Iraqis went to the polls to elect a new parliament in May 2018. The result surprised observers.Jump to full report >>
Campaigning for the 2018 election to Iraq’s Council of Representatives began on 14 April, with major themes being the victory over ISIS/Daesh; Iraqi nationalism and the relationship with Iran and the US; sectarianism; and corruption and the delivery of Government services. Iraq elected its Parliament on 12 May 2018.
Iraq’s political scene is highly fragmented and constantly changing. There was a total of 36 coalitions, each made up of several parties. The three most successful coalitions were completely new.
Incumbent Haider al-Abadi was expected to do well, after his declaration of victory over ISIS in December 2017. He mishandled the formation of his Nasr (victory) coalition and tarnished his nationalist credentials, however.
Moqtada al-Sadr, former leader of the Mahdi Army militia, associated himself with widespread secular protests against corruption and mismanagement that had taken place for several months before the poll. His Saairun (Forward) coalition, also known as Alliance of Revolutionaries for Reform, brought Communists (who had played an important role in the demonstrations) together with his more familiar Shiite allies.
Another new coalition was led by Hadi al-Amiri, former rival militia leader to Sadr. The Fatah (Conquest) coalition represented the Shiite militias that were important in defeating ISIS, although the militias themselves were banned from presenting candidates. Fatah is close to Iran.
Abadi’s predecessor Nouri al-Maliki led his State of Law alliance, as he had done at the last election.
The Kurds did not unify around a single coalition. The independence referendum and declaration in 2017, followed by the loss of the disputed city of Kirkuk, caused splits in the traditional ruling duopoly composed of the KDP and the PUK.
Some secularists and Arab Sunni parties called for a delay in the election because so many people were displaced by the fight against ISIS. Former Prime Minister Ayad Allawi’s Iraqiya coalition was the most important of these.
At 44%, turnout was the lowest for any election since 2003. This time, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, the leading Shiite cleric in Iraq, did not say it was the duty of Shiites to vote. Moqtada al-Sadr’s Saairun coalition came first, with 54 seats in the 329-seat parliament. Next came Amiri’s Fatah alliance with 47, followed by the incumbent’s Nasr coalition with 42 seats, a surprisingly poor result for Haider al-Abadi. Maliki’s State of Law coalition lost 67 seats compared with the last election.
There were widespread allegations of vote-rigging and some coalition leaders called for a re-run of the election. The outgoing parliament called for a manual re-count. In June, an unexplained fire broke out in one of the warehouses where Baghdad ballot papers were stored.
The election took place against a background of massive destruction resulting from the battle against ISIS/Daesh. The Iraqi Government requested $100 billion at a reconstruction conference in Kuwait, but donors only pledged $30 billion, mostly in credit lines. Iraq will struggle to take on more debt; corruption is also a hindrance.
Meanwhile, the battle against ISIS is not completely over yet: bomb blasts are still taking place, particularly around Kirkuk. Prosecuting the atrocities that took place remains controversial, with a UN Investigative Team set only to investigate ISIS’s crimes.
Forming a government may take time. Saairun may be the biggest coalition, but Sadr himself has ruled out being Prime Minister and has limited the other coalitions he will work with. Prime Ministers in Iraq are often compromise candidates anyway, rather than coming from the leading coalition. That means that Abadi has a good chance of remaining Prime Minister.
While Sadr has called for a technocratic government, allocating ministries to the various groups that will be needed to form a government remains a problem; they have traditionally been centres of patronage and have not collaborated well.
Saudi Arabia has been rebuilding ties with Iraqi politicians and with the Iraqi economy. As a way of countering Iranian influence, this is very different from the strategy in Yemen, for example. No rupture with Iran is likely, however.
Commons Briefing papers CBP-8337
Author: Ben Smith