While the ramifications of the May 12 parliamentary elections in Iraq will take months to shake out, three key points are clear. In the first election since the military defeat of the Islamic State, no polling site was hit by a major attack and no major security incident was reported, marking a significant achievement for the country's security forces. Second, the margins of victory among the major alliances were narrower than ever, meaning tricky cross-sectarian coalition building awaits in the months ahead. Finally, and most importantly, the victory of the alliance run by nationalist Shiite leader Muqtada al-Sadr over a crowded Shiite field will push the next government to transcend sectarian politics, and al-Sadr's promises to fight corruption will force the government to act on this issue. Also, al-Sadr's penchant for independence will not please the external powers attempting to influence Iraq, including the United States and Iran.
In its 2018 Second Quarter Forecast, Stratfor noted that Iran would count on Iraq's mostly Shiite Popular Mobilization Forces and its associated political parties to perform well in parliamentary elections in May. The electoral group did perform well and will give Iran an additional channel of influence in Baghdad. We also noted that nationalist parties and factions would split the country's Shiite majority. The nationalist, independent Shiite group led by Muqtada al-Sadr indeed appears to have won the most seats in the election.
Since the U.S. invasion and the dramatic overhaul of the government in 2003, Iraq has held four parliamentary elections; each was followed by months of negotiations to form a government. Through public and private meetings, politicians decide on a speaker for the 329-seat house of representatives, a president and a prime minister. By tradition, but not by law, the speaker is Sunni, the president is Kurdish and the prime minister — the most powerful role — is Shiite. The process is tumultuous because of the democratic nature of the system; voters have a real say in which groups come out ahead and in which groups influence the selection for posts in the Cabinet, including positions in the powerful oil, finance and interior ministries.
This election, though, was marked by the country's lowest turnout ever for parliamentary balloting: 44 percent. In 2005, turnout was 79 percent; in 2010, it was 62 percent; and in 2014, it was 60 percent. Even though voters in some Sunni majority provinces had trouble reaching the polls in this election, the security situation during those earlier years was worse. The drop in turnout may indicate a declining trust in the ability of elections to produce governments that can deliver on promises and improve the lives of Iraqis. Despite their ability to democratically select representatives, Iraqis still see their country struggling with corruption, a lack of economic growth and lingering insecurity.
Despite their ability to democratically select representatives, Iraqis still see their country struggling with corruption, a lack of economic growth and lingering insecurity.
Since 2003, the rallying cry against graft has gotten louder in part because the country lacks an effective economy aside from oil revenue, which has fueled resentment among the people over how this income is distributed. In the near term, reining in corruption will be an insurmountable challenge, no matter the government.
The economy also suffers from excessive subsidies. Iraq is by some counts the largest subsidized state in the world, with public sector spending about 40 percent of the gross domestic product. According to the International Monetary Fund, nearly half of all jobs in the country are in the public sector or with state-owned enterprises, indicating the stagnation of the private sector. Welfare transfers are lower per capita than some other Middle Eastern and North African states, but the government has been unable to slash them. It is facing an unsustainable cycle of promising further subsidies on goods while not raising taxes. This precarious system has kept people minimally fed and clothed, but it has hurt the economy's ability to grow. The public-sector wage bill also detracts from the government's ability to spend on broken-down infrastructure, hospitals, schools and upgrades for the oil and gas sector, which provides 60 percent of GDP.
Turning Toward Al-Sadr
In this climate, many voters have decided to take a chance on what al-Sadr represents. While the final tally hasn't been completed, the list of candidates supported by al-Sadr has won the most votes. Al-Sadr tapped into this discontent with the government and the belief that the traditional political class consistently fails to deliver on its promises. He is well-known for carrying the torch from his famous Shiite cleric father, Ayatollah Mohammed Sadeq al-Sadr (widely believed to have been killed in 1999 by forces loyal to Saddam Hussein), and for his deadly militias. His deep-set opposition to allowing the United States, or any external power, including Iran, to shape Iraq has burnished his populist appeal.
These days, though, he has minimized his militia ties and made anti-corruption his main banner and nationalism and Iraqi independence from external meddling his rallying cry. During the past four years of Haider al-Abadi's tenure as prime minister, al-Sadr has loudly advocated the formation of a government run by technical experts. And he has repeatedly pressured al-Abadi to make good on his promises to rein in rampant corruption. Al-Sadr has used his ability to tap into popular demands and anger to bring demonstrators into the streets to pressure the government.
During the campaign, al-Sadr made surprising moves by talking with unconventional allies — communists, Kurds and even Saudi Arabian officials.
During the campaign, he made surprising moves by talking with unconventional allies — communists, Kurds and even Saudi Arabian officials. In doing so, he tapped into a strong demand by many Iraqis for policy that transcends sectarianism and ethnic divides. In the coming months, coalition building will need to reflect the popular demand for cross-sectarian and multiethnic cooperation, as well as the teamwork needed to form a functioning government.
Putting It All Together
With his votes, al-Sadr could end up playing kingmaker. But even he will need to compromise and consider whether he wants his allies to be part of the government or part of the opposition. After all, no Shiite list has a majority, and the margins of victory are narrow. In 2010, the list with the biggest vote share didn't even get the first shot at forming a government, because opponents cobbled together a larger bloc right after the elections.
Still, the major Shiite-led lists will have the largest footprint in the new government simply based on demographics in Shiite-majority Iraq, but the smaller Sunni-led lists, such as the al-Wataniya bloc, and the traditional Kurdish-led parties, such as the Kurdistan Democratic Party and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, will be critical allies. Although the Kurds and Sunnis historically feel underrepresented in Iraq, the seats they bring to the table will be key for forming blocs because of the tight margins. Of course, the powerful in Baghdad know that the communities they represent are essential to understand and include in policymaking; otherwise civil strife could tear the fragile country apart again.
In the past, al-Sadr has worked pragmatically with al-Abadi, who openly cooperates with the United States, and he could be expected to do so again. Despite al-Sadr's resistance to joining forces with Washington, he could support al-Abadi for prime minister and not disrupt the U.S.-Iraq relationship. Preferring to rely on Iraqi forces, al-Sadr can be expected to pressure al-Abadi to resist additional U.S. counterterrorism support. In the end, the Victory list led by al-Abadi, with his penchant for working with everyone and a track record polished by his defeat of the Islamic State, makes him one of the most valuable allies for the coming coalition building.
However, al-Sadr could ally with pro-Iranian factions, such as those led by Hadi al-Amiri or Nouri al-Maliki, giving Iran a significant bloc to work with in the parliament. In that grouping, the popularity of al-Amiri and al-Sadr would offset the dislike for al-Maliki among Sunnis and Kurds. In a statement after the election, al-Sadr made his preferences clear, indicating that he would work with just about everyone except the Iran-allied factions under al-Amiri and al-Maliki. That choice is unsurprising based on the rivalry and bad blood between al-Sadr and the politicians closely linked to Iran.
While al-Sadr is reluctant to accept outside support from just about anyone — a desire for independence that appeals to Iraqis — even he cannot rid the country of all external ties. The Gulf states provide investment money for infrastructure; Iran provides money for security forces and political parties; and Turkey, the United States and the European Union provide aid. The weaknesses in Iraq's economy open up huge opportunities for outsiders to chip in and support Iraq's development, but such help often comes with political strings. No matter how decisively an incoming government commits to an economic reform plan or strives for independence, some aid from outside countries and institutions will be needed.
Ultimately, much to Washington's chagrin, Iranian influence will still run deep in the next Iraqi government, because of a steady buildup of economic, security and political ties. In this election, one of the lists that gathered the most votes was led by al-Amiri and made up of Iran-backed Shiite militias. These groups are now altering the political landscape of Iraq. But if al-Sadr persuades al-Abadi and smaller parties to work with him against Iran's closest allies in the government, which is what Iran rival Saudi Arabia hoped for by verbally supporting his campaign, then Iran, like the United States, could see its influence restrained in the next government.