Sadr Victory in Iraqi Elections Could Stoke Regional and International Tension

ELECTIONS -- Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr’s Sairoon political coalition won the most seats in the Iraqi national elections on May 12, 2018. The results were announced one week after the elections due to accusations of fraud and other irregularities that delayed the final vote count. These accusations have persisted and, on May 30, the Independent High Electoral Commission of Iraq annulled votes cast at more than 1,000 ballot boxes. Significantly, 186 of the stations are located in Kirkuk, a northeastern city that has seen high levels of sectarian violence between Kurds, Turks and Arabs. Adding to the trouble, just two weeks after the election results were announced, Sadr had so far failed to gain pledges of support from 165 MPs, the figure needed to constitute a majority. Even the partial overturning of the election results could drag Iraq towards greater instability. On the other hand, should Sadr remain in power,  tensions with Iran and the United States would likely be exacerbated.

Sadr Victory in Iraqi Elections Could Stoke Regional and International Tension
Muqtada Al-Sadr

ELECTIONS — Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr’s Sairoon political coalition won the most seats in the Iraqi national elections on May 12, 2018. The results were announced one week after the elections due to accusations of fraud and other irregularities that delayed the final vote count. These accusations have persisted and, on May 30, the Independent High Electoral Commission of Iraq annulled votes cast at more than 1,000 ballot boxes. Significantly, 186 of the stations are located in Kirkuk, a northeastern city that has seen high levels of sectarian violence between Kurds, Turks and Arabs. Adding to the trouble, just two weeks after the election results were announced, Sadr had so far failed to gain pledges of support from 165 MPs, the figure needed to constitute a majority. Even the partial overturning of the election results could drag Iraq towards greater instability. On the other hand, should Sadr remain in power,  tensions with Iran and the United States would likely be exacerbated.

Sadr’s Sairoon bloc won 1.3 million votes, gaining 54 of the parliament’s 329 seats. The Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF), headed by Iranian-backed Shiite militia chief Hadi al-Amiri’s Fatah Alliance, came in second place with 47 seats, while incumbent Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi’s Nasri coalition won 42 seats. Although Sadr heads the party that won the most seats, he is not eligible to become prime minister since he did not run as a candidate in the election. Furthermore, it is unclear whether someone else from his party will have the opportunity to fill the position, given that Sadr is struggling to form a coalition bloc large enough to hold a majority in parliament.

The elections were marked by low turnout, with only 44.52 percent of registered voters participating, which was 15 percent lower than the turnout for the 2014 elections. Many Iraqis did not vote because they did not believe that the elections would bring about any social or political change. Some criticized the fact that most of the candidates came from same old pool of political elites, a group many blame for the nation’s persistently high rates of unemployment and corruption. Online activists also contributing to low turnout by launching a campaign to boycott the elections.

Amidst accusations of fraud, several parliamentary blocs are demanding that a vote be held on June 4 to determine whether or not a manual recount will be required. The Independent High Electoral Commission of Iraq has already cancelled votes from 1,021 of 53,000 ballot boxes. On May 28, parliament voted to recount 10 percent of the votes and to annul the votes cast by Iraqi expatriates. Many of the annulled votes were from Kurdish regions of the country or Sunni majority provinces, such as Anbar, Saladin and Diyala. A recount of the votes could stoke regional tensions among ethnic groups if the results of the election are rescinded.

Already, the Iraqi Turkmen Front has staged a sit-in in Kirkuk. The front has demanded a manual recount of the votes. Protesters surrounded the warehouses where ballot boxes are being stored, effectively preventing the electoral commission from retrieving the boxes and transferring them to Baghdad. The local spokesman of the Turkmen Front, Hassan Toran, cautioned that “not responding to the demands of the Turkmen to manually recount the votes could ignite a crisis in the governorate” in an interview with Al-Monitor.

At the international level, Sadr’s election victory could provoke tensions with the U.S. and Iran. Sadr gained political recognition in 2003 when he opposed the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq. His followers were responsible for orchestrating bloody attacks against British and American soldiers, provoking violence against Iraqi Sunnis and participating in other nefarious activities.

The Shiite cleric also openly opposes Iran. Last year he travelled to Jeddah to meet with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, Iran’s archrival. While in Jeddah, Sadr reportedly assured Saudi Arabia that Iraq would not become another patron of Iran. During his recent parliamentary campaign, he promised to challenge Iranian and American influences in Iraq. He also denounced the Tehran-backed Fatah Alliance, which came in second at the polls. Some Iranian analysts believe that the U.S. and Saudi Arabia are behind Sadr’s victory, but given Sadr’s position towards the U.S., that appears unlikely.

Iran also disapproves of Sadr’s alliance with the Iraqi Communist party and other secular groups. Prior to the elections, Iranian officials announced that a secular government in Iraq would be unacceptable to them. Ayatollah Ali Khamenei stated, “[W]e will not allow liberals and communists to govern Iraq.” Sadr’s alliance with the Iraqi Communist party and other secular groups was established over security and corruption concerns back in 2015. Sadr’s popularity is due, in large part, to the widespread support for  his reformist and nationalist agenda among members of Iraq’s Shiite working class, who have also been won over by his critical position on Iran and his opposition to corruption. Following his victory, Sadr announced, “Iraq and reforms have won with your votes.”

It remains to be seen if the ongoing allegations of fraud will end up forcing Sadr’s Sairoon alliance from power. However, the strong contestation of the election results highlights the weak rule of law in Iraq and suggests instability will persist for the time being.