By Eleanor Beevor
Time is ticking for Iraq to form a new government. The current Parliament’s term expires on June 30th, and so far there is no confirmed successor. A dominant bloc does appear to have been hewn over the past week between the two biggest victors of the May 2018 election. However, the bloc has not gotten its victory yet.
There is still a long way to go, and even if they succeed, they have made promises to the Iraqi people that are going to be hard to fulfil. Moreover, it is still too early to tell if it will really take Parliament in a few days’ time.
Though no candidate scored a majority in Iraq’s elections, the biggest winner was, for better or for worse, a surprise. Moqtada al-Sadr first became famous during the American invasion of Iraq, as a militant Shia leader who rebelled against Saddam Hussein, but whose Mahdi Army also opposed the US occupation and was responsible for myriad attacks on British and American troops.
The Mahdi Army were also widely feared by Iraqi Sunnis for their regular sectarian violence. Sadr himself was a Shia cleric as much as a militant, although unlike his father, who earned the revered title of Ayatollah for his religious learnings, he has spent less time on religious scholarship, and more on the political and the actual battlefield.
Moqtada al-Sadr (AFP/File Photo)
Yet Sadr is a complicated man, and he is pulled by much grander ambitions than sectarianism. He has always played the nationalism card, but during the course of the 2018 election, Iraqi nationalism effectively became his personal brand. He made bold, populist statements that railed against corruption and the existing political class, as well as against Iraq’s two biggest foreign influencers – Iran and America. However, some Iraq analysts are unconvinced by the substance of Sadr’s campaigning style.
Aymenn Jawad Al-Tamimi, an Iraq analyst at the University of Oxford and a Research Fellow at the Middle East Forum, told Al Bawaba:
“It is impossible for any coalition government in Iraq to operate free of Iranian influence. It's not really a question of 'pro-Iran vs. anti-Iran', but a question of how close different parties and politicians are to Iran. Sadr is clearly a nationalist, just not 'anti-Iran' in the way some observers think he is. I believe his calls for 'reform', though, are largely populist rhetoric. The fact is his followers have been an integral part of the post-2003 political order and all the downsides associated with it: rife corruption, abuse of power and so on.”
Wooing Iranian influence
And Iraq’s inability to escape Iranian influence is embodied in the coalition that Sadr is apparently forming. On Tuesday 12th June, Sadr held a joint press conference with Hadi al-Amiri, the leader of the Badr Party, and the frontrunner for the Fatih alliance, a group of political figures with ties to Iran-backed Shia militias.
Both Sadr’s and Amiri’s followers played important roles in defeating ISIS in Iraqi territory. But other than that, Sadr was keen to differ himself from Amiri during the campaign as much as possible.
Hadi al-Amiri (AFP/Getty Images)
For while Sadr was vocally insisting Tehran stay out of Baghdad’s affairs, Amiri is very much Iran’s man in Iraq. A fluent Farsi speaker with an extensive Iranian network, Amiri can hardly pretend to be independent. One of his bloc’s deputies is under US sanctions for financing the Iranian Revolutionary Guard.
And thus the announcement of the Sadr-Amiri coalition dashed the hopes of many who had hoped to see the end of foreign influence in general, and Iranian influence in particular. Yet those hopes were never hugely realistic. Dr Fanar Haddad, a Senior Research Fellow at the Middle East Institute, told Al Bawaba:
“The Fatah Coalition - or at least its Badr component - were always going to be a part of the next government. The idea that Muqtada al Sadr and his secularist allies were going to usher in a reformist anti-Iranian government that will exclude powerful political forces such as Badr was always fanciful. By the same token however, the idea that Ameri and Sadr will form an anti-US government is equally fanciful. Practically speaking no Iraqi government today (especially a broad coalition as the next one is likely to be) can actually be anti-Iranian or anti-American.”
Though Sadr cannot become Prime Minister himself given that he did not run for the position, he fronted the Sairoun electoral list which was composed of his followers. He will thus, in all likelihood, be the key power broker in the new government. But likelihood is not certainty, in Iraq or anywhere else.
As one analyst commented, “…the most meaningful politics in Iraq take place after the voting”. For unlike other parliamentary democracies, if there is no outright majority, then the coalition with the largest vote share is not given the first chance to form a government. That is, any coalition that can pull together a majority share of seats after the vote wins.
And neither Sadr’s Sairoun list, nor Ameri’s Fatih alliance, gained anything like enough seats to work toward a majority. Sairoun won 54 seats, and Fatih 47. Together this gives them 101 seats, which is still 64 short of a majority. Sadr has also taken a lot of flak from voters for his new alliance with Ameri, which they see as a betrayal of his campaign promises. And indeed, there is a possibility that Sadr will still back away from a coalition with Fatih.
A more natural ally for him is the incumbent Prime Minister Haider Al-Abadi, who is seen to have a more neutral position towards Iran. Partnering with Abadi would still contradict Sadr’s condemnation of Iraq’s existing political class. Abadi’s Dawa Party has been in power since 2005. Though Abadi got a spell of good publicity for the success of the fight against ISIS, it seems Iraqis have had enough. His party was left with only the third-largest share of the vote.
One way for Sadr to save face would be to have Abadi resign from the Dawa Party.
Dawa is currently sharply divided between the two electoral lists it ran – one led by Abadi, and the other by his rival and former Prime Minister Nouri Al-Maliki. Yet so far Abadi has refused to resign.
This is a tactical play on his part as well, since he doesn’t want to rule out the possibility of a reunited Dawa forming a coalition elsewhere. Moreover, if Abadi wants to take the post of Prime Minister in a new coalition, it would do him no good to be seen to be under Sadr’s thumb. He actually refused a meeting with Sadr in Najaf, telling Sadr that since he was still Prime Minister, he was the one who would receive visitors, not the other way around.
Nouri Al-Maliki (Twitter)
Thus while a Sadr-Ameri coalition is looking like a strong possibility, it is not yet guaranteed. Kirk Sowell, an analyst and the publisher of the newsletter “Inside Iraqi Politics”, told Al Bawaba:
“Do not take these alliance announcements too seriously. Without an agreement on a candidate as Prime Minister, or even a clear joint policy program, announcements like the one at the Sadr-Amiri press conference should be viewed as political maneuvering. I suspect this relates to Abadi's refusal to resign from the Dawa Party, but Sadr wouldn't ever publicly put it precisely this way. But for Sadr this increases his leverage as a way of saying, "I have options." But they will need to ally with other factions to create a majority, and I wouldn't read anything more into this than coalition tactics.”
The health of Iraq’s democracy was hotly debated in the wake of the election. On the one hand, surprise winners are usually seen as a good sign that there is potential for change. However, a record-low turnout, coupled with worrying stories of electoral interference and attempts to burn ballot boxes, are clear signs of a loss of hope in the political process. And despite fiery rhetoric, there is little indication so far that the next government, marred by political compromises, can deliver the radical change Iraqis have made clear they want. Dr Fanar Haddad concluded:
“Iraq seems to be headed for more of the same in the form of another 'consensus government'. Rather than trying to untangle Iraq's political contradictions, and rather than creating real winners and losers (government and opposition), Iraq's political elites and foreign stakeholders may conclude that the path of least resistance is to have everyone seated at the table. This is unfortunate given the hopes that many had placed on these 'post-ISIS' elections. The Iraqi electorate's already canyonesque depth of scepticism towards Iraqi politics and the ruling classes is likely to plummet further.”
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