Iraq’s surprise election results raise questions about next leader

Iraq’s boycott camp also celebrated the outcome of this year’s parliamentary vote.
Sunday 20/05/2018
A supporter of the Iraqi Communist Party holds the communist symbol of the hammer and sickle during a march in Baghdad.   (AFP)
Propitious alliance. A supporter of the Iraqi Communist Party holds the communist symbol of the hammer and sickle during a march in Baghdad. (AFP)

LONDON - The announcement of Iraq’s election results came as a surprise to many but supporters of the victorious candidates did not wait long before celebrating in the streets of Baghdad.

Iraq’s communist-Islamist Sairoon alliance — backed by political chameleon and populist leader Muqtada al-Sadr — came out on top, the front-runner in six out of 18 provinces.

While the victory has brought Iraq’s Communist Party back into the political fold, the new government, when it does form, will not garner nationwide support. For the first time since 2003, it will be composed without the say-so of Sunni and Kurdish constituents.

Winning the greatest proportion of seats, Sairoon demonstrated renewed popularity, securing 1.3 million votes and overtaking Iraq’s incumbent Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi and his predecessor, Nuri al-Maliki.

While Sadr’s campaign secured visible gains this year, his alliance fell short of winning the 165 seats needed to form a government. Without a plurality of votes, second and third place candidates have greater room for manoeuvre to form, should they wish, an unholy alliance to establish a government independent of Sadr.

Raed Fahmi, secretary-general of Iraq’s communist party, has heralded Abadi’s Victory alliance as the communist party’s favoured ally. However, year-old predictions that Iraq may welcome a militia commander as the head of the new government also stand.

Hadi al-Amiri, head of the Badr brigade, and Abadi, who ranked second and third in the race respectively, have the combined numbers to head the new government. The administration of US President Donald Trump hopes to continue relying on Abadi, America’s favourite, hand-picked replacement to Maliki in 2014, but it may have to accept power alignments rather than put Abadi and Amiri on equal footing.

Despite falling from great heights, Maliki demonstrated enduring strength and an ability to harness patronage networks to shore up support in this year’s election, coming in fourth. Hanan al-Fatlawi, the Dawa party’s ardent spokesperson, will not be occupying a seat in parliament, a sure sign of the waning appeal of vehemently sectarian figures. Islamist candidate Ammar al-Hakim from the Hikma (Wisdom) movement (splintered from the Supreme Council of Iraq) proved unpopular but was still able to secure more than a dozen seats. Whether 2018 will be the first year Iraq’s administration will not be dominated by Iraq’s once-outlawed Dawa party might be too early to tell.

Sadr’s Sairoon alliance was not the only group with cause for celebration. Iraq’s boycott camp also celebrated the outcome of this year’s parliamentary vote for the disruption its abstention dealt to Iraq’s status quo. The boycott will inevitably contribute to the tug of war that will ensue between the contenders, all of whom were denied the ability to secure an outright majority due to record-high abstention levels.

In Iraq’s Kurdish region, rival parties remain busy trading allegations of fraud and vote-rigging despite assurances from Iraq’s electoral commission that this year’s electronic voting device would stamp out irregularities. The Kurdish Democratic Party won the majority of seats, beating the six Kurdish parties that stood in the race.

Iraq’s Turkmen Front Party, headed by Ershad al-Salhi, has lodged complaints with the High Electoral Commission. Echoing similar concerns, supporters of the party came out onto the streets in Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK)-dominated Kirkuk to protest voting irregularities.

The shape of the government will not be determined so much by seats as by power-sharing. The man that will be crowned Iraq’s new prime minister will assume the unenvious task of balancing Iraq’s interests against Iran’s and the United States’. The present count does not include diaspora votes and those cast by security forces on May 10 and 11, which could shake up or cement the present ranking. Abadi may stand to gain a much-needed boost to equalise, but if he agrees to enter into power with Iran-backed Amiri, he must accept a demotion and a militia commander as Iraq’s new prime minister. Government formation may still be used by leading Dawa party contenders as an opportunity to nurse existing divisions by entering into an alliance with paramilitary militias that welcome Iran in Iraq but stand vehemently opposed to America’s continued presence in Iraq.

The success of the coalition that forms will rest on the ability to harmonise the interests of leading incumbents. While Amiri is happy for deepening commitments from Tehran in his country, Abadi and Sadr have both promised to safeguard Iraqi sovereignty by pulling Baghdad out of Iran’s yolk.