, but the process needs someone who leads on the right path to expedite the process of forming a new government and holding the parliament”.
Al Jazeera’s Osama bin Javaid, reporting from Baghdad, said the two leaders presented a united front, intended to reassure Iraqis following the election.
“Both leaders came out and tried to give the message that this is the first step to forming a stable government in Iraq. They both believe in political stability and in the inclusive nature of politics where nobody is left out.”
Later on Sunday, al-Sadr met al-Amiri – one of the most powerful figures in Iraq who has maintained close ties with Tehran for decades – to discuss the election results.
“The process of government formation must be a national decision and importantly, must include the participation of all the winning blocs,” a statement by al-Sadr’s office read.
Iranian Major General Qassem Soleimani, commander of foreign operations for Iran’s elite Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps and a highly influential figure in Iraq, has been holding talks with al-Amiri and other politicians in Baghdad to promote the formation of a new cabinet that would have Iran’s approval.
Before the election, Iran publicly stated it would not allow al-Sadr‘s bloc to govern.
Iraq’s political system
The election, the first since the country declared victory over the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL, also known as ISIS) group, saw a record low turnout.
Just 44.52 percent of registered voters took part – about 15 percentage points lower compared with the last elections in 2014.
After the election results are ratified by Iraq’s Supreme Court, parliament is required to meet within 15 days. Its eldest member will chair the first session, during which a speaker will be elected. Parliament must then elect a president by a two-thirds majority vote within 30 days of its first meeting.
The president is charged with naming a member of the largest bloc in parliament – the prime minister-designate – to form a cabinet within 30 days. If that individual fails, the president must nominate a new person for the post of prime minister.
Political power in Iraq is traditionally divided along sectarian lines among the offices of prime minister, president and speaker of parliament.
Since the first elections following the 2003 US-led toppling of Saddam Hussein, the Shia majority has held the position of prime minister, while the Kurds have held the presidency and the Sunnis the post of speaker of parliament.
Stability amid upheaval
Al-Sadr, a former militia leader who helmed two violent uprisings against US occupation troops, was sidelined for years by Iranian-backed rivals.
His victory was seen as a rebuke to a political elite that some voters blame for widespread corruption and dysfunctional governance in the country.
Al-Sadr’s alliance – which has communists and secular Iraqis in its ranks – has fiercely opposed foreign interference in Iraq.
In Sunday’s statement, al-Sadr re-emphasised his commitment to Iraqi sovereignty, saying that the formation of a new government should be “an Iraqi decision, sovereign over its territory and people”.
His bloc has promised to help the poor and build schools and hospitals in Iraq, which was battered in the war to defeat ISIL and has suffered economically as a result of low oil prices.