Calls for holding Iraq’s October 10 elections on schedule grew louder when doubt set in after Muqtada al-Sadr announced his withdrawal on July 15, followed by a boycott from former Prime Minister Ayad Allawi and his al-Minbar coalition.
Nouri al-Maliki tweeted on July 29, 2021: “The elections will take place on their scheduled date on 10/10, and the position of the forces that announced their non-participation is respectable, but it is their position and it cannot be imposed on the opinion of the majority supporting holding early elections on the specified date.”
The al-Fateh alliance hastened to launch its electoral campaign on July 31, and its leader Hadi al-Amiri called on those who had withdrawn from the elections to review their decision.
The leaders of the Shiite Coordinating Committee (an influential group of Shia leaders and important players who regularly meet with the prime minister) met a few days ago and confirmed that elections must be held on their scheduled date. A source close to the meeting said that the leader of the Coalition of State Forces, Ammar al-Hakim, asked attendees to discuss the withdrawal of the Sadrist movement and the need to talk its leader Muqtada al-Sadr into reversing his decision. They agreed on the necessity of holding elections with or without the Sadrist movement.
The three presidencies (president, prime minister, and parliament speaker) met leaders of the political parties in the governmental palace on August 1, 2021. Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi briefed them on his visit to Washington and the results of the fourth round of strategic dialogue with the United States. They also discussed elections and boycotts. The leaders agreed that the elections will be held on time. They called upon the parties to reverse their decisions of withdrawal and emphasized the need to start a frank dialogue to fortify the electoral process and consolidate democracy in the country.
It is natural for the Shiite forces to insist on holding elections after Sadr’s withdrawal. It is a golden opportunity that might not be repeated; they stand a good chance to take the seats that the Sadrists could have won.
Effects of a Sadr withdrawal
Suppose Sadr continued his boycott of the elections and didn’t allow the Sadrists to participate. In that case, the total voter turnout will dwindle to very low levels that could render any election result unrecognizable.
Sadrist supporters control large areas of the electoral map. It is difficult for candidates from other parties to enter these areas, launch their electoral campaigns, or even direct their voters to the polls on election day. Clashes between Sadrist supporters and supporters of other parties cannot be ruled out.
Perhaps the most significant fear is that the Sadrist movement becomes opposition to the next government; they have done so in the past. It was not a good experience for them or the government, ending with a military confrontation. The repetition of such an experiment may lead to unimaginable results, especially since the movement has a large and effective military force controlling large areas in Baghdad, Samarra, and other territories.
Shiite power imbalance
The Shiite political map is divided into three axes. The conservatives are represented by the al-Fateh Alliance, the State of Law, and the Islamic Supreme Council. The second axis is the moderates, represented by the Coalition of State Forces (al-Nasr Alliance and the al-Hikma Movement), and the small Shiite parties represented by political personalities and independents. The third axis is represented by the Sadrist movement, which has attributes that bridge the other two axes and serve as a balancing power between them.
In the absence of the Sadrist movement from the parliament, the balance of power will shift to the conservative axis; they will have a large number of seats, possess weapons, and a military force (except for the State of Law). In addition, the conservatives enjoy direct and solid support from Iran, which heavily tilts the balance towards them.
At the same time, the absence of the Sadrist movement weakens the position of the moderate axis. This is what they fear, as they are well aware that they cannot compete with the conservatives without the Sadrist movement. They lack in numbers and capability; they are dispersed in most cases; they will not be able to effectively unite their positions. They failed to form a coalition before the elections and it would be difficult for them to unite after the vote, without the Sadrists.
Sunni and Kurdish forces stand by
The Sunni and Kurdish parties did not interfere with events in the Shiite arena, and none of the major parties within these two components made any statement or commented regarding the withdrawal of al-Sadr or the holding of elections or not.
The position of the Kurdish and Sunni parties is passive. Their failure to express their opinion indicates the weakness of their positions towards what is happening. They surrender to the fact that they do not have a say and are waiting for the decision of the Shiite parties, despite the fact that they are primarily affected by these events and by the Shiite decision whether to hold elections or postpone them.
These parties are supposed to contribute to the decision-making process that affects the future of the state. They always complain that they are not included in the decision-making by the Shiites. It is their duty to take part and influence events on the ground or state their position on an important political issue such as the withdrawal of the Sadrist movement from the electoral race. It is worth noting that the Sunni and Kurdish parties were racing to form coalitions with the Sadrists before and after the elections and explicitly rely on them to gain the posts of president and speaker of parliament.
Effect of non-participation on the Sadrists
If Muqtada al-Sadr remains outside the electoral process and the Sadrist movement doesn’t take part, the near future will be difficult for Iraq in general and the Sadrist movement and its leader in particular.
The Sadrist movement led a prominent opposition movement in the early years after 2003. Since the 2006 elections, the Sadrist movement has strengthened its parliamentary presence and extended its influence through its parliamentary bloc. It played a significant role in the formation of the previous four governments.
They engaged in military confrontation with the Iraqi government twice, once in 2004 and the second time in Operation Knight Charge in 2008. Both times they returned from the brink. They rejoined the political process with strength and adopted a clear strategy to become a significant player among the ruling elite. They become the largest parliamentary party in the 2018 elections, with 54 seats.
The exit of the Sadrist movement from the elections will significantly weaken them. They stand to become the biggest losers by alienating large chunks of their supporters in favour of the traditional opponents and losing their seats in parliament to them. Their main competitors will become the largest bloc and form the government. More importantly, if the Sadrist movement tries to launch opposition in the street, they could face very stiff resistance from the government. It could lead to military confrontation, as in the past, especially if a hard-line candidate from its rivals wins the premiership.
Elections and the chances of holding them
No political discussion these days is free from the question of whether elections will be held or not, and there are many doubts about the possibility of holding them in the absence of Sadr. Perhaps the Shiite decision to hold elections is decisive, especially since the international community sees the necessity of holding them; both America and Iran are enthusiastic about it.
It is worth noting that past elections suffered from a lack of participation and broad voter apathy. If the Sadrist movement exits from the October election, voter apathy will be greater than what we saw in 2018.
Returning to the possibility of holding elections, official procedures and statements from state officials and presidencies all indicate that the elections are taking place on October 10. However, in their private conversations, many of these officials assert that there are no elections without the Sadrist movement.
In their meeting Sunday with the presidencies, the political parties called for “the start of a frank dialogue to fortify the electoral process and strengthen democracy in the country.” Such dialogue is crucial and will pave the way for a decision binding on all political forces, whether to hold or postpone the elections.
Iraq needs political, economic, and security stability. The tense political situation in conjunction with the worrying security situation and the intensification of regional conflict puts the country on a dangerous course. The approaching elections and the holy month of Muharram in the shadow of a blazing summer are charging the electoral atmosphere in an unprecedented way. The country cannot afford the hesitation and skepticism about holding elections. A decisive decision is needed and needed fast.
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.
The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the position of Rudaw.