Iraqi Prime Minister Haidar Al-Abadi suffered a stunning electoral loss to his key Shia rivals after his political bloc failed to achieve the majority of the votes in Iraq’s parliamentary elections this week.
Al-Abadi’s failure to form a new government is widely seen as a severe setback to the United States and its Sunni Arab allies, which had hoped the incumbent prime minister could rein in the Iran-backed Shia militias in Iraq and act as a bulwark against Tehran’s increasing influence in the country.
The general elections on 12 May, the fourth since the fall of former dictator Saddam Hussein in the 2003 US-led invasion and seen as crucial in determining the country’s post-Islamic State (IS) future, were also marred by massive boycotts, violence and accusations of political interference and fraud.
With Iraq now in political gridlock after the inconclusive vote, speculation is growing that the war-battered nation will be facing weeks, if not months, of uncertainty, and even possibly chaos.
Voting for MPs in the 329-seat parliament, the Iraqi House of Representatives, was held in Iraq amid a deep political crisis and fears of renewed ethnic and sectarian violence.
The elections were seen in part as a referendum on the tenure of Al-Abadi, who receives backing from the United States and its Western and Arab Sunni allies and had been billed as a powerful leader who could rally Iraq’s ethnic and sectarian communities behind him after victories against IS.
However, the elections produced a highly fractured verdict. Results announced by Iraq’s Higher Independent Elections Commission (HIEC) showed that a bloc led by firebrand anti-American Shia cleric Muqtada Al-Sadr had taken a remarkable lead in the elections.
The Al-Fatah, or Conquest Alliance led by Hadi Al-Amiri, a commander of the Popular Mobilisation Force (PMF), bringing together supporters of other Iran-supported Shia militias was in second place, according to the HIEC.
Meanwhile, Al-Abadi’s Al-Nasr, or Victory, bloc came third and sometimes even fourth in vote counts in Iraq’s Shia-dominated provinces, one of the worst results in the elections and a rude shock for Washington and some Sunni Arab governments.
However, the results, which still need to be endorsed by Iraq’s highest court, show that no single list has won an outright majority in the parliament enabling it to form a government, which had been widely expected before the vote.
The elections were wracked by boycotts, demonstrated by low turnouts and high abstention rates and reflecting apathy and widespread discontent at the slow pace of reform by Al-Abadi’s government.
The HIEC reported that turnout was about 44.52 per cent, significantly lower than in previous elections. Voter turnout has dropped from 70 per cent in Iraq’s first-post Saddam elections in 2005 to 62 per cent in 2010 and 60 per cent in 2014.
The abstentions sent a frustrated “no” message to all parts of the political spectrum in a determined show of public mistrust, but it was perhaps mostly directed at Al-Abadi.
Accusations of irregularities in the poll have added more drama to Al-Abadi’s humiliating defeat. Allegations of fraud including the malfunctioning of the newly installed electronic voting system emerged soon after the ballots closed, and there were reports of minor clashes and political wrangling.
Several blocs in the Kurdistan Region and Kirkuk demanded manual recounts, while Iraqi Vice-President Ayad Allawi, who heads the mainly Sunni-backed National Alliance, called for annulling the results and holding new elections.
The messy results and the splits in the political blocs have cast shadows on efforts to form a new government, something which Iraq badly needs in order to avoid a relapse into ethnic and sectarian conflict and possibly a new IS insurgency.
In 2014, it took Iraqi political factions more than five months to form a government amid mounting international and domestic pressure to end the political deadlock between the nation’s Shia majority and its Sunni and Kurdish minorities.
This time there are growing fears that the country will be stuck in the worst logjam of its post-Saddam history. None of the alliances that have done well in the polls could provide the majority needed to form a government, and this will require tough horse-trading with other blocs.
Under the Iraqi Constitution, the new parliament will have 15 days after the ratification of the election results to elect a new president who must nominate the candidate of the largest parliamentary bloc as prime minister.
Many expect the process to drag on for much longer if there is no clear winner, as scores of political factions attempt to cobble together a political bloc large enough to hold a majority of the seats in parliament.
Worse, the race in the elections is also a sectarian one between Iraq’s three main communities of the Shia, the Sunnis and the Kurds whose candidates run on ethnic and communal tickets.
Since the overthrow of Saddam’s Sunni-dominated regime, the country’s Shia majority has run Iraq through a coalition of religious and political groups.
As a result, all eyes are once again on the Shia factions to choose a leader and ask him to form a government. If no compromise is found in this poker game, the kind of showdown not seen since 2005 when Tehran and Washington intervened to break the deadlock can be expected.
Until the announcement of the election results, Al-Abadi had had a strong case for re-appointment as prime minister. He is the prime minister and commander-in-chief of the armed forces who boasted of the victory over IS and the foiling of the Iraqi Kurds’ push for independence last year.
However, with Al-Abadi’s bloc losing in the elections his chances for a second term in office have now dimmed, and he will need to make painful compromises to secure renewal. He will most certainly need Al-Sadr’s backing together with support from other tickets.
Al-Sadr has already declared that he has been considering fielding Ali Dawai, the governor of the southern oil-rich province of Maysan, for the job of prime minister. Dawai is Iraq’s most popular local government official, known for his hard work in a country ranked as having one of the world’s most dysfunctional governments.
Al-Abadi’s other chief contender is Al-Amiri, leader of one of the most powerful Iran-backed Shia paramilitary groups, whose Conquest Alliance has said it will propose him for the post of prime minister.
The controversial Iraqi vice-president and former prime minister Nouri Al-Maliki, known for his close ties to Iran, had also showed a willingness to run for the job.
Since both Al-Amiri and Al-Maliki are unlikely to receive support from Al-Sadr and Al-Abadi, they are unlikely to win an absolute majority either inside the expected Shia coalition or within the parliament.
At the end of the day, the outcome of the elections in Iraq mirrors the continuing political uncertainty in the country since the US-led invasion in 2003 and particularly the shadow of the IS retreat.
The controversy over the flawed elections creates further instability in the beleaguered country and puts Iraq’s fragile political projects at risk. In the aftermath of the vote, Iraq appears as a bitterly divided country, and optimism for an exit is in short supply.
Many flashpoints remain, and things could go badly wrong amid continuous communal tension and rising social and economic grievances that are largely blamed on the same political class that fought hard to maintain its grip on the new parliament.
The resilience of the changing regional system should also receive its due. The region is marred by conflicts such as the war in Syria, and the confrontation with Iran, and these are causes for concern that Iraq could be driven into the region’s most troubled waters.
The elections were widely seen by many as a contest pitting the United States and its Arab allies against Iran. The results of the vote will deepen the polarisation and escalate the US-Iranian struggle for influence in Iraq.
Even if a sort of government does emerge in the days and weeks to come, one thing is already clear: Iraq is unlikely any time soon to become the model of a stable, peaceful and united country that can muster the leadership to reform itself.
The elections usher in a very bad scenario in Iraq, and both Iraqis and the international community need to look harder at how to live with it.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 17 May 2018 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly under the headline: Iraq’s familiar deadlock