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Iraqis went to the polls on May 12, and the preliminary results are now in: Prime Minister Haider Abadi fared more poorly than expected, behind Badr Corps head Hadi al-Ameri’s Fatih (“Conquest”) coalition and surprise winner Iraqi populist Muqtada al-Sadr. Also doing surprisingly well, albeit farther down the list, is Asa’ib Ahl al-Haq, an Iranian-backed offshoot responsible for the murder of U.S. servicemen inside Iraq. Former Interim Prime Minister Ayad Allawi, who often sells himself as a coalition-building secularist, did poorly. But does that mean Iran won, or that Muqtada al-Sadr will really be the kingmaker as the Washington Post has suggested? Or that Iran is the victor?
Here, the answer is no and no. Iraq’s elections are not winner-take-all. Many figures run separately but come together in the post-election shuffle to form a coalition. Abadi’s poorer-than-expected showing undercuts his negotiating position, but if he re-combines with all factions of his Da`wa party, he is still kingmaker.
As for al-Sadr, it pays to remember 2010 when Allawi won the plurality but was unable to bring Iran’s many factions together (Maliki then became prime minister). Sadr’s political movement is notoriously fractious: Sadrists may be willing to ride his populist wave, but they are the first to jump ship when opportunity strikes.
Nor is the sky falling when it comes to Iran. Sadr has accepted Iranian patronage before, but he is almost as mercurial toward the Iranians as he is the Americans. Sadr and Ameri’s success does not necessarily translate into an Iranian ability to dictate to Iraq. Indeed, while the United States consistently underestimates the psychological impact of occupation, Iran has a tin ear when it comes to its transgressions against Iraqi nationalism. Former Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s poor showing undercuts the narrative that Iran is the victor. Rather, Iraqis seem to have reacted against corruption, something which taints Maliki and against which Abadi was ineffective. Sadr may be a corrupt figure, but his anti-corruption rhetoric nevertheless tapped into important Iraqi sentiment.
Abadi remains personally popular enough to perhaps still win a new term. He presided over the defeat of the Islamic State and implemented some important reforms. Oil is on the upswing and, alongside it, Iraq’s economy. Baghdad is booming and, according to United Nations’ statistics, terrorist incidents have plummeted. If Abadi can’t patch together a new government, a compromise candidate may emerge. Any successful compromise candidate would likely need to appeal both to those factions with a more sympathetic outlook to Iran and those who seek a more Western model. In other words, a new prime minister, like Abadi and those before him, will likely have to be someone who can compromise and guide Iraq through the mine field of regional and great power diplomacy and interests.
Iraqi government officials repeatedly say they want to be a regional Switzerland, a place where everyone can come to talk but no one gets to dictate. That metaphor may seem preposterous to those who see Iraq only through an American lens or who checked out of following Iraq after formal occupation ended, George W. Bush’s second term ended, or President Barack Obama ordered the withdrawal of American forces.
But Iraq has changed significantly since then. About 40 percent of Iraqis were born after the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in 2003 and the majority of Iraqis have no real political memory of Saddam Hussein’s dictatorship. They see sectarian parties not as sectarian liberators, but bastions of a corrupt status quo. They prioritize different issues than their fathers and mothers once did.
If Iraq is to succeed, it is important to take a deep breath, celebrate the fact that Iraq may now have its fifth successful transfer of power – in a region where many other leaders aspire to rule for life and will kill those who seek a vote to end that rule. That’s good for Iraq, good for the broader region, good for the United States, and a notable juxtaposition to the dictatorship suffered by Iranians.
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