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Iraq elections: Fractured Shia forces mean an uncertain outcome

There are at least five different Shia factions fielding 500 candidates in the forthcoming elections and vying for the coveted post of Iraq's prime minister

Iraq's parliamentary elections, scheduled for 12 May, will serve as the first national referendum since the defeat of Islamic State (IS) in 2017. There are two new developments in this post-IS election among the coalitions seeking to represent Iraq's Shia majority. 

First, the Shia militias that rose to prominence as a response to the IS offensive in 2014 are fielding approximately 500 candidates against 7,000 other candidates for Iraq's 329-seat parliament.

Second, since the beginning of this year, there are at least five different Shia factions vying for the coveted post of Iraq's prime minister. In comparison, during the first national elections held after fall of Saddam Hussein in 2005, the major Shia factions ran on a single ticket, the United Iraqi Alliance. 

Uncertain outcome

The importance of examining the Shia parties and coalitions is that the next prime minister of Iraq will be chosen from among these factions, and that candidate will determine the fate of Iraq's national unity.

A recent nationwide poll conducted between 17-21 March and featuring respondents across all 18 provinces indicated that 60 percent of voters remained undecided, an indicator that the outcome is still not certain in a vote that is little more than two weeks away.

Iraq's various parties usually form coalitions going into each election to maximise votes. In the lead-up to the 2018 vote, Iraq's rival Shia coalitions include incumbent Prime Minister Haidar Abadi, who will run for reelection as the head of the "Victory of Iraq" (Nasr al-Iraq) coalition, its name capitalising on the Iraqi victory over IS. Polls indicate it has the highest number of potential voters at 15 percent.

The poll numbers indicate that none of these coalitions will garner enough votes to form a majority in the parliament, which will mean that bargaining and alliance formation among the coalitions will ensue after the vote

The second faction, polling in second at 5 percent, is former prime minister Nouri al-Maliki, who stepped down in 2014 but is seeking a political comeback. He leads the "State of Law" (Dawlat al-Qanun) coalition, using the name he came up with during the 2010 electoral campaign.

Both Abadi and Maliki are politicians from al-Dawa Party, a party that had united during Iraq's first elections in 2005, but since then has split around loyalty to two political personalities rather than an ideological divide.

The third faction at 2.5 percent is the Shia militias, officially known as the Popular Mobilisation Units (PMUs). They have fielded candidates in the "Conquest" (al-Fatah) coalition. Most prominent among them is Hadi al-Ameri, leader of the Badr Organisation. Even though the PMU candidates resigned from their militia posts to run in the elections, they will maintain informal connections to their military units, some of which are connected to Iran.

Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi (C) stands with candidates from his coalition during a campaign gathering in Kirkuk on 28 April, 2018(AFP)
The fourth coalition is al-Hikma "Wisdom" coalition, led by the religious leader Ammar al-Hakim, who formerly led the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq (ISCI) party, and is polling at only 0.6 percent.

Both al-Ameri and al-Hakim split away from ISCI, which was a major Shia party in exile under Saddam Hussein. Like Dawa, it returned to Iraq after 2003, but both parties have suffered from splits and factionalism ever since.

Fifth, the Sadrists, followers of religious leader Muqtada al-Sadr, are the only group who were not exiled under Baath rule. After the US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003, their main recruits hailed from among the Shia who endured during the rule of Saddam Hussein. They recently announced a joint coalition with the Iraqi Communist Party, "The Marchers" (al-Sa'irun), an anomalous example of Islamists uniting with an established secular party. They poll at 3.4 percent, more popular than the PMU coalition.

While not considered a "Shia" faction, the National coalition (al-Wataniyya) is led by Ayad Allawi, a Shia himself, but one who has brandished his secular credentials and has managed in the past to garner support from Iraqi Sunnis with ambitions to become prime minister. It stands at 0.9 percent.

The big issues

The PMU candidates can claim that they liberated the country from IS, but going into this elections the three issues voters are most primarily concerned about are job creation, providing services, and security. Detractors have attacked the PMU as a sectarian party emerging at a sensitive time when the next government needs to bolster national cohesion.

The PMU has retorted that 25 percent of its members are Sunni, and have used their websites to demonstrate that their fighting units also include engineering brigades who have worked on infrastructure projects.

In the poll, 70 percent of respondents have confidence in the PMU with its leader al-Ameri enjoying a 60 percent approval rating. Abadi has a 79 percent approval rating, and usually the incumbent has an advantage going into the election.

If Abadi’s coalition is able to negotiate that the incumbent prime minister serve a second term, the outcome may appease Iraq Arab Sunnis who see him as less sectarian, but might upset the Kurds who opposed his rejectionist stance on Kurdish independence

The poll numbers indicate that none of these coalitions will garner enough votes to form a majority in parliament, which will mean that bargaining and alliance formation among the coalitions will ensue after the vote, including for the post of prime minister. 

The new prime minister

If Abadi's coalition was able to negotiate that the incumbent prime minister serves a second term, the outcome may appease Iraq's Arab Sunnis who see him as less sectarian, but might upset the Kurds who opposed his rejectionist stance on Kurdish independence.

If al-Ameri were to become prime minister as leader of the largest coalition, this outcome could upset Arab Sunnis who perceive him as sectarian. 

While Muqtada al-Sadr enjoys a 66 percent approval rating, he has never indicated his desire to run for political office. The Sadrist-Communist alliance nonetheless would be able to tip the balance in favour of one of the coalitions, becoming king-makers. 

Iraq elections: The curious case of the Communist-Sadrist alliance
Ibrahim al-Marashi

Finally, the negotiations after the elections will have to factor in the Iranian role, which will be a powerful arbiter during this process. Iran would favour al-Ameri over Abadi, given that the former has had closer relations with Tehran, whereas Abadi has tried to balance Iraq's foreign relations with Saudi Arabia and the US, Iran's rivals in the region.

Regardless of the outcome, the fractured nature of the Shia political elite indicates that, based on past precedents, the government formation process will be long and arduous. After 2010 and 2014 the formation of a cabinet spanned months, and then there were just two to three dominant Shia parties.

This is a worrying scenario as Iraq's next government will need to foster political unison and state capacity to address critical matters ranging from internally displaced peoples to unemployment to environmental crises, human security dilemmas that created the underlying conditions for alienated Iraqis to join extremist groups like IS in the first place.

Ibrahim al-Marashi is Associate Professor of Middle East History at California State University San Marcos. His publications include Iraq's Armed Forces: An Analytical History (2008), The Modern History of Iraq (2017), and A Concise History of the Middle East (forthcoming).

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Eye.

Photo: Iraqi men walk past candidates' campaign posters for the upcoming parliamentary elections in Baghdad on 19 April 2018. Around 7,000 candidates have registered to stand in the May 12 poll, with 329 parliamentary seats up for grabs (AFP)

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