Iraq elections boost nationalist al-Sadr at expense of pro-Iran bloc

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abu dhabi Shia cleric Muktada al-Sadr has emerged as a leading figure in Iraqi politics in Sunday’s parliamentary elections.

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why it matters: Al-Sadr has positioned itself as a safeguard against foreign interference in Iraq. They have a history of violent opposition to US forces in the country, but have recently proved adept at presenting themselves to regional and international partners as a more palatable alternative to Iranian rivals.

  • He is arguably the most successful opportunist of the post-Saddam Hussein era, rising from relative obscurity to a nationalist kingmaker over the past 18 years.

state of play: The turnout is estimated at only 41% of registered voters, and will be even lower if all eligible voters are included. Millions of people decided to boycott, and young Iraqis were particularly disillusioned.

  • The vote was brought forward after mass protests against corruption, poor public services and Tehran’s interference in Iraqi affairs.
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break it: Preliminary results show that al-Sadr’s faction won at least 73 seats in the 329-member parliament.

  • The Iran-aligned Fatah Alliance, made up of Shia militias, won only 14 seats, down from 48 in 2018. This can be seen as a rejection of Iranian influence and the militias’ violent opposition to the protests. The head of the coalition rejected the results.
  • Al-Sadr is an opponent of the Fatah coalition and positions itself in opposition to Iran’s influence on the Shia political class. But former Iran-aligned prime minister Nouri al-Maliki also made a strong showing, complicating the prospects for a Shia alliance.
  • The coalition led by Sunni parliamentary speaker Mohamed al-Halbousi won 38 seats, making it potentially the second largest bloc in parliament. Kurdish parties won 61 seats.

What will happen next: Official final results are still pending and votes are yet to be counted and seats are yet to be decided. Although this is unlikely to change the state of al-Sadr, the delay does increase the already charged atmosphere.

  • Violence on the streets poses a real risk of escalating intra-Shiite tensions as groups jockey between talks to form a government and choose a prime minister, which could take months.
  • Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi did not run in the elections, although he could still potentially retain his job. Under his leadership, Iraq has played a mediator role for the region, and the prime minister’s choice will affect whether this continues.
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of note: The Iraqi government has denied reports that the commander of Iran’s IRGC Quds Force, Ismail Qani, made a secret visit to Baghdad on Monday. Tehran would be willing to massage any dispute between parties loyal to it.

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