What to expect in the aftermath of Iraq’s elections
Iraq held parliamentary elections on 10 October resulting in Shia cleric Moqtada al-Sadr’s Sadrist movement emerging with the largest number of seats. While the polls were largely unaffected by political violence, the low turnout – 41 percent according to official figures – indicates that Iraqis do not believe the vote would help to address years of economic mismanagement, deep sectarian and regional divides, as well an ongoing terrorism threat.
As no single party achieved a majority in the 329 seat parliament, a coalition government is almost certainly the outcome. Its formation is likely to take months due to protracted negotiations between the main parties. Nevertheless, PGI expects that the new government will look broadly similar to the previous administration and pursue the same set of narrow objectives due to the entrenched political interests of the ruling elite.
Same old, same old
Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi opted to hold elections a year ahead of schedule in response to mass anti-government demonstrations in 2019. Many demonstrators hoped the elections would yield a more responsive administration that would tackle rampant corruption, economic malaise, and upend the elite that has governed the country since the 2003 US-led invasion.
However, the low turnout suggests that these protesters – and the population at large – did not believe that real change would occur, even with the introduction of limited election reforms. While independent or protest parties such as Imtidad won in several districts by considerable margins, few stood nationwide. Their success in the Shia heartlands of southern Iraq indicates a considerable and longer-term appetite for challengers to the established blocs such as the Sadrists or Fateh.
Despite the initial hope of the demonstrators, established parties will continue to dominate Iraq’s parliament. The Sadrist bloc, running on a nationalist platform in a bid to set itself apart from other Iran-backed Shia parties, clinched 73 seats making it the single biggest bloc in the chamber. The Sadrist party had 54 seats in 2018 and has since then used its sway to expand its control over large parts of the state with its members taking senior jobs within the interior, defence, and communications ministries. This influence is likely to grow further after gaining more seats due to an increase in financial and political power.
Fateh, an alliance of Shia militias with close ties to Iran, maintained its position as the second largest bloc despite only winning 15 seats. Hadi al-Amiri, the bloc’s leader, has rejected the results and will likely continue attempts to question the legitimacy of the election. This is highly likely to further delay government formation, and stoke unrest.
Ultimately, the results appear broadly similar to the parliamentary composition of the 2018 election, suggesting domestic policy is unlikely to change. Political leaders have largely maintained the same positions, with few new entrants to challenge the overwhelming dominance of Shia, and particularly Sadrist, control.
Risk of civil unrest
With activists calling for a boycott in the run-up to polls and the continuation of Sadrist dominance in parliament, the risk of civil unrest in the aftermath of the election remains very high. Frustration with the lack of change in governance will likely lead to renewed nationwide outbreaks of unrest in the near term as seen with demonstrations in 2019.
These protests will likely garner support from a majority as economic conditions continue to decline. Protests have already taken place in Dhi Qar, Baghdad, and Kirkuk over alleged external Iranian interference in the election and authorities have reported complaints from residents in Diyala and Salah al-Din provinces regarding the alleged tampering in the counting of votes.
The combination of disillusionment and distrust of the state as well as the continued decline of living conditions will likely lead to sustained protests beyond the days following election results. These protests are unlikely to succeed in toppling the government due to limited unity among protesters as well as fear of government targeting.
The election will likely have wider regional implications especially regarding tensions between Iran and the US. Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi has often mediated the relationship between Iran and the US but his likely successor, Al-Sadr, is unlikely to be a calming influence.
Al-Sadr holds a more critical attitude towards US and has accused both the US and Iran of meddling in Iraq. He has called for the withdrawal of America’s remaining 2,500 troops in the country and has stated that Tehran will no longer have influence following the vote. An American withdrawal is highly likely to further isolate the US in the Middle East and will probably increase Iranian influence in Iraq – a scenario that US foreign policy has historically strived to avoid.
A US withdrawal is also likely to help Islamic State fighters regroup. While the Iraqi army is already aided by the Iran-backed Popular Mobilisation Forces (PMF), it does not have the capability to combat a resurgence of IS without the support of US troops who have assisted on Iraqi army and security force training. Most importantly, the withdrawal of US troops will likely lead to a security gap in monitoring IS cells.
The relationship between the Kurdish government in Erbil and Baghdad will also likely see a calibration particularly should Al-Sadr push for a US withdrawal. The Kurdistan government has maintained a strong relationship with the US and will be left vulnerable to Iranian-controlled militias without a US presence. This will in turn exacerbate tensions between Erbil and Baghdad.
Turkey’s position in Iraq is also precarious as it has continued to see a decline in its political allies’ popularity. Having expanded its military operations in Northern Iraq, it has been determined to help restore the country’s Sunni parties with President Erdogan meeting leaders from the Sunni Taqaddum party and the Azm Alliance days prior to the election. Turkey is likely seeking to ensure its position in the north to maintain influence in the region which could see a decline should Al-Sadr push against external influence in the country.
While the election results are unlikely to change the internal governance of the country, the formation of the coalition government, and ultimately who becomes prime minister, will likely have wider regional implications that could affect US foreign policy as well as Iranian and Turkish influence in the region. Mass civil unrest in the lead up and following the formation of the coalition government is highly likely as Iraq continues to witness a decline in economic and social conditions due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
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