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The Biggest Loser of Iraq’s Election Could Be Iran

Pro-Iran parties lost support, say they’ll reject the results, and are threatening violence.

By , a columnist at Foreign Policy and the editor in chief of the National.
Supporters of Moqtada al-Sadr celebrate in Baghdad.
Supporters of Iraqi Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr celebrate the results of parliamentary elections in Baghdad's Tahrir Square on Oct. 11. AHMAD AL-RUBAYE/AFP via Getty Images

On Sunday, Iraq held its fifth national elections since the removal of Saddam Hussein in 2003, with the national parliament’s 329 seats at stake. While final results have yet to be announced, the biggest losers appear to be pro-Iranian militant groups, which have already said they’ll reject the outcome and have issued veiled and not-so-veiled threats of violence.

Another loser of the election is Iraq’s struggling democracy itself. Believing their system to be manipulated, about 60 percent of eligible voters stayed away from the polls. That hasn’t kept the government and election monitors from touting the vote as a success—it went relatively smoothly, there were no incidents of violence, and most voters had easy access to polling stations. Electronic voting and biometric registration cards had been introduced with the promise of eliminating the kind of fraud that undermined the last elections in 2018.

However, the Iraqi government and Independent High Electoral Commission promised to deliver the results within 24 hours of the polls closing, which would have been Monday night. Instead, the results of only 10 provinces were announced on Monday, with Baghdad and eight other provinces still trickling in. When the electoral commission made the initial results public online, its website crashed as Iraqis rushed to see the results. A delay in electronic vote counting meant that some boxes had to be counted manually without external monitors, further undermining Iraqis’ trust.

On Sunday, Iraq held its fifth national elections since the removal of Saddam Hussein in 2003, with the national parliament’s 329 seats at stake. While final results have yet to be announced, the biggest losers appear to be pro-Iranian militant groups, which have already said they’ll reject the outcome and have issued veiled and not-so-veiled threats of violence.

Another loser of the election is Iraq’s struggling democracy itself. Believing their system to be manipulated, about 60 percent of eligible voters stayed away from the polls. That hasn’t kept the government and election monitors from touting the vote as a success—it went relatively smoothly, there were no incidents of violence, and most voters had easy access to polling stations. Electronic voting and biometric registration cards had been introduced with the promise of eliminating the kind of fraud that undermined the last elections in 2018.

However, the Iraqi government and Independent High Electoral Commission promised to deliver the results within 24 hours of the polls closing, which would have been Monday night. Instead, the results of only 10 provinces were announced on Monday, with Baghdad and eight other provinces still trickling in. When the electoral commission made the initial results public online, its website crashed as Iraqis rushed to see the results. A delay in electronic vote counting meant that some boxes had to be counted manually without external monitors, further undermining Iraqis’ trust.

The mood remains tense. Rumors that Iran and its proxies would tamper with the results were fed by the news that Esmail Qaani, commander of the Quds Force of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps and Tehran’s point person for Iraq, had arrived in Baghdad. Iran has every reason to be dissatisfied with the poor showing of its proxies in the election. In Iraq, key pro-Iranian figures have called the election illegitimate. Hadi al-Amiri, the leader of the Fatah coalition, which likely lost several parliamentary seats, threatened to reject the results. Prominent militia leader Abu Ali al-Askari, who is also known as Hussein Mounes and leads the pro-Iranian Kataib Hezbollah, issued a not-so-veiled threat of force against the Independent High Electoral Commission. Kataib Hezbollah failed to win a single seat in parliament.

Pending final results, the most powerful political force in the next parliament will be the Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, whose Sadr bloc is projected to have won at least 73 seats in parliament, a double-digit increase in seats. As the head of the party with the most seats, Sadr will name who will form the next government—but, lacking a majority, he will have to form a coalition. Claiming victory after the initial results were announced on Monday, Sadr gave a televised speech focused on reform and the fight against corruption. He said his party’s victory was “a win over militias.” In a signal to the United States and other powers, he also said foreign embassies will be welcome to operate in Iraq as long as they don’t interfere in its internal affairs. In another important signal, he suggested he will seek to rein the militias. “From now on, arms will be limited to sole state control,” he said. This consolidation of the Iraqi government’s power could lead to violent clashes, particularly if the militias see their influence declining.

With some militias already suggesting they will not accept the election results, the country’s path forward could be decided by how the Iraqi security forces and other political parties react to such threats of post-election violence. A failure to limit the ability of militias to strike would undermine not only the electoral process but also Iraq’s security infrastructure and governance.

While the coming days and weeks will be tense when it comes to the militias, the question of who will form the next Iraqi government is central to the country’s direction. Jockeying from different groups will continue behind closed doors as different factions try to secure their interests. Sadr is expected to form a coalition with the Kurdish parliamentary block and Taqaddum, the biggest Arab Sunni party in parliament, led by the current speaker of parliament, Mohammed al-Halbousi. Together, these three groups likely will not control a majority of seats, so other partners will be needed.

One important outcome of this election is the emergence of a class of independent candidates who won seats in parliament by campaigning directly to Iraqis, made possible by reforms of the electoral law. The Imtidad movement—led by Alaa al-Rikabi, a pharmacist who gained prominence during the October 2019 protests—appears to have secured 10 seats. It will have to decide whether to join the government coalition—and risk being tainted by the political process—or remain pure but powerless as a vocal part of the opposition.

If Sadr is unable to agree with his future parliamentary allies on a new prime minister, the consensus candidate could well be the current one, Mustafa al-Kadhimi, who is on good terms with Sadr, Halbousi, and the Kurds. Should coalition talks get bogged down and drag on for months, this would be the likely scenario.

There are two other key positions to be filled by the new coalition: the Iraqi president and the speaker of parliament. Halbousi is expected to remain speaker, while the Kurds must overcome their own internal divisions to decide on a presidential candidate, who would then be endorsed by the coalition’s majority in parliament. This division among Iraq’s main ethnic and religious groups does not just reflect the three main members of the likely coalition but has been an informal arrangement—unlike Lebanon’s institutionalized system of sectarian power-sharing. By precedent, a Shiite becomes prime minister, a Sunni Arab heads parliament, and a Kurd takes the presidency. Yet it is exactly this kind of horse-trading to gain influence that many Iraqi voters resent in their current political system, where power rarely translates into better service delivery or an improved handling of the many crises in Iraq. Furthermore, this crude ethnic and sectarian division among Iraq’s political elites alienates secular and nationalist Iraqis.

There are three immediate needs for Iraq now. First, the Independent High Electoral Commission must announce the final election results promptly and maintain transparency over how the ballots were tallied. Second, Sadr should be clear with his intentions on forming a coalition and naming the next prime minister. Third, Iraq’s security forces must be vigilant and not allow any acts of violence against the election commission, candidates, or activists who could be targeted by militia fighters trying to assert the power they didn’t achieve at the polls.

Mina Al-Oraibi is a columnist at Foreign Policy and the editor in chief of the National. Twitter: @AlOraibi

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