Iraq’s Independent High Electoral Commission announced on its website on Friday, August 10, that its manual recount of the May 12 parliamentary election votes indicated that Shia cleric Muqtada al-Sadr of the Sairoon coalition retained his lead with 54 seats.

Although al-Sadr is not eligible to become prime minister because he did not run as a candidate in the election, he will still play a central role in the formation of the new government.

The commission earlier announced on August 6 that it had completed the manual vote recount, but that a number of voting ballots had been destroyed in a warehouse fire in Baghdad in June. The fire began shortly after the Iraqi parliament voted for the recount.

Prior to the recount, the outcome of the May elections is that Sadr’s Sairoon bloc (meaning “marching to reform”) won 1.3 million votes, gaining 54 seats in the 329-seat parliament. The Fatah alliance, headed by Iranian-backed Shia MP Hadi al-Amiri, came in second place with 47 seats, while incumbent Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi’s Nasri coalition won 42 seats. Al-Abadi was previously the Minister of Communication in the first government following the fall of Saddam Hussein and became Prime Minister in September 2014.

Allegations of ballot fraud and other irregularities after the elections prompted the Iraqi parliament to call for a recount of the votes in June. The commission reported that the recount matched the initial vote in 13 out of 18 provinces, resulting in the Sairoon coalition retaining its lead. The coalition in second place, the Fatah alliance, was up one seat from 47 to 48, while the Nasri coalition maintained its 42 seats.

The Fatah alliance is best characterized by its coalition of Shi’ite Muslims who fought for three years with Iraqi soldiers to defeat Daesh from 2014-2017, as well as its staunch anti-secularism (as compared with the Sairoon coalition’s inclusion of parties like the secular Iraqi Communist Party.)The Deputy Special Representative for Political Affairs and Electoral Assistance of the United Nations Assistance Mission for Iraq, Alice Walpole, applauded the recount as “credible, professional and transparent” on August 6, and encouraged the political groups to form a government as quickly as possible. She added, “[W]e are very pleased that it’s been concluded, and we look forward to the next steps in this process towards the formation of the new government.”

The head of the United Nations Assistance Mission for Iraq (UNAMI), Jan Kubis, urged al-Sadr and his counterparts to form their government by Eid al-Adha, in late August. He stated in an interview with Asharq Al-Awsar, “[T]he [Iraqi] people sent a very strong message about what they expect of the future government, what kind of future government is needed to cover their needs.” The new government must be one of “pro-reform that responds to the expectations and needs of the people and has the political will to deliver.”

Three months after the elections, however, the leading coalitions are still in negotiations to form a new government and show no signs of reaching an agreement. A Foreign Affairs article by Emma Sky maintains that Iraq is more fragmented than ever, evident in the “[F]ive separate Shiite tickets” in the May elections and the multiple candidates from Kurdish, Sunni, and secularist groups. Nevertheless, the same faces are dominating the political scene.

Al-Sadr has allegedly already signed a coalition agreement with the Shia block al-Hakim which has 19 seats and the secular Iyad Allawi, the party of the outgoing vice president, which won 21 seats. Al-Sadr issued a list of forty conditions in late July for the new prime minister. They include political independence, not holding dual citizenship, promising not to seek re-election, avoiding sectarianism, and others. Al-Sadr has threatened not to form a government if the other parties do not support these principles.

The current political uncertainty has stoked public frustration and led to violent protests during the summer months. In July, Iraqis staged demonstrations in Najaf, Basra, Maysan, Dhi Qar, Karbala, and Baghdad over rising unemployment, poor basic services, corruption, poverty, and other grievances. Political analyst Mamoon Alabbasi explained that, as reported by Al Jazeera, “[T]he protests started spontaneously with people demonstrating against poor living conditions, as they have many times in the past . . . . [W]ith political rivals discussing forming government coalitions that are similar to the ones that they’ve always had — it looks likely that nothing will change.”