The next Iraqi government after recent elections will face the gigantic challenge of reconstruction, as many cities and towns will have to be rebuilt completely after decades of civil war, sectarian friction and foreign interference. The new government will have to raise enough funds to kick-start the process of reconstruction but Iraq cannot do it alone and it would need the help of regional states and the international community, which could pave the way for enhanced international meddling into its internal affairs.
Despite a low turnout, technical problems with automated polling machines, and the failure of thousands of displaced Iraqis to cast their votes amid accusations of vote rigging in Kurdistan, there is a sense that Iraq is finally emerging from decades of bloodshed and sectarian clashes. According to experts, recovery will be slow and not without setbacks. A government that bridges ethno-sectarian gaps would go a long way toward bringing Iraqis together and limiting foreign intervention in the country’s affairs. Iraq’s stability is of paramount importance to the Gulf states and the region beyond. Maintaining national reconciliation and fighting institutional corruption is a job that is beyond one single government. More importantly, Iraqis need to regain confidence in the state and its institutions and that will not be easy.
There are fears that the US-Iran spat could be used as a pretext to interfere in Iraqi internal affairs. New Iraqi leaders after the election will have to accommodate each other to avoid being sucked into the vortex of regional crises and polarizations and they must move away from identity politics, as promised during the campaign, toward a more inclusive national base. Their alliance with moderate Sunni powers could the best insurance against foreign meddling. According to the final results, an alliance headed by former Shia militia chief Moqtada Sadr, who led two uprisings against the US-led invasion of Iraq and also staunchly opposed to Iranian involvement in the country, has won the parliamentary elections. But he cannot become prime minister as he did not stand as a candidate. However, he is expected to play a major role in forming the new government. The party of outgoing Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi was pushed into third place, behind a pro-Iranian alliance. Sadr’s win represents a remarkable comeback for the cleric after he was sidelined for years by Iranian-backed rivals. The elections were the first since Iraq declared victory over the Islamic State group in December. Some 5,000 American troops remain in Iraq supporting local forces, which were fighting IS.
Final results showed Sadr’s Saeroun bloc won 54 seats, compared to Prime Minister Abadi’s 42. The pro-Iranian Fatah alliance went into second place with 47 seats. But Sadr’s nationalist alliance – formed of his own party and six mainly secular groups, including the Iraqi communist party – failed to win more than 55 of the 329 seats up for grabs. According to observers, Sadr has reinvented himself as an anti-corruption champion, and also campaigned on a platform of investing in public services. The defeat of Abadi’s alliance came as many voters expressed dissatisfaction with corruption in public life. Whoever is named prime minister will have to oversee the reconstruction of Iraq following the battle against IS, which seized control of large parts of the country in 2014. International donors pledged $30bn at a conference in February but Iraqi officials have estimated that over $100bn is required. More than 20,000 homes and businesses were destroyed in the second city of Mosul alone. More than two million Iraqis are still displaced across the country and IS militants continue to mount deadly attacks despite having lost control of the territory they once held. Turnout in the May 12 election was only 44.5 percent – much lower than in previous polls.
According to the New York Times, “The victory of Sadr’s political coalition could complicate the American strategy in Iraq. The American military has been training, sharing intelligence and planning missions with former militias in the country, gambling that their military partnership can keep the Islamic State from making a comeback here. Sadr has been highly critical of American airstrikes in the country against the Islamic State, though he has said little recently about his willingness to allow American troops to remain on Iraqi soil. American officials are now uncertain — though not yet worried — about what the position of Iraq’s future government may be on the issue.” The Guardian observed, “The unexpectedly poor showing of Iraq Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi has dealt a blow to US influence in the country. It was a poor return for American backing for the Baghdad government’s drive to extirpate Islamic State and regain lost territory.”
The real challenge for the heads of the major political parties will be to build alliances and coalitions that will allow Shiites, Sunnis, Kurds and other minorities to share power for the first time. Sadr’s surprise election victory is being seen in the region as a sign of change in Iraq. He has also changed over the years. He no longer rails against America so harshly as he once did, when his disciples killed United States soldiers and committed atrocities against Sunnis in sectarian bloodletting. He has cast himself as an ardent nationalist, and distanced himself from Iran, which has established a growing influence in Iraq after the American military withdrawal in 2011. Sadr was once known for prolonged trips to Iran, he raised eyebrows less than a year ago with a rare visit to Saudi Arabia, where he met with Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman and others.
Since the first elections after the fall of Saddam Hussein in 2003, Iraqi people have voted for their political bases and supported candidates representing narrow religious or political beliefs. In the last election, many voters abandoned their traditional divisions and supported two new political movements that promised to tackle corruption. The election result shows that populism is replacing sectarianism as the defining force in Iraqi politics.