World News

Iraqi Election Front-Runner Muqtada al-Sadr Courts Partners to Govern

Posted May 15, 2018 6:01 p.m. EDT

The front-runner in Iraqi elections, the populist Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, wasted little time trying to prove to potential allies that he is serious about shaking up the government and cleaning up corruption as he worked to cobble together a governing coalition.

His spokesman, Saleh al-Obeidi, said in an interview in Baghdad on Tuesday that al-Sadr’s movement is seeking allies who agree to its three-plank manifesto — ending the practice of awarding ministries on sectarian quotas, fighting corruption and allowing independent technocrats to manage key government agencies.

“Sai’id Moktada wants to bring Iraq out of crisis and out of misery,” Obeidi said, using an honorific. “We want to start a whole new way of doing things.”

The surprising upset in elections this weekend by al-Sadr’s unlikely alliance of Communists, Sunni businessmen and pious community activists comes amid long-simmering anger at the established politicians who have controlled government since Iraq’s first democratic election in 2005 after the fall of dictator Saddam Hussein. Al-Sadr, who once called for attacks on U.S. forces, capitalized on this widespread discontent by rebranding himself in recent years as a champion of the poor, a firebrand against corruption and a patriot who rails against outside interference by Iran as well as the United States.

But the path toward coalition building is not straightforward in Iraq and there is no guarantee the party that wins the most seats in Parliament will get the first shot at forming a government. Instead, rival parties can try to pre-empt them with another permutation of seats that controls a majority in Parliament.

After the elections, Iraqi political parties shifted to the next phase — phone calls, backroom meetings and deals all with the aim of getting themselves and their allies into government.

Although the final results have not been released, most of the country’s politicians have accepted the tally so far showing al-Sadr’s Sairoon alliance as the surprise winner. Partial vote counts from the country’s 18 provinces indicate that Sairoon, which translates as Moving Forward, won about 54 seats, far short of a majority in the 329-seat legislature.

Two other blocs that partial results indicate came in second and third, Hadi al-Ameri’s Fatah and Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi’s Nasr, appear to have won 45 and 39 seats, respectively. Al-Ameri’s coalition largely consists of militia members who helped defeat the Islamic State. Al-Abadi’s coalition is a cross-sectarian alliance of mostly politicians, businessmen and academics.

Al-Sadr started his outreach on Monday night.

He posted a lyrical tweet in which he described his political goals, weaving in the names of several rival political factions as a hint that he sees them as natural allies. Included were Al-Abadi’s coalition, as well as two Sunni alliances, and a mainstream and opposition Kurdish party.

Al-Sadr, who is based in Iraq’s Shiite holy city of Najaf, and al-Abadi had a warm telephone conversation Tuesday, their aides said. Senior leaders from the Kurdistan Democratic Party based in the Iraqi Kurdistan region also called him.

Al-Obeidi said he expects coalition building to start in earnest only next week, as the final results of the election are not yet tabulated and allegations of electoral fraud in two provinces are slowing down the process.

Politicians from across the spectrum believe that the government formation will take weeks if not months, given the number of political players, possible combinations of alliances and entrenched interests.

As an indication about how importantly the United States and Iran view these elections, governments of both countries sent top officials to assess the situation even before the final results came in.

The head of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps external operations, Gen. Qassem Soleimani, and Brett McGurk, the White House special representative in the fight against Islamic State, both were in Baghdad on Monday meeting with several political factions including al-Abadi and al-Ameri.

A senior aide to al-Sadr said neither side had contacted them.

Americans recall al-Sadr as the leader of a vicious militia that both killed U.S. forces after their occupation in 2003 and spread sectarian violence and lawlessness across Iraq in the late 2000s. More recently, however, Iraqis have come to see him as a political disrupter, not a military one.

For years, al-Sadr has championed social protest movements, and allies from these marches and strikes, including Iraq’s moribund communists, Sunni businessmen and pious community activists, joined him in the 2018 electoral campaign.

Several signs pointed to a rocky struggle to build a new governing coalition, including calls by several major political figures to annul the results of Saturday’s vote.

These include former Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, whose State of Law coalition ran Iraq for eight years. They are projected to finish a distant fifth.

Meanwhile, in Iraq’s Kurdish regions, several political factions have also criticized the vote results, alleging fraud.

On Sunday night, clashes between political parties broke out in Suleimaniyah. Vote totals in Kurdish-dominated Dohuk and the oil-rich Kirkuk region have still not been published.

The head of the Iraqi Bar Association, Ahlam Allami, who headed a large group of poll monitors, reported scattered and minor irregularities on Election Day, such as some polling stations not opening on time and campaigning occurring illegally close to voting stations. He urged investigations into these incidents.