Understanding the Iraq election results
Updated: Sep 11, 2018
By SETH J. FRANTZMAN
The final results of the May 12 Iraq election have been released. They confirmed earlier results that showed Muqtada al-Sadr had won. Haider al-Abadi, the Prime Minister who served from 2014 to 2018 and was instrumental in presiding over the defeat of ISIS, was badly punished by the electorate.
Foreign governments are rushing to make sense of Iraq’s election results. The US invested heavily in Abadi, hoping he would be the next savior of the country. Since 2003 the US has backed several wrong horses in the country; including helping to put Nouri al-Maliki in power in 2010, a disastrous decision that probably helped lead to the chaos that fueled ISIS. After the May 12 election the US anti-ISIS czar Brett McGurk spoke to Kurdish KDP leader Masoud Barzani. Suddenly the US, which gave Barzani the cold shoulder during the run-up to the referendum in September, think he may play a role in Iraq’s future.
Iran’s Quds Force commander Qassem Soleimani also went to Iraq after the elections. Michael Pregent writes “Soleimani’s tak: Qassem Soleimani must now pull Ammar al-Hakim away from Sadr and back to the Fateh/State of Law Coalition. Soleimani will then focus on Abadi and pressure Sadr.” Soleimani faces a challenge with Sadr because Sadr has presented himself as a fierce nationalist opposing US and Iranian “foreign” intervention. However Sadr also met with foreign ambassadors on May 18. These included ambassadors from Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Syria and Jordan, who he hosted in Najaf. Sadr had been reaching out to Saudi Arabia since 2017. He visited Jeddah and met Mohammed Bin Salman in July 2017.
So let’s try to understand some different sides to the Iraqi elections. The Iraqi parliament elected in 2014 included 328 seats. The largest party was the Shi’ite State of Law Coalition initially led by Maliki which held 92 seats. It was followed by the Al-Ahrar bloc (34 seats) and which is close to Sadr. Then came Ammar al-Hakim’s Citizen Alliance (29 seats), the KDP (25 seats), Muttahidoon of Usama Nujaifi (23 seats), the PUK (21 seats), Ayad Allawi’s Al-Wataniya (21 seats), Saleh al-Mutlaq’s Al-Arabiya (10 seats), and Gorran’s (9 seats). The Badr Organization led by Hadi al-Amiri was part of the State of Law 2014 coalition and retained around 19 seats in the parliament which gave it access to the Interior Ministry.
The 2014 parliament was dominated by Shi’ite parties that were closely tied to Iran. Although Sadr was not involved in the 2014 elections the Al-Ahrar list was considered to be supported by him. It had 34 seats in 2014. That means the non-Sadr Shi’ite lists had 121 seats in parliament. They needed 165 to govern.
Non-Sadr Shi’ite parties still triumph
The 2018 elections broke Maliki’s State of Law Coalition into several pieces. Haider al-Abadi created his own list called Nasr or Victory. It received 42 seats in 2018. Maliki’s party received only 26 while the Fateh coalition made of the Popular Mobilization Units and led by Amiri received 47 seats. Although Sadr won, the reality is that pieces of the old State of Law coalition and Badr won 115 seats. In fact the non-Sadr Shi’ite parties increased their seats from 121 in 2014 to 134 in 2018. Maliki has been weakened whereas more hardened veterans of the war on ISIS from the PMU, triumphed.
Kurdish vote doesn’t change much
Despite all the controversies in the Kurdish region, including the referendum, the presence of IDPs, and the loss of Sinjar and Kirkuk in October 2017, the number of seats won by Kurdish parties was similar to 2014. In 2014 there were 55 members of the parliament from three Kurdish parties. In 2018 there will be 56 members of the parliament from five Kurdish parties, including Barham Salih’s independent list and the New Generation movement. There were slight changes in the makeup of the Kurdish parties, with the PUK losing at least 2 seats and Gorran losing several seats. Surprisingly, even though the KDP boycotted elections in Kirkuk, the Kurds still performed well there. Despite claims that many voters in Kirkuk were angry at PUK’s handling of the October crises, voters went to the polls and voted for their traditional party.
Sunni parties decline
This has been the worst election in Iraq’s history for Sunni parties. In 2005 Tariq al-Hashimi’s Sunni party got 44 votes. In 2010 Ayad Allawi’s non-sectarian list received 91 seats, the largest number in parliament. In 2014 Nujayfi came fourth with 23 seats. In 2018 the Sunni parties aren’t even in the top six in terms of seats. Nujayfi only got 14 seats and Allawi got 12. This is a disaster for this block which has declined from 54 seats in 2014 to only 35 in 2018. It appears Sunni parties will be around ten percent of the seats in parliament. This gives them a limited role in the future politics of Iraq. In terms of unifying the country after ISIS, this is not a good sign.
Is there a coalition for Sadr?
It’s difficult to see how the math adds up for Sadr in forming a coalition. Even if he allies with the Kurdish parties and Sunnis he will be far short of the 165 number needing to govern. It’s not entirely clear where he might get more support, perhaps from Hakim’s list? With the US and Iran putting heavy hands on Iraq after the election, and both of them opposed to Sadr, he has a tough road ahead. One thing he appears to have is a lot of popular support.