Iraq’s parliamentary elections are set for May 12 following a heated debate over efforts to delay them. Despite some hope that war and widespread dissatisfaction with ethno-sectarian politics might bring about a political transformation, this election seems poised to return a weak government headed by Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi, a nationalist Islamist whose policies emphasize tying Iraq to the West with Iran-backed militias playing a strong security role and ministries apportioned on an ethno-sectarian basis. The sectarian structure of newly registered alliances, combined with secularists’ organizational weakness and low morale, makes change unlikely.
For his first term, Abadi was elected in September 2014 due to a split in former Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s State of Law Coalition (SLC), the electoral alliance that had won the largest number of seats that April. The collapse of the Iraqi army and the fall of Mosul to the self-proclaimed Islamic State (IS) had destroyed Maliki’s credibility and led to Abadi’s election. The two have spent the last three years criticizing each other, with Abadi using every opportunity to blame Iraq’s ills on poor governance under his predecessor.
Division within the SLC, and its lead faction, the Dawa Party, to which Maliki and Abadi both belong, left it unclear how Abadi would run. While Abadi kept his own counsel on his plans throughout 2017, Iraqi and pan-Arab news reports indicated he would run on a separate electoral list as a representative of the Dawa Party. Maliki would again head the SLC, with Dawa part of the alliance. It never seems to have occurred to Abadi to clarify with Iraq’s Independent High Electoral Commission (IHEC) if the party was permitted to run on two separate electoral alliances. The issue was clarified on January 8 when IHEC ruled that parties could not do so according to article 29 of the 2015 Political Parties Law.
This led to a deadlock within the Dawa Party because Maliki, who has remained its secretary-general, had the party registered in his name as a way of blocking Abadi. When a majority of the party’s leadership supported Abadi, on January 13 the party decided to not run at all, allowing candidates to join any coalition as independents. Since registration of new coalitions closed on January 11, the electoral map is now clear, though parties can join or leave coalitions until February 10, when candidate lists are due. Among major Shia leaders, Abadi registered the Nasr (“Victory”) Coalition, which quickly grew to include 29 parties. Maliki again registered the SLC, Badr Organization leader Hadi al-Ameri leads the Fatah (“Conquest”) Alliance, while Muqtada al-Sadr founded a new party called Istiqama (“Integrity”), which will be part of a new coalition called Sairun (“March Onward”). Ammar al-Hakim also registered the Hikma Current, which he had formed in July 2017 after splitting from the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq (ISCI).
In an effort to ensure a win, Abadi pivoted from his conflict with Maliki to an attempted alliance with Ameri’s Fatah. Abadi, who spent the past three years advocating non-sectarian politics, in recent months even promising a cross-sectarian coalition, endured enormous criticism for the cold pragmatism that drove him to an alliance with Fatah, which is made up of the political wings of Iran-backed militia groups. While Abadi’s current list does have Sunni candidates, his bloc is dominated by Shia Islamists—and because the Sunni candidates are not as prominent, it is possible none of them will win in their provinces and Abadi could end up with an all-Shia bloc in parliament. However, criticism remained even after the Abadi–Ameri “Nasr al-Iraq” alliance, announced the evening of January 14, collapsed less than 24 hours later when Fatah withdrew. Its leadership seemed in disagreement over the benefits of allying with Abadi; however, Ameri emphasized that he was ready to join coalition after the elections. Other factions have left since left Abadi’s Nasr coalition, including Hikma.
The election will also be a referendum on Sadr, who has spent the past two years rebranding himself as a unifying populist pushing for reforms and clean government, in part by allying his Islamist followers with secular protesters. Yet the protest movement that Sadr has led jointly with the secularists has been controversial given the Sadrists’ own political ambitions. The Civil Democratic Alliance (CDA), Sadr’s protest partners and Iraq’s main secularist party, which won five seats in 2014, has split into four parts, weakening their own chances of obtaining any seats. Furthermore, efforts by Sadr’s appointed leader for Istiqama, Hassan al-Aquli, to obscure the fact that it is just another Sadrist party in secularist clothing could undermine its credibility.
Another challenge for Abadi is the boycott effort promoted by activists on social media, mostly in response to the expectation that the election will simply reproduce the current political elite. Yet this could become a self-fulfilling prophecy. It has long been clear anecdotally that many Iraqis are dissatisfied with Islamist and sectarian parties, and a 2017 survey from the Baghdad-based Bayan Center confirmed this. Still, the superior organizational resources of Shia Islamist-dominated lists, division among secular factions, and the impact of the boycott mean that the election is likely to produce another Shia Islamist-dominated parliament.
Implicit threats from the Iran-backed militia sub-state are also likely to affect the formation of coalitions after the elections. Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, the deputy commander of the Hashd Commission, described in a January 24 speech what he alleged to be a plot by the Baath Party to reorganize itself and infiltrate the state through the elections, and called for Baathist candidates to be disqualified. While not mentioned by name, Abadi was the real target of the speech, since at that point there was open talk of a potential alliance between Abadi and the main Sunni–secular Shia bloc led by Iyad Allawi.
Sunni Arab political parties are not likely to impact the choice of prime minister, only the distribution of ministries. Most Sunni parties are now supporting a centrist line, siding with Baghdad in conflicts with the Kurdistan Region or regional Sunni states—and because Abadi is far less polarizing than Maliki was, he will have no problem finding Sunni allies as long as a clear plurality of Shia MPs support him, which is likely.
Kurdish vote results are likewise unlikely to have much impact, despite speculation that they might once again play the role of “kingmaker.” Abadi’s first government was formed without any Kurdish support, and Kurdish demoralization following the Kurdistan Region’s disastrous independence referendum in September may reduce their turnout further. Combined with increased cross-sectarian Arab unity, if anything, Kurdish leverage will be less in 2018 than it was in 2014.
Thus unless Abadi is able to somehow regain momentum, he will likely end up with a narrow plurality in a highly fragmented field and need to cobble together another mishmash government unable to pass key legislation—including, at present, the 2018 budget—leaving him to conduct all of its initiatives on a unilateral executive basis. Moreover, the more successful the boycott effort is, the weaker Abadi’s next government is likely to be.
Kirk H. Sowell is a political risk analyst and the publisher of the biweekly newsletter Inside Iraqi Politics. Follow him on Twitter @uticarisk.