Iraq’s Elections Are Over. Now What?

Iraq’s fifth parliamentary election since the 2003 US invasion is procedurally over. The polling stations have closed, but the fight over the results has just begun.

The situation is still in flux. A week after election day, the Independent High Electoral Commission (IHEC) is still checking ballots and receiving complaints. Its preliminary results are vehemently contested and there may be minor changes in the final tally. Turnout was low: at 43 percent, it was among the lowest for any election since 2005, signaling  a deep and worrisome distrust in the political process and state institutions. Nevertheless, and despite some operational glitches, the process appeared to go smoothly, with no violence, less fraud than usual, and minimal irregularities. As the the European Union mission to observe the election put it, “Voting on election day was largely peaceful and orderly.”

An Upheaval in the Political System

The process may have been orderly, but the results jolted the political system. The Saeroon bloc, the party of cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, won 73 seats, a gain of 19 seats over the 2018 elections, making it by far the largest single party in parliament. State of Law, the party led by former Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, made a resounding comeback, winning 35 seats to its 25 seats three years ago. The dramatic upsets were the results of the factions loyal to Iran. The Fateh bloc, a coalition headed by Hadi al-Amiri and comprising Asa’ib Ahl al-Haq (AAH) and other Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF) groups, lost dramatically, winning only 16 seats to their 48 in 2018. Kataib Hezbollah, a hard-line PMF faction, got one seat only despite all its pre-election bluster. Among the Sunnis, Speaker of Parliament Mohammed al-Halbousi’s Taqaddum gained a long lead over two other Sunni parties, with 38 seats. The biggest surprise, however, was the impressive win by groups that emerged from the 2019 protest movement, notably Imtidad with nine seats and Kanoon with six, along with other smaller groups and independent candidates. Independent reformists may account for as many as 30 seats, well above the Fateh bloc. Another gratifying success has been scored by women candidates, who won 97 seats, 14 above the mandatory quota. Election results indicate that the seeds of change have been planted—but only time will show if they germinate and flourish.

The Sadrists have clearly outstripped all other groups after running a disciplined, unified campaign on an agenda of Iraqi nationalism, reform, and services.

While these results are provisional and may change as more ballots are counted and complaints reviewed, the contours are unmistakable. In the 2018 elections, Sadr’s Saeroon and the Fateh bloc were roughly balanced and entered into a tug of war over who had gained the larger number of parliamentary seats. This time, the Sadrists have clearly outstripped all other groups after running a disciplined, unified campaign on an agenda of Iraqi nationalism, reform, and services. They mobilized their steadfast supporters and deftly navigated the new election law. Fateh, on the other hand, suffered from being a collection of several groups not necessarily working in tandem and without a unified political machine. The PMF groups within Fateh have been tainted by accusations of murdering and kidnaping protesters in the fall of 2019. Their close association with Iran has alienated large swaths of the population, already angry at Tehran’s heavy-handed interference in Iraq’s politics and economy and eager to break the Iranian yoke.

Fateh and its allies are incensed. They have rejected the results, accusing the United States, Great Britain, France, the United Arab Emirates, Israel, and Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi of rigging the elections in order to weaken the muqawama (resistance), the collective name favored by the PMF. Accusations of fraud and vote-theft fill their airwaves and social media. IHEC commissioners and staff are under virulent attack. The Iraqi Resistance Coordination Commission, a collective body of the muqawama, has called variously for nullification of the elections or a total manual recount and issued not-so-veiled threats if their demands are not met.

Jostling for Seats in Parliament

All this jostling for primacy in the elections is a prelude to determining which group is recognized as the “largest parliamentary bloc” and therefore entitled to nominate the next prime minister. This competition has been a constant nail-biting feature of post-election periods. Iraqi law, as interpreted by the Federal Supreme Court (in effect Iraq’s constitutional court), defines the largest bloc as any single political party or coalition of parties that has the largest number of seats formed prior to swearing in.

This interpretation of the law sets the scene for political haggling and alliance building. The fact that the Sadrist party has a plurality of the seats by a wide margin gives it a better shot at forming the largest parliamentary bloc and therefore controlling the process of nominating the next prime minister. Sadr has acted in a restrained rather than triumphalist fashion, calling for a peaceful contestation of election results through legal channels. He has also indicated a willingness to negotiate and has formed a four-man committee of his senior lieutenants to approach other parties. Meanwhile, Fateh and Maliki’s State of Law, which built an informal alliance in 2014, have formed a Coordinating Framework Council to map out a joint strategy for a coalition that will secure them numerical advantage.

The Complexity of Choosing a Prime Minister

Any group that can form the largest coalition before entering parliament, therefore, has the upper hand. In reality, however, the situation is more complex, and several constraints come into play in nominating and endorsing the new prime minister. The first is the concept of the “Shia House,” which urges Shia unity despite political differences. With an abiding sense of “us” versus “them,” the Shia House umbrella preserved a united front and maintained confessional solidarity on major issues. The Shia House principle was adopted in the aftermath of the US-led invasion of 2003, when Shia political groups sought to redress long-held grievances and champion a formerly persecuted community. It confirmed the essentially confessional/sectarian nature of Iraqi politics post 2003, and it was encouraged by Iran, from the very early days, as a mechanism for the Islamic Republic to deal with the Shia community collectively.

With an abiding sense of “us” versus “them,” the Shia House umbrella preserved a united front and maintained confessional solidarity on major issues.

Although the principle has lost its former rigor and is less rigidly applied, it has governed every previous election when a Shia consensus was essential in the nomination of a prime minister. In practice, it means that no Shia party or coalition, even with a majority, can nominate a prime minister unilaterally: it must seek the agreement of other principal Shia groups. Therefore, whether a Sadrist or a Fateh-State of Law coalition garners the largest number of seats, it must consult with other Shia groups. It is likely that the practice of consultation will be followed now in pursuit of a candidate acceptable to all (or nearly all). While Sadr has shown a clear readiness to enter into dialogue, Fateh is still contesting the results of the election and will want to escalate the pressure before coming to the negotiating table.

A second constraint going forward is the acceptability of the candidate to other groups in Iraq. For months Muqtada al-Sadr and his senior advisors have declared that the next prime minister will be a Sadrist. Fateh bloc members have also stated that they will nominate from their ranks, broadly believed to mean Hadi al-Amiri. For his part, Nouri al-Maliki also has ambitions to return to the premiership, especially with his surprise win in the elections. Yet in the past two election cycles, neither of the prime ministers who eventually took office was a principal in any party (for example, Haider al-Abadi, who took office in 2014, was then a member of the Daawa Party led by Maliki, but he led a minor faction in the party and eventually split off). Instead, they were compromise figures chosen precisely for the absence of affiliation and could thus be endorsed by all the Shia groups. It is probable that any candidate who is perceived as a leader of one faction will not be acceptable to the others.

The “acceptability” consideration applies to the necessity of obtaining Kurdish and Sunni consent. While the Kurds are no longer the kingmakers that they used to be in the early days after the invasion, they and the Sunnis do have a say in the nomination of the prime minister, and an even greater voice in the nominations for president and speaker of parliament. The distribution of these three top offices of the state is interlinked and they are usually presented as a package, with intense and prolonged haggling before agreement is reached. After the resignation of Prime Minister Adel Abdul-Mahdi at the height of the protests in November 2019, the Kurds played a major role in vetoing some suggested candidates. The agreement of sizable Kurdish and Sunni parities is therefore required.

Iran continues to regard Iraq as its fief and a strategic insurance policy in its regional positioning, and the electoral loss of its allies poses a threat to its interests.

Third, there is the Iranian factor, never far from political considerations in Iraq. As the top Shia office in the state, the prime minister’s post is of central importance to Iran and no candidate can be instated without Iranian acquiescence. The prime minister is not only the chief executive but also crucially determines foreign and domestic policies and is the commander in chief of the armed forces, which theoretically include the PMF. Iran continues to regard Iraq as its fief and a strategic insurance policy in its regional positioning, and the electoral loss of its allies poses a threat to its interests. While in the past Iran has given some leeway in the selection of the prime minister and shown flexibility, the cardinal rule is that any Iraqi prime minister must safeguard Iranian strategic interests

It is difficult to predict the Iranian reaction to the election results, although one can assume that the belligerent rhetoric of the muqawama has the blessing of Iran. Despite the hardening of Iranian foreign policy after the election of Ebrahim Raisi as Iran’s president, the possibility of negotiations on a nuclear deal with the West and the easing of sanctions have led the Islamic Republic to curb the activities of its PMF allies since early 2021. Indeed, the spokesman for the Iranian foreign ministry declared that the Iraqi elections are an internal affair. But no one is fooled. Tehran is unlikely to relinquish the blunt muqawama instrument to shape the new government, and it will continue to pressure the United States in Iraq and at the nuclear negotiating table and to ensure that it is the dominant player in Baghdad.

US Influence Has Waned

For its part, the United States is now less able to sway the choice of prime minister than before. In successive periods of government formation, the United States and Iran appeared to reach a tacit agreement on the nomination of a candidate; at the very least, each country had a counterbalancing veto power. It is unclear whether consultation with the United States will be sought this time round. One reason is that Muqtada al-Sadr, positioning himself as a nationalist, publicly rejects external interference in Iraq’s internal affairs, saying “We are Iraqis, we are neither oriental nor Western. We want [to] live in peace.” On October 16, confident that he will be in control of the next government, Sadr issued an unusually explicit position statement regarding the United States, which he calls “America” and “the Occupation.” His statement defines the American-Iraqi relationship as “A state dealing with a state with full sovereignty.”

The race is now on to form the largest parliamentary bloc that can control government formation. Sadrists, Fateh, and Maliki will be busy seeking coalitions with other Shia groups as well as with Kurds and Sunnis, with several combinations possible. In the meantime, if the losing parties, especially the PMF, choose to escalate their protests, there will be a continued risk of post-election violence. The weeks, and perhaps months, ahead are likely to be tense.