Time for Deal-Making after Iraq’s Elections

Iraq’s surprising parliamentary election results may have disturbed the calculus in both Washington and Tehran. In the wake of President Donald Trump’s derailment of the nuclear deal and the reimposition of American sanctions on Iran, the question of leadership in Baghdad has taken on new urgency in regional and global geopolitics. From the vantage point of the Iraqi public, however, the situation appears quite different. People’s local mundane frustrations, and not geopolitical concerns, have stamped the outcome. Voter turnout (44.52 percent) was an all-time low since the American invasion and regime change in 2003, and those who chose to vote granted a victory to the main platform of the populist anti-corruption alliance, i.e., the Moving Forward (Sairoon) Coalition of cleric Muqtada al-Sadr. The popular boycott was especially high in the most populous city of Baghdad, where 65 percent of residents did not participate in the elections.

The current distribution of parliamentary seats makes the formation of the new government somewhat difficult.

Despite the alarmist tone of western media, the popular support for Sadr does not necessarily represent an anti-American trend led by the Shia cleric who ran a military campaign against American forces with his Mahdi Army in the years following the 2003 invasion. Instead, Iraqis have rewarded Sadr’s ability to move beyond sectarian divisions and project a strong anti-corruption message. Sectarian identity politics and a vicious cycle of corruption are also the top reasons that the majority of Iraqis did not go to the polls. With his base in Sadr City, a poor neighborhood in Baghdad, Sadr ran an election campaign that included significant promises such as forming a national representative government (read: not ethno-sectarian), fighting systemic corruption, ending the appointment of ministers to meet ethno-sectarian quotas, and finding independent technocrats to run government agencies. Moreover, Sadr has been the leading critic of Iran-backed Shia militias and Tehran’s influence in Iraq.

The current distribution of parliamentary seats, however, makes the formation of the new government somewhat difficult, although Sadr may be interested in a large coalition government. In addition to Sadr, ex-militia leader Hadi al-Amiri has emerged victorious, securing more seats than current Prime Minister Haidar al-Abadi. Thus, Iraq’s next government will be an outcome of tough negotiations and compromises. A similar burdensome process transpired in the aftermath of the 2010 elections when a Shia secular politician, Iyad Allawi, had the lead in votes but the sitting prime minister, Nouri al-Maliki, cobbled together a slightly larger coalition that helped him remain in power for another four years.

Potential Scenarios of Government Formation

Scenario 1: Abadi remains in power with Sadr’s support. Sadr has already signaled1 his plan to reach out to Abadi’s Nasr Alliance and Hakim’s Wisdom Coalition for forming a government. In fact, there is a great incentive for Sadr to strike a bargain with Abadi, allowing him to remain in power for a second term. Without Abadi’s support, Sadr would have a difficult time forming a government of technocrats which would appeal to both domestic and global audiences. Although Sadr has become the voice of the poor and disenfranchised in Iraq, his lack of experience in government and diplomacy is a serious roadblock. Moreover, Sadr may expect that Abadi’s face as prime minister would help alleviate western concerns, given that US officials openly embraced Abadi during the election campaign.

In return for Abadi’s premiership, Sadr may ask for more influence in decision-making and expect that his image in the West would be restored. Assuming the election campaign Sadr ran was genuine, his demands will include blocking sectarian appointments, incorporating Iran-backed Shia militias into the Iraqi national army, and appointing new figures who are not widely perceived by Iraqis as corrupt politicians. Such pleas are in fact very compatible with Abadi’s agenda. In his election campaign, Abadi also expressed his desire to appoint technocrats for ministerial positions and forge an Iraqi national unity beyond sectarian identity politics.

Sadr’s coalition will have a difficult time finding an alternative to Abadi, given the fact that Abadi can reach an agreement with Amiri’s Fatah to form a majority coalition before the first session of parliament, and thus become legally eligible to form the government.

Scenario 2: Abadi remains in power with Amiri’s and Maliki’s support. Often dubbed as the “pro-Iran camp,” Amiri’s Fatah Coalition and Maliki’s State of Law Coalition are closely aligned and can act swiftly and effectively against Sadr’s moves. Given Abadi’s strategic position, an Amiri-Maliki partnership may choose to offer Abadi the premiership while assuring influence over certain ministerial positions. If implemented, such a strategy would be reminiscent of the deal between Abadi and Amiri in 2014 when the former agreed to the appointment of Mohammed Ghabban, an Amiri associate, as interior minister.

Tehran has already engaged in deep discussions in Baghdad circles regarding formation of the new government in an effort to possibly marginalize Sadr.

Working toward negotiations with Abadi has been a plan in-the-making. During the election campaign, Abadi developed strong relations with Amiri in order to receive full support of the Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF)—popularly known as Shia militias—for suppressing the Kurdish bid for independence and taking military control in Kirkuk and other disputed territories. Abadi and Amiri may have even become too close, as evidenced by a surprising announcement of an electoral alliance on January 14, one that was canceled the next day due to fears of potential voter backlash in both camps. It may also be argued that Amiri may have been pressured by Iran not to strike a deal with Abadi who was favored by the United States.

Scenario 3: A new Daawa Party politician backed by Amiri-Maliki. If Abadi cannot capitalize on his strategic position, or if he forms an alliance with Sadr but fails to form the government, an Amiri-Maliki partnership may assume control of the process and nominate a Daawa Party politician as the prime minister. Although Maliki has indicated his interest in the premiership, Amiri’s Fatah Coalition may prefer a fresh name—someone who may appear not corrupt as Maliki seems to be in the popular eye. This scenario, however, might not easily come to pass because of the uncertainty of the support of other political formations that could assure a majority of 165 deputies out of a total of 329.

Regional and International Implications

Among potential outcomes, the first scenario, i.e. a Sadr-Abadi coalition, has a great chance for success in receiving Arab Gulf states’ support. Saudi Minister for Gulf Affairs Thamer Al-Sabhan already congratulated Sadr for being “truly on the move in wisdom, patriotism and solidarity” and changing Iraq to raise “the banners of victory with its independence, Arabism and identity.” Sadr’s visits to Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates in 2017 raised eyebrows in Tehran. Earlier, Sadr criticized Damascus for using chemical weapons against its citizens and demanded that the Assad regime be disbanded—while Amiri’s pro-Iran militias fought hard to save the Syrian regime. Gulf states have welcomed Sadr’s acerbic anti-Iran tone, which was also evident in controversies about the future of Shia militias: Sadr used to call pro-Iran militias “insolent” (al-milishiyat al-waqiha) to counter Maliki’s discourse of hailing the PMF as “holy mobilization units” (al-hashd al-muqaddas). Thus, considering that Gulf countries have committed over $10 billion for Iraqi reconstruction at a donor’s conference in Kuwait last February, a Sadr-Abadi alliance would ensure realization of the Gulf’s investment in the nation. Iraq would surely benefit from private sector growth that may diversify revenues and decrease the heavy dependence on hydrocarbons.

The Gulf states, however, would be particularly disturbed if an Amiri-Maliki partnership assumed power in Iraq. During the election campaign, Amiri’s Fatah Coalition was most explicit in its pro-Iran stance. The coalition was formed mostly by newly established parties of Shia militia leaders including Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis—a leading figure in the PMF who blatantly expresses how proud he feels “being a soldier” of top Iranian commander Qassem Soleimani. Fatah has capitalized on the PMF’s popularity among Iraqis due to the war on the Islamic State, running an electoral campaign that promotes PMF martyrs exclusively. Hence, the Gulf states have legitimate concerns that Amiri’s Fatah would prioritize protecting PMF units at the expense of the Iraqi Army, and therefore, exacerbate sectarian divisions.

Tehran has already engaged in deep conversations in Baghdad circles regarding formation of the new government. By trying to marginalize Sadr, Iran wants to put its Shia house in order and seek to revive the Daawa Party, the oldest Shia political party in Iraq which is now being divided between the Abadi and Maliki factions. Abadi’s premiership will be acceptable to Iran as long as he opens the doors of key state institutions to Amiri’s Fatah members, whose credentials as Shia commanders in the field will be transformed into positions as government officials. In fact, such gradual steps may be more desirable for Tehran—which used to perceive Iraq with long-term prospects—as the Daawa Party’s future would be saved, Shia militia leaders’ new political identities would be officially recognized by the West, and Iranian influence may deepen after the end of Abadi’s second term.

The combination of Abadi’s professionalism and Sadr’s populism appears to be the best bet for the White House.

In line with the Gulf states, Turkey would welcome a potential alliance between Sadr and Abadi. Despite Ankara’s annoyance a few years ago with Sadr for organizing protests to force Turkish troops to leave Iraq’s Bashiqa camp in the north, Turkey’s improved ties with Abadi would mitigate Ankara’s concerns. Moreover, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has particularly bad relations with Maliki and perceives PMF militias that Amiri represents as dangerous to Iraqi unity. After the failed Kurdistan referendum in September 2017, Turkey staunchly defended the unity of Iraq. Indeed, Baghdad’s relations with the Kurds will be a key point for Ankara, which aims to balance the two actors to ensure that its own interests are maximized in both Kurdistan and Iraq at large. In an increasingly divided Kurdish polity, Turkey still favors the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) over the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), and this provides an additional reason for Ankara to support a Sadr-Abadi coalition that would likely be joined by Masoud Barzani’s KDP. For the Turkish government, a terrifying scenario would be a potential Amiri-Maliki-PUK alliance—an outcome that would block Ankara’s access to Baghdad and reinvigorate Kurdish independence demands in Irbil.

For Washington, the stakes are very high. Leaders from Amiri’s Fatah Coalition, those associated with Kataib Hezbollah, have already demanded that American troops leave Iraqi soil and threatened Baghdad to operate independently against US soldiers if the Iraqi parliament fails to “take a firm decision to expel foreign forces from the country.” The Trump Administration’s firm decision to impose sanctions on Iran indicates that Washington would hardly accept the rise of Amiri as an Iraqi leader. With the current electoral tally, the best realistic option for the United States would be to push for expeditious negotiations between Abadi and Sadr. Abadi’s failure may open Pandora’s box in Iraq where ethnic and sectarian fault lines are exploited quickly—given the country’s traumatic history of intercommunal violence and inept governments. Washington may also help an Abadi-Sadr alliance as the latter fulfills promises to the masses by fighting corruption, avoiding sectarian-based ministerial appointments, and finding talented technocrats to run government offices more effectively. In fact, by helping to form a government of technocrats, Washington would decrease the risk of Sadr’s “unreliable” nature as a “firebrand cleric.” The combination of Abadi’s professionalism and Sadr’s populism appears to be the best bet for the White House, which has been overly obsessed with countering Iran.

Washington may celebrate the absence of violence and relatively fair elections—excluding fraud claims in Kurdistan—in Iraq and the post-IS era. The reasons behind widespread boycotts and the lowest turnout, however, should be carefully examined in order to address root social causes that previously helped to give birth to the Islamic State. At the same time, Washington would do well to be cautious about trying to involve Iraq in the White House’s current campaign against Iran, at least until Baghdad finds a working formula for a new, post-election government.

1 Tweet is in Arabic.