Iraq's Sadr leads in initial vote results
LONDON - Powerful nationalist cleric Moqtada al-Sadr was leading in Iraq's parliamentary election with more than half the votes counted, the electoral commission said, a surprise comeback for a Shia leader who had been sidelined by Iran-backed rivals.
Shia militia chief Hadi al-Amiri's bloc, which is backed by Tehran, was in second place, according to the count of more than 95 percent of the votes cast in 10 of Iraq's 18 provinces.
The preliminary results are a setback for Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi who, despite entering the election as the apparent frontrunner, appeared to be running third. Abadi performed poorly across majority Shia provinces that should have been his base of support.
Unlike Abadi, a rare ally of both the United States and Iran, Sadr is an enemy of both countries that have wielded influence in Iraq after the US-led invasion that toppled Saddam Hussein and ushered Shia-led governments to power.
Sadr has led two uprisings against US forces in Iraq and is one of the few Shia leaders to distance himself from Iran.
Sadr's apparent victory does not mean his bloc could necessarily form the next government as whoever wins the most seats must negotiate a coalition government, expected to be formed within 90 days of the official results.
Security and commission sources had earlier said Abadi was leading the election, which was held on May 12 and is the first since the defeat of Islamic State (ISIS) in the country.
Turnout was 44.52 percent with 92 percent of votes counted, the Independent High Electoral Commission said - that was significantly lower than in previous elections. Full results are due to be officially announced later.
Sadr and Amiri both came in first in four of the 10 provinces where votes were counted, but the cleric's bloc won significantly more votes in the capital, Baghdad, which has the highest number of seats.
The commission did not announce how many seats each bloc had gained and said it would do so after announcing the results from the remaining provinces.
Sadr will not become prime minister as he did not run in the election but his apparent victory puts him in a position to pick someone for the job. Winning the largest number of seats does not automatically guarantee that, however. The other winning blocs would have to agree on the nomination.
Iran has publicly stated it would not allow his bloc to govern.
"We will not allow liberals and communists to govern in Iraq," Ali Akbar Velayati, top adviser to the Islamic Republic's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, said in February.
His statement, which sparked criticism by Iraqi figures, was referring to the electoral alliance between Sadr, the Iraqi Communist Party and other secular groups who joined protests organised by Sadr in 2016 to press the government to see through a move to stem endemic corruption.
Sadr has a zealous following among the young, poor and dispossessed but had been sidelined by influential Iranian-backed figures.
The results unexpectedly showed former Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki, who was touted as a serious challenger to Abadi, lagging behind.
The strong showing could be a testament to Sadr's loyal base of followers he maintains who cast their ballots despite a general mood of apathy that kept many Iraqis away from the polls.
Many of the candidates on Amiri’s list were militia commanders before they cut their official ties with the force in order to seek office.
Amiri’s strong result will be seen as a victory for Iran as it seeks to protect its interests in the Iraq, including the militias it finances and has sometimes directed to fight alongside its forces in Syria.
Any political party or alliance must gain a majority of Iraq's 329 seats in parliament to be able to choose a prime minister and form a government. Dozens of alliances ran for office in these elections and months of negotiations are expected before any one alliance can pull together the 165 required seats.
Until a new prime minister is chosen, Abadi will remain in office, retaining all his power.
Political power in Iraq is traditionally divided along sectarian lines among the offices of prime minister, president and parliament speaker. The Shia majority has held the position of prime minister, while the Kurds have held the presidency and the Sunnis have held the post of parliament speaker.
The constitution sets a quota for female representation, stating that no less than one-fourth of parliament members must be women. Nearly 2,600 women are running for office this year.
The low turnout and apparent strong showing for the more anti-establishment blocs showed that many Iraqis are fed up with the political elite that has dominated the country since the US-led invasion.
Across the war-scarred nation people railed against the same old faces who they accuse of corruption and sectarianism.
Turnout was low despite a sharp decrease in violence across the country, with threats from ISIS against the polls failing to materialise.
(The Arab Weekly staff and news agencies)