Iraqi elections' big winner Moqtada al Sadr promised a non-corrupt political system, less sectarian division, and sovereignty under a coalition he wants to create. But the challenge of realising them is bigger than forming a government.
The American invasion of Iraq in 2003 led to the development of a political system based on sectarian and ethnic divisions. Fifteen years later, Shia cleric Moqtada al Sadr, who once raged against the US invasion of the country, won the majority of the vote in the first parliamentary election after the defeat of Daesh. It guaranteed Sadr's influence in choosing the country’s next prime minister.
But this time, Sadr surfaced with some new rhetoric – still against foreign influence, especially Iranian and American, but less sectarian-oriented and instead focusing on the fight against corruption – a major obstacle for the country.
That’s why the partnership between Sadr's party, the Sairun Alliance, and the Communist Party for the parliamentary election on May 12 was not a source of conflict for the cleric, who is now focused on appealing to a broader base in Iraq.
For the 55 percent of the voters, who were mostly from Sunni majority areas, the new anti-corruption rhetoric wasn’t convincing enough to go to the polls. Indeed, Iraq’s Independent High Electoral Commission (IHEC) announced they might annul around 10 percent of the votes due to the corruption accusations, saying a "gross violation affecting the outcome of elections" had been committed.
Harith al Qarawee, a senior fellow for the Atlantic Council wrote that the main issue lies with "political groups that insist on depriving IHEC of its independence in the first place, and fail to genuinely commit themselves to the rules of free and fair competition," even though he says there were some concerns about the election system that still needed to be addressed.
Iraqi President Fuad Masum protested the IHEC's decision, which has not been applied yet, and it's not certain if it will ever be.
Regardless, Sadr now faces the challenge of delivering his promises: a political system free of corruption, a decrease in the sectarian division and a sovereign Iraq. The widespread Iraqi aspirations for change transformed him from a controversial cleric to a populist leader.
Fanar Haddad, a senior research fellow for the Middle East Institute, says there is broad resentment in Iraq regarding foreign influence in the country.
"There's a realisation [in Iraq] that something needs to change ... There is a lot of pressure on the Iraqi government, not just popular pressure from the Iraqi people but also fiscal and economic pressure from economic realities that it finds itself in," he says.
Two potential ways to go: with or without Sadr
Qarawee told TRT World that there are two possible scenarios regarding the formation of a new government.
"First is a scenario in which Sadr will try to ally with Abadi and form a new bloc based on their similar programs," Qarawee says.
"It would imply an avoidance of alliances formed on basis of identity politics and perhaps a more effective mode of governance, which Iraq desperately needs to deal with its social and economic problems, as well the security challenge," he adds.
In Iraq, an alliance’s victory in the elections is not enough to form a government. Because even if an alliance wins the maximum possible votes, it doesn’t secure the majority needed to form the government. That means the alliances will be competing to set up a coalition to reach the threshold, which is 165 seats, and choose the next Iraqi prime minister.
For Haddad, even if Sadr succeeds in forming a government, "the issues around tribalism, sectarian identity and the apportionment of positions based on [it] and corruption will likely persist in the foreseeable future."
Shia leader Nouri al Maliki was the PM of Iraq between 2006 and 2014. Highly influenced by Iran, he pursued sectarian policies during his eight-year rule. His successor, PM Abadi, also a Shia leader, adopted a less sectarian form of governance. After the defeat of Daesh in 2017, he created a cross-sectarian alliance in hopes of attracting more votes. However, the electoral system in Iraq remains the same – based on proportional representation along ethno-sectarian lines.
"At the social level, I don’t think the Iraqi people are fundamentally divided along sectarian lines. But at the political level, it continues to be the operating principle of Iraqi politics," Haddad says.
Efforts to eliminate the second scenario: A Shia coalition without Sadr
Sadr already began negotiating with the heads of alliances, including Abadi and Hadi al Ameri, the leader of the Badr organisation.
"If anything, Sadr has made it clear that he is unwilling to work with Maliki’s State of Law alliance," Haddad says.
Sadr and Maliki, who cooperated in the parliament until 2006, parted ways because Sadr accused Maliki of not fighting the American influence, and criticised his pro-Iranian sentiment. Sadr continues to accuse Maliki of country-wide corruption.
On the other hand, Ameri’s Badr organisation, also backed by Iran, was the better option for Sadr to include his coalition. Badr was first formed with the help of Iran to fight against Saddam Hussein's army during the Iraq-Iran War. Later in 2014, when Daesh controlled large swaths of territory in the country, Badr re-emerged as the leading group in the Hashd al Shaabi paramilitary forces, which is largely armed, trained and commanded by Iran.
“There does seem to be a sort of a counter-effort on the part of Maliki, who is the head of States of Law alliance, and Ameri, who is heading the Badr organisation and the Fatah coalition. The signals being made that they might be able to win over the Kurdish KDP,” Haddad says.
For Qarawee, that would be the second scenario.
In this case, he says "the current PM Haidar al Abadi’s party will push him to form a coalition with other groups that are closer to Iran, and Iran will put pressure on its Shia allies to come together again, with a possible effort to exclude Sadr."
"Such a dynamic would return to a very unpopular formula, which has in the past seen the formation of weak governments divided among different parties," Qarawee says.
Iranian influence is inevitable and it has a lot to do with the US
Qarawee says the first scenario would be the promising one, perhaps with a more effective mode of governance.
Haddad says, however, it doesn’t mean that the promises made by Sadr, especially regarding complete sovereignty, will be applicable in case Sadr succeeds in forming the government. He says especially eliminating Iranian influence in Iraqi politics won’t be possible.
"They are Iran’s most valuable clients in Iraq today," he says. In any scenario, he doesn't see the Badr organisation being excluded from the next government.
But how Iran’s influence will show itself in Iraqi politics is very much dependent on its relationship with other countries.
"A lot will also depend on how the pressure on Iran from the United States, Israel and Saudi Arabia evolves moving forward."
The US President Donald Trump declared that he would withdraw from the Iran nuclear deal on May 8, and the deal legally expired on the day of the Iraqi elections. These are the two countries that have the power to turn Iraqi politics in their own favour.
"If Iran has pushed into a corner, it is very likely to try to break out in Iraq and it's very likely to try to retaliate in Iraq," Haddad says.
"And of course, this will very likely be at the expense of Iraq."