As Iraq Moves Closer to a New Government, the Alignments Don’t Augur Well for Economic Reforms or Freedom from Militia Interference

Kirk H Sowell

The upset victory of a coalition backed by Muqtada Al Sadr in Iraq’s parliamentary elections makes forming the next government a complex game of horse trading. Still, the next administration won’t be radically different from the outgoing one. However, with incumbent Prime Minister Haider Al Abadi’s failing to achieve an expected plurality, there will be a shift in the balance of power. In policy terms, economic policy-making will become even more dysfunctional, and Iraq’s collection of militias may have an even bigger influence in government.

To see how it will all shape up, one needs to parse the messy mathematics of the election results. To wit: Al Sadr’s bloc won 54 seats to the 47 for the Iran-aligned Fatah alliance, led by Badr organization chief Hadi Al Amiri. Meanwhile, Al Abadi’s Nasr coalition won 42 seats. Both Nasr and Fatah are spin-offs from former Prime Minister Nuri Al Maliki’s State of Law coalition (factions remaining loyal to Al Maliki received 25 seats). Ammar Al Hakim, the former leader of the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq (ISCI), won 19 seats with his new Hikma Current. The remainder of ISCI, which ran under Al Amiri’s Fatah, received only a couple of seats. Of particular note, however, the radical militia Asaib Ahl Al Haq’s political wing, Sadiqun, won a third of Fatah’s 47 seats, when it previously had only a solitary representation in parliament.

Barely had results been announced when the alliance negotiations began. First, Al Sadr met with Al Hakim; the two then announced they had spoken about a new government. Later, Al Sadr met Al Abadi, and the two likewise announced that they talked about a new government. No formal alliance between the three has been mentioned. Nevertheless, Al Hakim has hinted that an alliance to be formed would constitute the largest bloc in parliament. For his part, Al Abadi has spoken of a “semi-total” agreement with Al Sadr on the next government.

None of this is surprising. Al Abadi, Al Sadr and Al Hakim have been more or less aligned in the Shia camp since 2014, barring the occasional dispute. With 115 seats out of 329 between them, they have a clear majority of MPs from Shia areas.

The other key Shia group is the Iran-aligned Al Amiri-Al Maliki axis, which lumps together Fatah and the SLC. But their 72 seats are far short of what’s needed to pick the next premier. (That said, Fatah will probably be incorporated into the next government as, because of its militia ties, Al Amiri could create too many problems outside the administration.) And while a great deal of attention has been lavished on visits by Iranian Quds Force chief Qasim Sulaymani and his efforts to form an Iran-aligned alliance with the two main Kurdish parties, the numbers here don’t work either.

The third main group constitutes a loose collection of Sunni factions. Vice-President Osama Al Nujayfi, head of a coalition called the Iraqi Decision Alliance (IDA), has called for Sunni Arab groups to unite. But the IDA won only 15 seats. For while Al Nujayfi’s faction was the largest Sunni Arab faction in Nineveh for over a decade, it has lost strength in recent years. In the recent polls, Al Abadi’s Nasr list dominated with over 160,000 votes, with the IDA coming in seventh with under 68,000. Despite the fact that no Sunni bloc holds enough seats to trouble other groups, they will likely be offered control of some ministries in exchange for support of the new government.

At the end, while it is clear that Al Sadr’s influence and power has increased, he has in fact boxed himself into a corner. He openly endorsed Al Abadi for a second term before the election, expecting – like everyone else – that Al Abadi’s coalition would win. But now, with the results starkly different than anticipated, if Al Sadr were to attempt to nominate anyone else, other Shia factions would reject such a candidate. The consolation for his pre-election presumption is that Al Abadi remains useful as a bulwark against Al Amiri and Al Maliki.

So, then, in the final accounting Al Abadi should remain prime minister. But it won’t be easy, going forward. In an alliance with Al Sadr, it is likely that the prime minister will discover less appetite for economic reform. In addition, Al Sadr and Al Abadi remain at cross-purpose on efforts to reduce subsidies or to rein in the public sector, where wages absorb the bulk of the state’s oil revenues. And though Al Sadr talks about the rule of law, he retains a fully functioning militia. At the end, Al Abadi’s electoral shortfall have seriously undermined his leverage, and the next four years will be a rough ride.

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