Iraqi elections shake up old Shiite political guard

The final results of the Iraqi elections on October 10 were announced on October 18. The results are expected to be approved by the Federal Court in two weeks without major changes.

The Shiites split into three main groups: the Sadrists with 73 seats, the rule of law of Nouri Maliki with 34 seats and the Fatah Popular Mobilization Unit with 17 seats. This is in addition to the majority of independents (around 40) who are mostly Shiites.

The results sent shockwaves across the country, both in joy and disbelief. Many members of the pro-protest movement applauded the electoral defeat of their main enemy: the Fatah coalition, a powerful alliance of pro-Iranian militias widely accused of killing and intimidating protesters. The coalition fell from 48 seats in the 2018 election to 17 seats in the last election, a reduction of over 60%. But politicians and supporters of the losing coalition, refusing to acknowledge defeat, campaigned to discredit Iraq’s High Independent Electoral Commission (IHEC) and barely threatened that “social peace” would be disrupted if the results elections were held.

As IHEC backed the results, Fatah stepped up rhetoric, asking its supporters to take to the streets in protest. It was a poor performance: a few hundred in Baghdad and other towns in the south and middle Euphrates. Relatives of Fatah have raised the possibility of resorting to weapons “to correct the results”. The government responded by deploying security forces in Baghdad and elsewhere, indicating that it was ready to respond to any armed breaches of the peace.

What gives teeth to the rejection of Fatah is its political arm. The “coordination framework” was originally designed to “coordinate” the positions of Shiite Islamist actors, including the Sadrists, in the outgoing parliament. Although ineffective, the framework was quickly revived after the election, to oppose its new realities. But like all other coordination efforts between these groups since 2003, this one is likely to fail as the interests of its members vary.

Ammar al-Hakim and Haidar al-Abadi are ready to abandon once the legal avenues are exhausted and to organize for another day while trying to keep as much as possible their pre-election gains. Former Prime Minister Nouri Maliki’s State of the Law bloc, the sole winner of this alliance of electoral losers, wants to use the group’s influence to force Muqtada al-Sadr to negotiate some sort of partnership agreement.

Fatah, however, sees this as an existential struggle. In addition to maintaining the patronage of the state it won through its electoral gains in 2018 and its political sponsorship of Hashd, Fatah is also motivated by ideological considerations. As an important part of Iran’s regional axis of resistance, it wants to continue using its militias to align Iraq with Iran’s interests.

Fatah’s current bravado cannot get it anywhere electorally. The election results will remain true, given the international and Iraqi government support for IHEC. Iran’s intervention is Fatah’s best bet. In his victory speech, al-Sadr’s categorical promise to subdue the militias and adopt an impartial approach to Iraq’s foreign relations (a carefully worded hint of openness to the United States) was enough to worry Iran.

Iraqi sources speak of Iranian “mediation” efforts to bring together all Shiite actors, Sadrists and members of the Coordination Framework, in a sort of “unifying” arrangement that fundamentally restores past practices: the various Shiite Islamist actors first agreeing on a candidate for the post of Prime Minister. and a government program, then approach the Sunnis and Kurds with this unified position to gain their support as well.

By prioritizing Shia political identity over electoral victories, such an arrangement appeases many Shia losers, but it would essentially dilute, if not outright strip the Sadrists of their electoral victory. More importantly, the arrangement would produce an ineffective governance formula, essentially repeating the structural failures of post-2003 governments where decision-making was difficult, accountability shirked, and performance consistently poor.

Al-Sadr’s challenge is precisely there: to translate his electoral victory into political victory. In this still ethno-sectarian power-sharing system, he becomes the sole or at least the dominant Shiite actor in the formation of the government, eventually concluding an agreement with the Sunnis and the Kurds to form a majority government. It would be a new formula of government where the Sadrists would enjoy the privileges of governing while taking responsibility for both failures and successes. A responsible majority government would be a step in the right direction.

What complicates this scenario is that the Sadrists did not win the majority of Shiite votes. This leaves al-Sadr with two scenarios. He could ally himself with Maliki while ignoring other members of the cadre like Fatah, a very hard pill for al-Sadr to swallow. Or the Sadrists could negotiate a deal with the non-Islamist Shiite election winners, more than 40 new independent and pro-protesting members of parliament. This deal could involve non-Islamist members voting for the transition from the Sadrist government to parliament, but without participating in the government itself, thus maintaining their opposition status. Indeed, there are already initial discussions on this subject between the two parties.

Such an agreement would strengthen al-Sadr’s claim to be represented by the Shiites and help it against Iranian pressure. For his part, al-Sadr should do something to close his gap with the protest movement he previously targeted. The new members of the “opposition” would weaken their enemies, the Shiite “old guard” whose failures in power and corruption led to the protest movement in the first place.

In Iraq’s current difficult transition period, this marriage of convenience can work.

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