Two months after the parliamentary elections, violent popular protests broke out in Southern Iraq. This uprising, whose roots are mainly socio-economic, risks further destabilizing the country on the political level. Indeed, amidst allegations of electoral frauds and manual recounting of votes, the country still has no new government, making it even more difficult to manage the current wave of popular discontent.
A fragmented political scene
On May 12, 2018 the first parliamentary elections since the defeat of the so-called Islamic State were held in Iraq. The elections were considered by regional and international observers as a pivotal moment, capable of turning a page and writing a new chapter in the history of Iraq. However, voter turnout was the lowest ever since 2005 (around 45%) and electoral results seem to testify to an anti-establishment vote rather than a vote for hope. Quite unexpectedly, the list headed by Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi, Nasr al-Iraq, only came third, gaining 42 seats out of 329 in the Iraqi Parliament. Most votes, corresponding to 54 parliamentary seats, were instead obtained by the Saairun coalition guided by the Shi‘a cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, whose anti-American and pro-Iranian past has morphed into a strong nationalistic, anti-sectarian and populist stance. The anti-corruption popular campaign that he waged in 2016 allowed him to obtain considerable grassroot consensus, characterizing him as a potential and charismatic popular leader. In the framework of 2018’s elections, his role as an outsider matched pretty well with Iraqis’ general dissatisfaction with the political elite, providing the discontented masses with an alternative to the more traditional political forces.
The Saairun coalition was followed by the Fatah alliance (47 seats) headed by Hadi al-Amiri, which included the political offshoots of the Popular Mobilization Units (PMU), the increasingly powerful Iraqi militias aligned with Iran.
On the Kurdish side, there was no surprise: in spite of being the advocate of the failed referendum for the independence of the Iraqi Kurdistan on September 2017, the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) again confirmed to be Iraqi Kurdish majority party, gaining 25 seats. On the other hand, the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), despite facing accusations of having ‘sold’ Kirkuk to the central Iraqi government, also gained 18 seats. Hence, notwithstanding the declared Kurdish discontent against traditional political forces, Iraqi Kurds seem to have preferred not to cast a protest ballot.
What do these results suggest? First, and even if a general consensus around Abadi and the achievements of his first term have emerged from surveys, the results obtained by his coalition suggest a widespread popular discontent against the Iraqi political establishment. On top of Iraqis’ grievances, corruption, unequal distribution of resources and the lack of opportunities for the youth and the disadvantaged have emerged as the most essential and urgent to address, as has been highlighted by current popular protests. It was exactly on these same grievances that Sadr was able to play during his electoral campaign, rallying discontent to gather consensus around his coalition, whose anti-establishment character was further marked by the alliance with the Iraqi Communist Party. Having obtained more seats than all the other lists, Sadr’s movement will play a major role in the definition of a new parliamentary majority. Since he did not run personally in the elections, the cleric is not set to become the future Iraqi PM, however he will most likely be a sort of king-maker of Iraqi politics in the coming years.
Second, the Iraqi post-election political scenario appears to be even more fragmented than before. For the first time, even the historic Dawa Party split into two different lists and votes for the party were scattered between al-Abadi’s Nasr al-Iraq and al-Maliki’s Dawlat al-Qanun, that came fourth (25 seats).
Therefore, the Iraqi political scenario is currently composed of many different medium-sized forces that will need to find compromises to reach the threshold of 165 seats’, necessary to create a parliamentary majority. In this context, as expected, Sadr has been playing the leading role in the dialogues and meetings to shape alliances aimed at governing the country: after having reached out to Iyad Allawi of al-Watanyia and Ammar al-Hakim of al-Hikma, he laid the basis for an alliance with al-Amiri and also discussed a possible entente with al-Abadi.
Iraqi post electoral scenario: escalating tension
Right after the communication of the official results, several electoral irregularities have been reported, leading to severe calls from different political actors to recount votes and/or even to repeat the elections. The post-electoral political process in Iraq is therefore at a deadlock, and will not unlock until the International High Electoral Commission (IHEC) rechecks the electoral results. Eventually, the new nine judges appointed at the head of the IHEC mandated the manual recount of all votes cast in the regions where allegations of fraud have been made. The process officially started on July 3 and it is expected to take a long time, further postponing the appointment of a new government. The former parliament, whose legal term ended on June 30, failed to extend its term and was dissolved, leaving the country with no legislative branch, while al-Abadi will head a caretaker government until a new administration is formed.
In the meantime, tension in the country is increasing: violent popular protests broke out in Basra on July 8, and have been intensifying ever since. In spite of being the core of Iraqi oil industry, the Southeastern Iraqi city maintains extremely poor living standards: basic services are scarce, corruption is rampant and unemployment is very high. To exacerbate discontent, Iran’s domestic needs in the extremely hot Middle Eastern summer, coupled with Baghdad’s huge 1 billion $ debt towards Iran in electricity bills, has recently pushed Teheran to cut electricity supplies to its neighbour. Hence, the lack of electricity has been one of the main drivers of the demonstrations. According to some analysts, Iran could have chosen to cut off electricity in Iraq to mark its influence over its neighbour, fearing that the last elections and Sadr’s partial victory could result into a loss of sway over Baghdad. Time will tell whether such a strategy could be effective, since Iraq has been actively seeking Saudi help to overcome the electricity shortage caused by Iran’s cut.
Solidarity and shared grievances led to the spread of the demonstrations from the mainly Shi’a South to the centre of the country and the capital Baghdad. Protesters went as far as storming Najaf’s airport, and ransacked oil infrastructures and several government and parties’ offices, revolting against the traditional political establishment deemed responsible for their conditions. In particular, it seems that the targeted buildings especially belonged to al-Dawa Party and to the PMU forces while, according to press agencies, al-Sairun’s buildings were left untouched.
Commanded by the former government, that also employed counter-terrorism battalions and emergency response units, Iraqi security forces have violently repressed the unrest, killing 14 protesters and wounding more than 700 as of July 24. To tame the uprising, the government is also recurring to internet cuts, hoping that interrupting the means of communication could halt the quick escalation of the protests.
In search of a new internal political balance amid the protests
The fact that the country currently does not have a new government yet, makes it even more difficult to manage such a tense situation. The caretaker PM al-Abadi, who may be up for a second mandate, seems to be aware that such a delicate conjunction calls for a strong signal at a domestic and international level. For this reason, on his way back from a NATO meeting in Brussels, he visited Basra in the desperate attempt to ease the situation, pledging investments in the region and new services to improve local living standards. Al-Abadi also formed a crisis cell aimed at dealing with the current emergency.
On the other hand, while there seems to be no causal link between the emergence of these protests and Sadr, the cleric has expressed his support to the demonstrations, as long as they are peaceful. He has also called for the suspension of all activities linked to the formation of a new government, to prioritize the protesters’ claims and make attempts to meet their demands. While his colleagues have considered such a suggestion to be impracticable and counterproductive for the national balance, Sadr’s move well demonstrates his awareness of how he could capitalize on such tensions: he has a wide support in the Southern region, and his agenda perfectly responds to the demonstrators’ claims, which are also addressing Iranian influence in Iraq. Indeed, this situation could provide his movement with a strong leverage in the formation of the new government, depicting Sadr as the man who could tame and solve popular unrest and discontent in the country.
On the other hand, such a tense contingency will surely contribute to further divide the Iraqi political scene, thus making it even more complex to find a compromise to govern the country.