Last month, Shiite populist leader Muqtada al-Sadr called for his supporters to resign from the Iraqi parliament. Out of 73 deputies, 64 members bound by party discipline resigned immediately and were quickly replaced by others from other parties. The unprecedented for Iraq, but quick move could turn the entire electoral map over in favor of Sadr’s rival, the Coordination Framework.
The withdrawal came after the Sadr-led National Salvation Coalition, which included the Kurdistan Democratic Party (led by Masoud Barzani) and Sunni Sovereignty bloc (led by Speaker of the Parliament Mohammed Halbousi and businessman Khamis al-Khanjar), over the course of many months, failed to form a majoritarian government. The mass resignation was followed by a meeting between the resigning members of parliament and the clergyman. Sadr reiterated that he decided to withdraw from the political process because he did not want to participate in a government in which “corrupters” (implying the Coordination Framework) take part. But the departure of the Shiite leader could turn out to be a huge political miscalculation, leading Sadr to lose his Kurdish and Sunni allies, which would only strengthen the position of his rivals in forming the next government.
If the Coordination Framework forms the next government, which seems increasingly likely with Sadr’s departure, he could find himself on the sidelines of the government pie, where traditionally the leaders of the political parties that control the government could distribute economic and political benefits to their supporters through a complex network of patronage. Despite his anti-corruption rhetoric, as well as his skepticism of his Shiite rivals’ calls for a national unity government, Sadr has operated within the ethnosectarian political system imposed after the US invasion and its total domination of Iraq, skillfully benefiting politically and economically. Since then, close associates of Sadr have held important ministerial positions in successive governments, which has helped to strengthen and maintain his patronage network and increase his political influence. If he remains out of government now, the social programs he has set up in poor, Shiite-dominated areas of Iraq and his powerful patronage networks will suffer.
Incidentally, political gridlock has been commonplace in Iraq since 2003, when the aggressive US deliberately destroyed the republic’s state structure. In 2010, for example, it took 289 days to negotiate a new government under Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki at the start of his second term. This time the process has stalled due to the failure to elect a new president, an important constitutional step that opens the way for negotiations to form a government. Sadr achieved initial success in February when Mohammed Al-Halbousi, parliamentary speaker, was elected. However, an intra-Kurdish rivalry for the presidency between the Kurdistan Democratic Party, Sadr’s ally, and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, which sided with the Coordination Framework, prevented Sadr from forming the majoritarian government he sought once the extent of his victory in October 2021 elections became clear to him.
Sadr has tried at least four times to rally other MPs, including independents, in an attempt to gather a quorum to break the political gridlock. However, Sadr’s unrealistic and inflexible all-or-nothing approach to negotiations has probably contributed to the collapse of the current political process. He sought to push back his Shiite rivals and refused to accept the independent MPs who were the result of anti-government protests that began in October 2019. Like Sadr, the independents also ran on a reformist and anti-corruption platform, but he failed to find common ground with them and convince them to join his coalition. Perhaps because they remembered that Sadrist forces had played a key role in undermining and suppressing the Iraqi protest movement. The independent MPs even refused to attend the parliamentary session to gather a quorum to vote for the post of president. Sadr imposed strict conditions on the independent MPs and, in particular, he called on them to enter into an alliance with at least 40 MPs within 15 days to try to form a government with his support. Had Sadr chosen a more constructive and engaging method of communicating and negotiating with these MPs, he might have succeeded in at least overcoming the quorum problem that prevented the formation of his majoritarian government.
There is also an internal tension between Sadr’s desire to raise his political profile and power, and what appears to be his ambition to become a prominent Shiite leader in the future. As a religious figure, Sadr appears to feel a moral obligation to use his religious beliefs to remain a significant political force in Iraq. But he is also aware that politics with its inherent negotiation and compromise could undermine his religious credibility not only in Iraq, but also in the wider Shiite community in the region and beyond, where the current leader al-Sistani, as well as previous religious leaders from Najaf, have been extremely influential. His recent political moves seem to indicate that his long-term religious aspirations have defined and limited his political moves and negotiating zone with his rivals. Over the past eight months, he has avoided damaging his religious image in his attempts to form a majoritarian government. Thus, Sadr’s aspirations as a religious figure seem to have superseded his short-term political goals. Accordingly, Sadr may have calculated that by his departure he could strengthen his political and religious position in the long term as a figure who refuses to ally himself with people he holds responsible for political, economic and security failures.
As Sadr, according to many Iraqi experts, has prioritized his far-reaching religious goals, political alliances with the erratic Shiite leader have become unpredictable and impractical, damaging the fortunes of his former allies. Sadr’s departure put an end to the “Save the Homeland” coalition, an alliance with the KDP and the Sunni Sovereignty Bloc led by Al-Halbousi, who are now paying dearly for having relied on Sadr to achieve political results for them in the next government. The KDP, which had been “keeping an eye” on the Iraqi presidency, believed that Sadr would hand over the post to them in the same way he handed over the post of parliamentary speaker to the Sunnis. The possibility of a KDP candidate winning the presidential election has now become very remote, while Al-Halbousi seems to have recognized the new reality by playing along with his former rival, the Coordination Framework.
Following the departure of the Sadrist MPs from parliament, the Coordination Framework held a meeting, noting that it would respect Sadr’s decision, while reaffirming its efforts to form a broad-based government by including others to “realize our people’s aspirations for security, stability and good life and strengthen Iraq’s role and position in the region and the world”. Late last month, the Coordination Framework helped to quickly replace most of the retiring MPs with second-placed candidates in their constituencies in the October 2021 parliamentary elections. There are still nine vacant seats because some of these candidates did not turn up to be sworn in, apparently because they were ideologically and politically close to Sadr. Therefore, those in third place may swear in at a later date. After that, the balance of power in parliament changed. The Fatah Alliance, led by Popular Mobilization Forces Commander Hadi al-Amiri, increased its seats from 17 to 29, Maliki’s State of Law Coalition from 33 to 37, and the Alliance of National State Forces, led by former Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi and National Wisdom Movement leader Ammar al-Hakim, increased its seats from 4 to 11. Accordingly, the Coordination Structure has now become the largest parliamentary bloc, with 130 MPs, although there are stronger divisions within this alliance. The increase in the number of seats would give the Coordination Framework greater powers to form the next government. Thus, the government formation process could gain momentum if it is not hampered by internal conflict within that party over who might lead the next government as prime minister, which, as might be expected, is already causing heightened tensions.
Sadr’s withdrawal from the political process appears to be a serious political miscalculation that will play into the hands of his rivals when the next government is formed. But this does not mean easy progress towards government formation, as many internal and external factors still hold the political process hostage. If formed, the new government is likely to reflect not only the ethno-confessional traits of the past, but also a deep bias against members of its party, nepotism and cronyism. And this would naturally have a negative impact on governance and lead to increased corruption, which could worsen service delivery and the living conditions of Iraqis. Sadr’s options will be limited and his maneuverability, if not well calculated and defined, could seriously increase divisions and instability in society. It is not clear how Sadr will be able to change course in the foreseeable future by abandoning his MPs in parliament. Undoubtedly, if he remains out of politics, his movement will be deprived of financial benefits from the state, which could weaken its popular social programs in the poor Shiite neighborhoods that constitute the majority of Sadr’s most active supporters. As a result, this could further weaken Sadr’s popularity, especially among young people in future elections.
Viktor Mikhin, corresponding member of RANS, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.