With partial results of Iraq’s parliamentary vote released, Shia leader Muqtada al-Sadr’s Sairoon coalition (the Alliance of Revolutionaries for Reform) is leading in the polls. Coming in second is Hadi al-Amiri’s Fatah (Conquest) coalition, featuring a list of candidates from Shia militias. Incumbent Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi’s coalition, Nasr (Victory) Alliance, is third.
Observers of Iraq’s electoral process predicted the exact opposite, assuming the incumbent al-Abadi would have the advantage. The Iraqi prime minister was expected to win the majority vote, capitalising on the victory against the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) which he announced in December last year and which he re-emphasised in the name of his alliance.
Sairoon, an anomalous coalition of the Sadrist Islamist movement and the Iraqi Communist Party (ICP), was not perceived as a frontrunner in these elections. However, the fact that it secured the most votes in the capital Baghdad shows that Iraqis are seeking political change and voting against the status quo of the past decade. That is also confirmed by the surprisingly low results for both al-Abadi’s coalition and former PM Nouri al-Maliki’s Islamic Dawa Party.
That there is much dissatisfaction with the political elite is also clear from the record low turnout rate: just 44.5 percent of eligible voters cast their votes. The other 55.5 percent abstained from voting either out of apathy or in protest.
Al-Sadr’s victory appears to indicate that political attitudes in Iraq are going back towards concern for civic and national issues and away from the ethno-sectarian political rhetoric that dominated the political scene since the 2003 invasion. Al-Amiri’s coalition with its former militia leaders turned politicians also appealed to a significant amount of voters, demonstrating that sectarian militarism is still a source of political mobilisation power.
The Sadrist victory
Indeed, the biggest surprise in these Iraqi elections has been that Moqtada al-Sadr’s latest political re-invention was successful. The Shia leader did not always wear the robes of a nationalist political leader seeking an alliance with secular forces.
After the invasion of Iraq in 2003, al-Sadr’s only political asset was the reputation of his father, Ayatollah Mohammed Sadiq al-Sadr, a prominent Shia cleric who opposed Saddam Hussein and who was a rival of top Shia cleric Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani.
Moqtada al-Sadr inherited a network that his father – who was assassinated in 1999 by Iraqi intelligence agents – had developed among Iraq’s urban poor and disenfranchised who endured hardship during the Baathist regime. In 2004 he put together a militia called Jaish al-Mahdi (the Mahdi Army), which attacked US occupation forces. Four years later, he announced the disarming of his militia and attempted to disavow the use of violence.
Sadr then reinvented himself as a grassroots Shia and Iraqi nationalist leader, who stood above the fray of partisan Shia politics in parliament and embraced the politics of protest. In 2016, he formed an alliance with the ICP and other secular groups that had been instrumental in organising anti-corruption rallies for the past three years.
They demanded that the government reform the political system, clamp down on corrupt officials and ensure judicial independence. In 2016, al-Abadi conceded to these demands and put forward a list of technocrats who were meant to replace ministers affiliated with various political forces. He failed to pass this motion in a recalcitrant parliament after parties who rely on these ministerial positions for patronage and distribution of funds blocked it.
In June 2017 the Sadrists and the communists agreed to run in the 2018 elections together. Despite their differences, the parties ran on a platform appealing to marginalised groups and combating social inequality. The alliance was meant to demonstrate to the public al-Sadr’s formal renouncement of sectarian politics and adoption of nationalist rhetoric.
Al-Amiri’s success and the Iran factor
The other “winner” in these elections is Hadi al-Amiri, who fought with the Iranians against Saddam Hussein’s regime during the Iran-Iraq war and who serves as the leader of the Badr Organization, a pro-Iran party and militia.
In June 2014, the Badr Organization became the backbone of the Popular Mobilization Forces formed in response to Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani’s call to arms to fight against ISIL.
In these elections, its Conquest coalition fielded candidates who served in the war against ISIL and used predominantly sectarian and pro-Iran rhetoric during its campaign. In January, Abadi tried to enter into a coalition with Amiri, but the alliance quickly broke up after the move sparked angry criticism.
Given his close relations with Iran, al-Amiri is likely to use his second place in the elections to promulgate the interests of the Islamic Republic. In the wake of the Trump administration’s decision to withdraw from the Iran deal, he is expected challenge al-Abadi, who has been conciliatory to the US so far.
None of Iraq’s five major Shia coalitions garnered enough votes to gain an outright majority in parliament, which means that bargaining and alliance formation among the coalitions will ensue after the vote.
In the past, Iran played a major role in the negotiations over the prime minister’s post after the 2010 and 2014 elections. The most crucial talks back then did not occur in Baghdad, but in Tehran, where various Iraqi politicians met Iranian officials.
The other main player, al-Sadr, has tried to assert himself as an Iraqi Shia nationalist independent of Iranian influence, but he is also vehemently anti-US.
While in the past, al-Sadr conceded to Iranian pressure because his election results were relatively low, this time he might push for his own agenda and is likely to insist on a technocratic cabinet.
Whatever the outcome of the negotiations is, one thing is for certain: These elections shook up the status quo and showed that there is potential for non-sectarian politics in Iraq. The voters struck down the entrenched political elite and demonstrated – both through their votes and through their boycott – that they reject the current system of patronage and rampant corruption.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.