Initial results from Iraq’s May 12 parliamentary elections, in which a coalition backed by Shia cleric Moqtada al-Sadr came in first place, sent a shockwave through the establishment and reset expectations regarding the formation of the next government. Incumbent Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi was widely expected to win a plurality, but due to a poor result in Baghdad, which elects over one-fifth of parliament’s 329 MPs, Abadi’s Nasr Coalition appears to have come in second behind a Sadr-backed Sairun coalition—and because seat counts have not been finalized, it is unclear whether the Nasr Coalition will also fall behind Hadi al-Amiri’s Iran-backed Fatah Alliance.* Sadr’s win is mainly due to his base turning out to vote even though voter participation was low for the country as a whole.

As of May 17, Iraq’s electoral commission has only released raw vote totals by province, not the seat allocations, which are determined based on a quasi-proportional mathematical formula. There also remains a dispute over the vote count in Kirkuk, where Arab and Turkmen voters have accused the province’s main Kurdish party, the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), of widespread fraud. Yet political leaders, including Abadi himself, have publicly congratulated Sadr on his coalition coming in first.

The main surprise was in Baghdad, which in some regards has done well under Abadi. Security has improved dramatically: whereas the capital was continually bombarded with mass terror attacks before 2014, such attacks have become rarer. This has also allowed economic activity to return. Yet during the campaign there were rolling protests over inadequate public services in the capital, and these spontaneous protests over public services across Baghdad began to escalate in March, separate from the protests the Sadrists were organizing in Tahrir Square.

Given how much economic and security conditions deteriorated in the south of the country—where there have been protests against the government for over a year before the election, making Abadi’s poor results there no surprise—Abadi put effort into securing a good result in Baghdad. He used his office as prime minister to issue a dramatic executive decree on April 1 to launch a “national effort” under which government ministries would take over service projects contractors had left unfinished. Despite dominating the domestic news cycle for a few days after Abadi’s press conference on that date, this initiative disappeared during the last 30 days of the campaign, which may have added to the public’s sense that he would not follow through on his promises.

Abadi’s surprisingly poor performance in Baghdad may be explained by residents’ accumulated frustrations with failing government services and the false hopes Abadi raised with this decree. In Baghdad, Abadi’s losses mainly benefited Sadr. Amiri’s Fatah came in second and former prime minister Nouri al-Maliki’s State of Law Coalition (SLC) came in third, indicating that their own bases partially held up, while Sadr-backed protests hammered the government over the lack of prosecutions against corruption and the continued public service shortfall.

Yet Sadr’s success is due more to the mechanics of base mobilization and coalition management than any dramatic increase in support per se. Nationwide, participation declined from 62 percent in 2014 to just under 45 percent in 2018. Baghdad results illustrate the payoff Sadr received by allying with secular parties, which are weak nationwide but well organized in the capital.

In 2014, a total of 2,821,919 votes were cast in Baghdad, whereas in 2018, with 95 percent of votes counted, the total was just short of 1.8 million, a decline of nearly one million votes. Yet while the Sadrist Sairun Coalition received 413,638 votes—well ahead of Fatah, which came in second with 233,298 votes—Sadrist votes did not increase that much. In 2014, two Sadrist Islamist lists, the Ahrar Coalition and the Nukhab Movement, won a total of 352,815 votes. Separately, the main secularist list, the Civil Democratic Alliance (CDA), won 112,563. This time around, the CDA broke into three lists, one of which, the Iraqi Communist Party (ICP), participated in Sadrist-led protests and ran with Sairun. Initial results show that the other two factions of the CDA separately won 61,000 votes, suggesting the remaining 61,000 secularist votes went with Sairun—assuming consistent participation level.

Together, the Sadrists' 2014 votes and the estimated share they picked up from the CDA total about 413,000 votes, meaning the raw number of Baghdad voters supporting either the Sadrists or their secular allies stayed constant over the two elections. But because the total number of votes in Baghdad declined by about 36 percent, Sadr will receive a much larger number of Baghdad’s 69 seats than the nine he received in 2014. This pattern was repeated across Shia-majority provinces and explains why Sadr’s 34 seats in the 2014 parliament is estimated to increase to 55 in the new one.

So instead of Abadi beginning from a position of strength with an electoral plurality, he will now have to make significant concessions in order to secure reelection. In one scenario, Abadi can be reelected by allying with Sadr, provided he is willing to make the proper concessions. Sadr openly endorsed Abadi for a second term before the election, and the Sadrists appear to have learned a lesson from their mistakes in 2016, when they attempted to use mass protests to force a government reformation and ended up uniting other Shia factions against them. Since the election, Sadr’s spokesman, Salah al-Obeidi, has instead been emphasizing that no bloc won by a wide margin, indicating that the Sadrists realize they cannot dominate the government formation process. While some Sadrists have put forward the Governor of Maysan, Ali Dawai Lazem, as a candidate for prime minister, al-Obeidi told NRT on May 15 that they thought of Lazem as just “a model of what a prime minister should be”—focused on the people’s needs—and not necessarily a candidate upon whom Sairun would insist.

Ammar al-Hakim’s Hikma Movement is also aligned with Abadi, and if they join with Sadr, together they will have well over 100 seats. Given Abadi’s acceptability among Sunnis, he would likely be able to bring enough smaller Sunni parties into his coalition to reach a parliamentary majority of 165. However, the Sadrists’ main condition would likely be that Abadi would need to leave the Dawa Party and serve as a non-partisan prime minister. This is a demand Sadrists have made in the past as part of their broader call for a non-partisan, technocratic government, and they are now in a position to insist upon it.

In a second scenario, Abadi could turn to Amiri and Maliki to form a Shia-oriented coalition. This would only be plausible if Abadi ends up with more seats than Amiri, as otherwise there would be no rationale for them to include Abadi at all. Both the Shia-aligned Lebanese newspaper Al-Akhbar and the Iraqi Sunni TV channel al-Sharqiya have projected Abadi will narrowly beat Amiri with 51 seats to 50, with Sadr coming just a few seats ahead at 55.* Yet Abadi has bad relations with both Amiri and Maliki, which would strain any potential alliance. While Abadi and Maliki have been firing rhetorical shots at one another since the former replaced the latter as prime minister in 2014, Abadi’s relationship with Amiri has varied, but it ended when Abadi publicly suggested during the campaign that people close to Amiri were responsible for the corruption-driven murder of a senior security official in April. If Abadi appears to be considering this option, it may be just to maintain leverage against Sadr, since his parity with Amiri's Fatah comes from the Sunni seats he won in Nineveh, and they could threaten to abandon Abadi if the coalition is too close to Iran.

In the third scenario, Amiri and Maliki form an Iran-backed alliance that unites with the major Kurdish parties in order to exclude both Sadr and Abadi. Yet Amiri and Maliki combined are set to get just 75 seats, far fewer than Shia-led blocs running nationalist platforms. Even if they could win over Ammar al-Hakim and gain the support of the main Kurdish parties, they would still be about 40 votes short of a majority, and it is unlikely that they could gather enough support from Sunni Arab lists—which will probably not support an Iran-backed candidate—to make up the difference.

The most likely scenario, Abadi’s reelection with Sadr’s support, will produce a different political dynamic than under the last term, but not a radically different set of policies. As before, Abadi will lack a stable majority in parliament that would facilitate passing legislation. Given the populist bent of his new allies, this would in particular make getting the budget and associated economic reforms passed even more difficult.

Kirk H. Sowell is a political risk analyst and the publisher of the biweekly newsletter Inside Iraqi Politics. Follow him @uticarisk.

* Editor’s note: Since this article was published, official results indicate Sairun won 54 seats, Amiri's Fatah Alliance won 47, and Abadi's Nasr Coalition won 42, lower than the estimates used in this analysis.​