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Published: May 24, 2018

While the Iraqi election results were formally announced, its impact domestically, internationally, and from the perspective of those with business interests in Iraq remains unclear. However the results and trends that have emerged cast some illumination on what the future for Iraq might hold.

Muqtada al-Sadr on top:

Sairoon, the political bloc under the leadership of Muqtada al-Sadr, won the biggest share of the vote, making the headlines in an uncertain election. His strong showing, winning 54 out of 329 seats, was in part a result of a having a close ear to the street and understanding what would draw people to the ballot boxes. Al-Sadr, once a key figure behind the insurgency fighting coalition forces in Iraq, ran on a nationalist platform advocating for an Iraq independent from the influence of both Iran and the US, something which undoubtedly struck a chord with many voters, as was his theological positioning close to the influential Iranian cleric Ali al-Sistani.

Low Turnout:

Despite the surprise result for al-Sadr, it would be an overstatement to characterise the strong showing as a firm victory for the Sairoon coalition. Beneath the surface, the primary dynamics of the election was low turnout (at only 44.5% compared to 60% in 2010 and 2014) and apathetic voters fed up with the current system. A winning factor for Al-Sadr, though he received roughly the same number of votes as in the previous election, was a strong base and patronage network which he could rely on to vote for him, rather than a major swing of support from other parties in his favour.
In a change from previous elections, Ayatollah Al-Sistani was indifferent to the process in the run-up to the election, presenting the vote as a choice rather than a duty for the people of Iraq. Much of the wider voter base appeared to share such indifference, with widespread criticism of the ‘green zone elite’ who have little regard for the lives of ordinary people. Many of the same faces and coalitions on the candidate list enhanced the view that no matter the vote, the overall makeup of the governing elite would not change.

PMU’s secure strong result:

In second place, securing 47 seats, was the al-Fatah led by Hadi al-Amiri, a pro-Iranian coalition with many Popular Mobilisation Units (PMU) groups, which displayed the effective transformation of the PMUs from a militia into an established political force. Like al-Sadr, al-Amiri demonstrated in this election his ability to mobilise his support base and support the key message of ordinary people.

Al-Abadi’s campaign falls flat:

The overarching pre-election expectation that incumbent Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi’s Nasr coalition would win was based on al-Abadi’s oversight of the fight against Islamic State (IS) and his handling of the unsanctioned Kurdish referendum in Oct 2017. There was also an expectation that his campaigning on an inclusive, national platform – rather than a sectarian one – would resonate well with voters. This view proved off the mark. Whilst al-Abadi gained modest levels of Sunni support, his failure to tackle corruption in any meaningful way during his time in office – and then basing his campaign run on an anti-corruption platform – fell flat with voters, coming in third place with 42 seats for his coalition.

Negotiations Begin:

Meetings between the election factions have begun, and there are likely to be several months of negotiations as attempts are made to build a viable coalition. As a cleric, al-Sadr could not run for a political seat, however won’t necessarily be the ‘kingmaker’ in any deal-making either. There is a real possibility that he could be outmanoeuvred by a pro-Iranian coalition led by al-Amiri and former Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, who came fourth in the election. At present, the most likely end result will be a grand coalition which is opposed to Iranian influence, including Sairoon and Nasr, possibly with al-Abadi remaining as Prime Minister. The Kurdish PUK and KDP parties each largely returned a similar number of seats as in the 2014 election, and with a total of 43 seats between them, they will be keen to form part of a coalition and regain some lost influence after the events of 2017.

Future Trends:

Many questions remain unanswered as discussions continue to play out amongst the key players. Domestically, it is yet to be seen to what degree al-Sadr will stick to his inclusive, nationalist positioning set out during the campaign. Whilst there were attempts from both al-Sadr and al-Abadi to present such a front, patronage and sectarian politics remain the overarching structures in Iraq and they may well default to this in the fluctuations of political dynamics.
An attempt to increase the nationalist state could lead to detrimental effects for Western companies operating in Iraq over time, however any major shifts in policy are unlikely due to the fragmented nature of Iraqi politics, where many of the key ministries will remain in the hands of the other parties. Moreover, al-Sadr will be aware that Iraq needs to rebuild after its ravaging war with IS and that the country is still reliant on international funding to achieve that goal, which donors will see as a leveraging point.

Internationally, the US and Iran will be subtly bemoaning the prospect of lost influence, with the latter especially likely to influence the formation of a new coalition. Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states welcomed al-Sadr’s strong performance, and will possibly seek to enlarge their own influence in the country, raising the prospect of further regional competition with Iran.

Whichever coalition comes to power, it is evident they will need to work hard to prove their worth to a public that has lost confidence in party politics and is desperate for long-awaited stability and economic growth.