Moqtada al-Sadr won’t be Iraq’s next prime minister, but he may very well decide who is. It’s a striking outcome for the Shia cleric who forged a reputation as a radical in the insurgency he led against the U.S. after the invasion of 2003, and who then defined himself as an Iraqi nationalist through his defiance of Iran. Over this period, Sadr has become an insider in Iraqi politics, but ahead of the country’s Saturday parliamentary elections he fashioned himself into an anti-corruption crusader and political outsider by building a coalition that includes communists, Sunnis, and political independents. His al-Sairoon Coalition (The Marchers) finished first in the vote, ensuring his relevance for years to come.
Al-Sairoon’s performance suggests that Iraq, which has only recently emerged from a brutal conflict against ISIS, might be tired of the political class that has governed the country since its first parliamentary elections in 2005. What’s not clear, however, is whether Sadr, whose brand is predicated on protest and opposition, can evolve into a constructive force in Iraqi politics.
“The biggest downside of Moqtada as a key player in the next government formation ... is Moqtada is very hard to predict,” Michael Knights, a senior fellow at the Washington Institute who specializes in the region, told me. “And it’s not always clear which game he’s playing: Does he want to be part of the government or does he want to perpetually be in opposition to any government?”
Sadr did not himself contest the election, and so cannot have a formal role in the government—which seems to suit his preferences. His list’s performance can be attributed to a solid Shia support base and his ability to attract some minorities, but it’s not only about Sadr himself. Low voter turnout (44.5 percent) hampered support for other politicians. Samya Kullab, who is a senior correspondent for Iraq Oil Report, told me that voter apathy contributed to the low turnout.
“The evidence I have for this in my reporting is anecdotal, but corroborated the abysmal numbers seen on Election Day,” she said in an email. “In the months leading up to the election and during the election, we spoke to countless individuals, some casually drinking tea outside the polling station, about why they weren’t participating. The major themes included disenchantment with the system and a lack of faith in running candidates. Few believed they could actually deliver on campaign promises.”
That pessimism about politicians stands in contrast to the mood of cautious optimism about Iraq’s future in the period after its victory over ISIS. “You could say that maybe [some Iraqis] think the country is moving in the right direction in spite of its politicians and not because of them,” Knights told me. “Maybe that’s the key message to come out of this low turnout, which is that Iraq basically saved itself, but not because of its politicians, not because of its political class.”
In this context, Sadr cut an appealing figure. As I wrote last week, he spent much of the past year reaching out to unlikely political allies, including Sunnis. Perhaps more important in a country tired of traditional politicians, he filled his election list with political outsiders. Ryan Crocker, a veteran American diplomat who served as ambassador to Iraq between 2007 and 2009, told me that the Shia Arab nationalist and populist movement is not only a potent political force, it appeals to people beyond a Shia sectarian base. “It’s big. It’s important,” Crocker said.
Sadr’s cross-sectarian appeal notwithstanding, his strong views on what an Iraqi government should look like, and who should be part of it, could deter potential coalition partners. In a post on social media, Sadr appeared to suggest his support for a broad coalition that would include the party of the current prime minister, Haider al-Abadi. He also repeated a call for a government of technocrats, who many Iraqis believe will be more efficient and less corrupt than traditional politicians.
But the people Sadr excluded from his post may be even more significant, and they include the pro-Iran Shia alliance that finished second in the election, as well as a major Kurdish party. “You can’t really count on him through this government-formation process,” Knights said of Sadr. “He’s trying to dictate the geometry of this government. He doesn’t want certain people to be in it, and that’s going to make it harder to get to 165 seats,” the number needed for a majority in the 329-seat parliament.
Sadr’s position also speaks to Iraq’s efforts—and interim successes—in choosing its government independently, or at least with less foreign influence than before. Sadr is strongly opposed to both the presence of U.S. troops in the country, and to Iranian influence. He maintains that he merely supports a strong and independent Iraq. Overall, Knights said, the “Iranians might have lost some influence on this process in the same way Americans have lost a lot of influence on the process,” he said.
Knights explained the process this way: “It’s not up to Iran, but if at a certain point they want to make an objection felt, they’ll have their opportunity to do that. And generally speaking, if Iraqis feel very strongly about an option, they’ll override the Iranian veto, but if Iraqis themselves are divided over the option, then that’s when the Iranian option becomes more effective.”
With no clear victor, however, Iraq’s government is nowhere close to being formed. Iraq’s election commission announced the results of 10 of the country’s 18 provinces. The eight provinces where the results aren’t yet known include those that make up the territories claimed by Iraqi Kurds, including Kirkuk, Salahaddin, and Nineveh.
“It’s Iraq, so a lot can change very quickly,” Kullab said. “Because there are more blocs and the results are contested in certain areas … we could be looking at a long government-formation process.”
Iraq has been here before. Past elections have produced the kind of political deal-making that resulted in broad unity governments that are hobbled by competing interests and visions. Knights called it a feature of Iraqi politics. “We basically get the same kind of government every time: It’s the government of everyone and no one, meaning that everyone’s in the government, but no one agrees on what it’s meant to do,” he said. “Most likely we’ll see that cycle again.”
But, he added, there’s a small possibility that with politicians such as Abadi, the current prime minister who delicately balances his relationship with both Tehran and Washington, and Sadr, a different kind of arrangement is possible. Some factions could stay outside the government as loyal opposition rather than trying to join it. If Sadr’s coalition becomes too difficult to incorporate into the government, Knights said, “I’m sure he’ll happily step into that role of opposition.”
“This would be a first for Iraq,” he said. “That would be pretty amazing.”