A conversation with Shadi Hamid of Brookings Institution on the performance of Iraqi democracy was positive, and the elections on 12 May illustrated why. Hamid argued that democracy in Iraq is moving in the right direction with a plethora of political groups and successful polls. While we cannot reject the upheavals which post-invasion Iraq had to bear, the elections brought a new set of political actors onto the scene; Shia Arabs were obviously set to become the strongest force.
This was the fourth set of parliamentary elections since 2003, providing many plus points for Iraq's socio-political setup. Although the country has been scarred by ethno-sectarian divides in the past, it took a surprisingly pluralistic trajectory in these polls, so there is optimism about the future. Many political groups promoted anti-sectarian policies.
What's more, intra-sectarian divisions within the ethno-sectarian factions of the Kurds and Sunni and Shia Arabs have advanced. This is great for democracy, as it is favourable if identities are fluid and not fixed.
The post-invasion political order in Iraq brought Shia Arabs — 60 per cent of the population — to power. The political losers were the Sunni-Arabs — 20 per cent of the population — who had enjoyed power for centuries. The result was insurgency, sectarian civil war and Daesh terrorism in Iraq.
The parliament in Baghdad has 329 members in the Council of Representatives; 83 seats are reserved for women. Another nine seats are reserved for minorities: 5 for Christians, and 1 each for the Mandaeans, Yazidis, Shabak and Feyli Kurds.
Shia Arabs, Sunni Arabs and Kurds are the three dominant groups in Iraq. Although the Shia are in the majority, the others prove decisive in the formation of the federal government.
Shia political coalitions — a divided house
Although Shia political groups are the most dominant in the Iraqi political system, they are divided into five different coalitions. The first two coalitions are from the old Dawa Party, the other two are from the Islamic Supreme Coalition of Iraq's (ISCI) splinter groups, and the fifth is the Sadrist Movement.
Prime Minister Haider Al-Abadi heads the Nasr Coalition and is capitalising on the victory over Daesh, better security and improved inter-sectarian relations. However, his image amongst the Kurds is poor after he took back disputed territories held by them. The fact that Al-Abadi has been supported by Sunni Arabs in the areas held by Daesh suggests that he is acceptable to all major stakeholders.
Former Prime Minister Nouri Al-Maliki stood alongside the Dawlat Al-Qanoon (the State of Law Coalition), and is close to the Popular Mobilisation Forces and Iran. He is hated by Sunni Arabs and is no longer the sole voice for Iraqi Shia, so his previous political gains are destined to shrink.
Hadi Al-Amiri's Fatah Coalition is the traditionalist group of the ISCI, also affiliated with the PMF — Shia militias close to Iran — and fought against Daesh when the Iraqi army collapsed. Al-Amiri is the head of the Badr Brigades and had the advantage of the popularity of the PMF and their ties with Iran. Indeed, the Badr Brigade is the backbone of the PMF, which emerged after Ayatollah Ali Al-Sistani's fatwa to fight Daesh.
The Hikma Coalition, meanwhile, was formed in July last year by Ammar Al-Hakim. Its main objective was to attract younger people.
Muqtada Al-Sadr allied with the Iraqi Communist Party and formed Al-Sairoon ("the marchers"). He led the anti-sectarian, anti-corruption movement and has raised concerns about Iran's influence in Iraq. The only problem appears to be that he is vehemently against both the US and Iran, which have played a crucial role in the formation of Iraqi governments since 2003. Al-Sadr targets this phenomenon and, as a nationalist and anti-Iran he shares Saudi Arabia's interest in countering Iranian expansion in the region. His background is that he is the son of the late, revered Grand Ayatollah Mohammad Sadeq Al-Sadr, who was a rival of Al-Sistani, and the son-in-law of the late Grand Ayatollah Muhammad Baqir Al-Sadr.
Since the September 2017 referendum on independence, the autonomous Kurdish region in northern Iraq has been unstable. The Iraqi military took back disputed territories which the Kurdish Peshmerga militia had taken during the struggle against Daesh. Kurdish politics has been facing upheavals ever since and will only be settled after the current election campaign winds down. Many new political groups have emerged, breaking the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) and Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) two-party monopoly. The Kurdistan Regional Government's past leverage over Baghdad can only be determined in the post-election government formation phase and beyond.
The Kurds became disillusioned with their leaders after the referendum fiasco. Scholars have noted that the Kurdish vote is fragmented for the first time since 2003. Multiparty contests within Kurdish politics will bring new players to the table.
Masoud Barzani's KDP is intact, but the PUK has been split following the demise of Jalal Talabani. However, even for the KDP it is going to be difficult, as it was held responsible for the referendum and faces an unprecedented challenge.
The PUK, however, never supported the referendum wholeheartedly, and there is an internal dispute over that decision. Even its role in Kirkuk was seen as a stab in the back by the Kurds. Former PUK politician Bahram Salih has formed a new Democratic Justice Party to contest elections.
Kurdish voters also have the option of supporting Omar Said Ali's Gorran Party, which emerged in the last election as a movement of change, as well as Ali Bapir's Islamist Komal Party.
Sunni Arabs — divided we stand
Sunni Arabs contested the elections with two primary lists, Al-Qarrar Al-Iraq and Wataniya Alliance. The Vice President of Iraq, Osama Al-Nujaifi, heads Al-Qarrar, which also boasts his brother Atheel Al-Nujaifi, the governor of Mosul, as a member. Mutahidoon ("United") Alliance with prominent businessman Khamis Khanjar is part of this list.
Wataniya Alliance includes former Interim Prime Minister Ayad Allawi; former Deputy Prime Minister Saleh Al-Mutlaq; and the current Speaker of the Parliament, Salim Al-Jabouri.
Every previous election in Iraq has attracted more than 60 per cent of the eligible voters, but the latest poll has seen just 45 per cent take part. It is said that the new electronic voting system was faulty in its implementation and, along with tight security and a vehicle ban and curfew, this kept voters away. The ban on vehicles getting close to polling stations was lifted when it was realised that it was creating problems, but the damage was already done.
The new electronic system, however, meant that results were available within two days, an unprecedented turnaround. The Iraqi High Electoral Commission (IHEC) revealed that out of the two million Iraqi displaced persons, only 285,000 registered to vote.
Online activists called for a boycott of the polls. They sought to convince voters that the elections would bring no change.
The positives of the Iraq elections
This year's elections saw democracy taking a leap forward in Iraq, with pluralistic alliances challenging the ethno-sectarian violence of the past. Al-Abadi's coalition was the first in modern Iraqi history to stand candidates in all 18 provinces. Moreover, Sunni Arabs viewed Abadi as less sectarian in comparison with Al-Maliki. The former pledged to be more inclusive of Iraq's Sunni minority. As a result, the Sunnis in Mosul elected Al-Abadi's list, creating cross-sectarian optimism about the future of the country. For the Kurds, though, Al-Abadi's stance post-Kurdish referendum made him out of the question as a recipient of their votes.
Al-Abadi apparently stands for moderation, using conciliatory rhetoric. He keeps regional and international powers at arms' length. Sunni Arabs could not vote for the Badr Brigade's Al-Amiri, as he is a staunch supporter of Iran and his militia is sectarian.
Al-Sadr represents the marginalised and poor in a state with a lack of jobs and an economic downturn. He is against Iran's role in Iraq and did not hesitate to meet Crown Prince Mohammad Bin Salman of Saudi Arabia. His supporters have been engaged in an anti-corruption campaign since 2016, and he banned almost all of his previous MPs from standing in this election. In his election campaign, Al-Sadr vowed to create an administration of technocrats rather than one based upon sectarian patronage.
Muqtada Al-Sadr provided the main competition for Al-Abadi and won six provinces, including Baghdad, against the political elites. This was a defeat for ethno-sectarianism and brought hope to the urban poor. Although he organised two revolts against the US occupation, he has since disavowed violence and disarmed his Mahdi Army militia.
A welcome step with these elections is that Iraqis now see Iran's presence as a double-edged sword. Although the Shia see the Iranians as co-religionists, many reject Tehran for its expansionist policies. Once inexorable Iranian expansion in Iraq has thus been slowed, if not stopped altogether.
Al-Maliki was blamed for the Iraqi army debacle against Daesh. His time in office was extremely chaotic as he ruled through the organs of the deep state, reintroducing authoritarianism and unwilling to share power. Moments after the US army withdrew from Iraq, Al-Maliki arrested Sunni politicians such as Tareq Al-Hashmi, Rafi Al-Issawi and Saleh Al-Mutlaq.
Iran played a crucial role in Iraq's 2010 and 2014 elections but lost out this time. The status quo has been shaken up, and anti-sectarian politics has gained momentum. This is a huge leap forward for democracy in a country plagued by ethno-sectarian violence in previous years. However, the immediate challenge now is to go through the process of forming a government, which can take months. The process will start once Iraq's Supreme Court has ratified the election result.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.