Thursday, 24th May 2018

Sadr’s re-emergence injects populist dynamic into Iraqi politics

While the post-election narrative in Iraq has focused on Moqtada Al-Sadr’s enhanced position as political kingmaker, the former firebrand’s relative success in the 12 May poll reveals more about the growing gap between political elites and the people they are meant to represent than any putative radicalisation of the electorate under Shia clerical leadership.

Sadr’s Sairoon (On the Move) electoral bloc secured more votes than any other faction in the election, taking 54 out of 329 seats – albeit on a record low turnout of just 44.5% of registered voters. Hadi Al-Ameri’s Fatah coalition was runner-up with 47 seats, followed by prime minister Haider Al-Abadi’s Nasr grouping with 42 and former premier Nouri Al-Maliki’s State of Law with 26. Among the other main groups, former PM Ayad Allawi’s Wataniya won 21 seats, Shia cleric Ammar Al-Hakim’s Hikmah took 19 and Vice President Osama Nujafi’s Mutahidun party took 13 seats.

The Kurdistan Democratic Party prevailed in the north, taking 25 seats, against 18 for the rival Patriotic Union of Kurdistan and just five for the Gorran Movement (which has since discussed boycotting the parliament).

With no single bloc anywhere close to the 165 seats needed for an outright majority in the unicameral Majlis Al-Nuwwab Al-Iraqiy (Council of Representatives), Iraq faces weeks of political horse-trading before a working government can be stitched together. Besides confirming that no single political grouping has a significant purchase on the electorate, the vote’s significance lies in the large numbers that stayed at home.

The low turnout was not all that surprising, not least because Iraqi Shiites’ most venerated religious authority, Grand Ayatollah Ali Al-Sistani, delivered a pre-election sermon saying it was up to the citizen whether to vote or not. This contrasted markedly to his famous edict in 2005 that it was a citizen’s duty to vote – the trigger for the mass Shia victory at those elections.

Despite the familiar mess of competing political factions struggling to build a governing coalition – and crucially, grabbing the prize booty of ministerial control – the 2018 election did see some significant changes from previous national polls in 2005, 2010 and 2014. In the immediate post-Saddam climate, the electoral strength of Iraq’s long-repressed Shia population was revealed in unified voting that delivered rewards in the form of sizeable blocs of MPs that soon cowed the smaller Sunni and Kurdish groups. This time around, Shia support fragmented in a manner that has led some Iraqis to perceive a broader divide emerging – one that moves beyond the traditional confessional/sectarian fault lines.

This divide could result in a loose Iranian-backed coalition comprising the likes of Al-Ameri’s Fatah coalition, which includes the Shia Popular Mobilisation Units (PMU or Hashd Al-Shaabi) militias (GSN 1,048/8), along with Maliki’s State of Law coalition; and, on the other hand, a more western/Arab-friendly coalition that comprises Sadr (whose anti-Iranian rhetoric has grown in recent years) and Abadi, alongside various Kurdish and secularist groups.

Sadr’s stronger showing relative to his peers makes him first mover in seeking out potential partners. The 44-year-old middle-ranking cleric has signalled he is thinking beyond his immediate Shia support base. Sadr’s post-election tweets have seen him reach out to groups as disparate as Nasr and Wataniya, though not to groups with more solid Iranian backing such as Fatah and State of Law.

That also reflects Sadr’s keen appreciation of the disenchantment that has embedded itself in Iraq’s electorate. Many Iraqis saw little point in participating in a system that perpetuates corruption and results in the same old faces heading government departments. That view is as widely shared in Dohuk in the north as it is in Basra in the south, leading to a remarkably uniform sub-50% turnout across the country. While Abadi made anti-corruption a centrepiece of his platform, most Iraqis doubted his capacity to do anything about it. Better, then, to have an ‘outsider’ like Sadr take up the mantle of change. In this respect, his supporters’ 2016 storming of the Green Zone-based parliament – to take the anti-corruption message to MPs personally – may ultimately have helped reap dividends at the ballot box.

Although his Nasr coalition came in a disappointing third, Abadi himself could still continue as prime minister. He is widely respected across the spectrum, takes a collegiate worldview and has distanced himself from Tehran, which makes him more palatable to Sadrists and many other Iraqis.

Sadr’s biggest challenge may be trying to form a governing coalition without pro-Iranian groups. This will be difficult, though not impossible. If he can bring Nasr, Hikma, the Kurds, Wataniya and the Sunni-backed Qarar on board, then he may stand a chance of scraping together a working majority. If he fails, it means talking to Al-Ameri, just seven seats behind him in the popularity stakes. Al-Ameri has been courted by Major General Qassem Soleimani; the powerful Iranian regional power broker has been holding talks with politicians in Baghdad with a view to engineering a more Iran-friendly cabinet. Yet striking a deal with more visibly Iran-linked politicians would undermine Sadr’s appeal as a nationalist figure independent of Tehran.

Sadr still has powerful cards up his sleeves. Although many Iraqis chose not to vote on 12 May, his Sairoon alliance has a stronger claim to being best placed to meet ordinary Iraqis’ wishes of challenging corruption and mismanagement. Only the Sadrists can realistically claim to have won a mandate to challenge the status quo. The ball is now firmly in their court.

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