A+ A-In a televised speech on July 15, 2021, the leader of the Sadrist movement Muqtada al-Sadr announced he was withdrawing from the election race, saying: “We inform you that I will not participate in these elections.” At the same time, he dismantled the Sadrist Political Commission (SPC), which means parliament’s largest political bloc is left without a leader or decision-making body.
The SPC was directly responsible for guiding Sadrist government officials, managing daily affairs of the Sadrist parliamentary bloc, and giving directions to attend or boycott, and vote on parliamentary decisions and legislation. Sadr’s decision also led to the suspension of the electoral machine and the complete halt of Sadrist electoral activity. The absence of the Sadrist bloc in parliament means the entire legislature is paralyzed, as it is now challenged to achieve a quorum for any session or vote.
Many leaders of political blocs issued statements calling on Sadr to reverse his decision. Observers believe that the absence of his movement from the electoral landscape will complicate the political scene further and require some tough choices, including proceeding with the elections without them and the increased possibility of the Sadrist masses returning to the street as opposition.
The importance of the Sadrists
It is clear that the Sadrist movement has a strong presence in the political and public arena, as they possess the largest coherent and disciplined bloc in the parliament, in addition to a broad and influential public base in the street.
Their non-participation in the electoral process means losing a large bloc and an essential ally of the other political blocs. The majority of political parties are directly dependent on alliances with Sadr to confront political rivals and putting up a united front that leads to the formation of the government, especially since the Sadrists didn’t ask for the position of prime minister. In the past, this made them a desirable partner for coalitions, especially since they did not have a robust political presence that would enable them to obtain one of the three main posts of president, prime minister, or parliament speaker.
The participation of the Sadrist movement was decisive in the formation of the past four governments, starting with the second Nuri al-Maliki term in 2010, then the election of Haider al-Abadi in 2014, and then their bilateral alliance with the al-Fateh bloc to form the government of Adel Abdul-Mahdi in 2018, followed by the inauguration of Mustafa al-Kadhimi as prime minister in May 2020. It is clear that without the Sadrists, the Shiite political balance will be impaired.
Escalation against the Sadrists
Muqtada al-Sadr made his famous statement on November 22, 2020: “If I live and life remains… I will follow the events closely and meticulously. If I find that the elections will result in a (Sadrist) majority in the parliament, they will obtain the premiership. I will be able to complete the reform process.” This was followed by the statement of his spokesman, Salah al-Obaidi, on December 29, 2020: “There is an intention and ambition to obtain 100 seats in the upcoming elections, to take control of matters.”
After these two statements, the Sadrist movement became a clear target of the competing political blocs who took these statements seriously and intensified their hidden and declared anti-Sadrist media campaigns. Since that time, a significant media attack has emerged against the movement’s symbols, including their leader, their leadership, and the ministries that are considered to be the Sadrist movement’s share in the government, such as the Ministry of Health, the Ministry of Electricity and the Iraqi Central Bank.
Despite the Sadrist movement’s attempt to distance themselves from these institutions and claim that they are not involved with appointing ministers, the campaign on social media, especially Twitter and Facebook, was brutal. It intensified personally against Muqtada al-Sadr after the fire in al-Hussein Hospital in Nasiriyah in the night of Monday, July 13, 2021, which killed, by some reports, 92 people. This fire came after a similar one in Baghdad’s Ibn al-Khatib Hospital on April 27, 2021, which killed 82 people. Many blamed these failures on the Sadrist movement and its leader, who in turn blamed corruption in state institutions and the absence of reform.
With the approaching scorching summer and high temperatures, the high-pressure transmission towers of the Ministry of Electricity were subjected to systematic destruction; 135 towers were blown up within a week, which led to the collapse of the power network, depriving many cities of national electricity, which increased the suffering of the people, who in turn directed their anger at the Sadrist movement and the ministry, which they consider to be affiliated with them. This led to the minister’s resignation.
The Sadrist movement considers these attacks as politically motivated and their at members tried to mount a defence. But they did not succeed in standing in front of the massive tidal wave of criticism, especially since the Sadrists are considered the weakest in the media compared to the rest of the parties. They don’t have prominent and influential media channels. The personal Twitter and Facebook accounts of Muqtada al-Sadr are their most powerful platform, followed by the accounts of those close to him, such as Muhammad Salih al-Iraqi, or members of parliament who are active in influential WhatsApp groups defending the Sadrist viewpoint among elites.
One foot in government, the other in opposition
The Sadrist movement is used to playing in both the government and opposition arenas at the same time. They participated in the formation of governments and receiving positions for one or two years, then withdrew the ministers and announced their opposition, as happened in both Maliki governments in 2007 and 2013. The movement played a significant role in ousting Maliki and helping Haidar al-Abadi form his government in 2014. Yet they withdrew their ministers a year later and led an opposition campaign to storm the Green Zone and occupy the parliament building.
The movement led the formation of the Adel Abdul-Mahdi government in 2018 and was allocated four important ministries in his government. They stipulated that the prime minister choose technocratic ministers. They imposed one of their own as secretary-general of the General Secretariat of the Council of Ministers, and took several deputy minister posts. However, the movement joined the anti-government protests in October 2019 and effectively contributed to Abdul-Mahdi’s resignation.
The Sadrist movement also led the campaign to form the current government and they had a significant role in installing Mustafa al-Kadhimi as prime minister. They reserved four ministries, namely health, electricity, finance, and water resources, and demanded that any minister nominated for a post must be finalised with them. Nonetheless, Muqtada al-Sadr declared on July 15: “I announce that I withdraw my support for all members of this government and the future government, even if they claim to belong to us.”
It is worth noting that the Sadrist movement has not yet announced its opposition to the current government but rather “withdraws a hand.”
Sadrist withdrawal and postponement of elections
Perhaps the most posed question in Iraq’s corridors of power is whether elections will be held or not. This question is asked by all leaders, political pundits, diplomats, and those interested in Iraqi affairs. Many observers doubt the possibility of holding elections in October, especially after Muqtada al-Sadr announced his withdrawal.
The lack of participation of the Sadrist movement means losing the votes of a significant segment within the Shiite house, decisive electoral voters numbering more than one million. These elections will not represent the vast majority of the people. Suppose we add in the boycotts by civil movements, the October protest movement parties, and the reluctance of voters in general. In that case, we will be facing elections that would be lacking legitimacy due to the low rate of public support and voter participation. And this means that any government that emerges from these elections will not represent the vast majority of the people.
According to sources present at a meeting between Kadhimi and Shiite blocs this week, the PM told them there will be no elections without the participation of the Sadrist movement. Others might not share this view. Still, in reality, it is the only scenario, as the absence of the Sadrist movement creates a significant imbalance and a great void in the Shiite political arena. The Sadrists have dominated the Shiite scene since 2010. Their hegemony increased with each election as their seats in parliament rose from 32 to 44 and then 54, and with it their political influence.
It is worth noting that Sadr, in his statement mentioned above, wished “these elections success and the arrival of all the righteous and the removal of the corrupt.” This may mean that with the elections will be held and he wishes them success. Observers believe that appointing both the head of the SPC and his deputy as advisors means that there will be continuity of the work of SPC indirectly. At the same time, neither the movement nor the candidates from the movement formally informed the Independent High Electoral Commission of their withdrawal. This means that the final decision for the withdrawal of the Sadrist movement has not yet been made.
Observers believe that the Sadrist movement will not run in the elections without a clear sign of support from their leader Muqtada al-Sadr. As the election date approaches, it has become imperative to resolve the issue of participation. Perhaps the solution is to start a purge campaign by Sadr targeting corruption within the movement, cutting the way of his political competitors, and holding to account those who exploit the name of the movement for personal interests. This campaign may be an appropriate response to accusations against the Sadrist movement and a door for the movement’s return to the political scene.
The country needs clarity from the Sadrist movement and its leader, especially since Iraq faces a very complex political scene and is suffering from several formidable challenges. Political paralysis in the parliament and the government will not help Iraq in any way.
Farhad Alaaldin is the chairman of the Iraqi Advisory Council. He was the political adviser to former Iraqi President Fuad Masum, the former chief of staff to the KRG prime minister from 2009 to 2011, and former senior adviser to the KRG prime minister from 2011 to 2012.