Posted by Ryan Suto on May 18, 2018 in Blog

Last weekend Iraqi voters went to the polls for the first time since Iraq declared victory over ISIL in December 2017. The coalition building over the next few months will prove critical to how Iraq moves past intense sectarian divisions and toward vital governance issues and public services.  

Since the last elections in 2014, Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi has generally been viewed as governing in a more moderate way than the overtly sectarian rule of former PM Nouri al-Maliki. One major exception, however, was Abadi’s controversially strong response to a Kurdish independence vote in September 2017. Nonetheless, since Iraq declared victory over ISIL, political leaders in Iraq have signaled a desire to continue to form non-sectarian coalitions and civic-minded political blocs--a practice which has emerged through the past several elections.

Many in Iraq have soured to the ethno-sectarian divisions that largely emerged after 2003, seeing them as the source of much of the existent problems facing the country. Evidenced in part by Abadi and other Shia leaders actively reaching out to Sunni leaders to form new lists for the 2018 election. Moqtada al-Sadr played an outsized role in promoting pragmatism and denouncing corruption ahead of this year’s plebiscite, while Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani declared that true believers must not vote along sectarian lines. Unfortunately political parties and blocs provided little in the way of substantive policy positions ahead of the election, giving voters few reasons for support beyond the presence of familiar faces.

More urgent among Sunni voters appears to have been the vehement opposition to participation in the elections voiced by ISIL. Indeed, there were over a dozen assassination attempts against candidates or officials in the lead-up to the election, which was otherwise marked by civil discourse. However, there have been reports of voter intimidation, eligibility confusion, especially among, Iraqis have who yet been able to return to their homes, and violence in the Kurdish region broadly and Kirkuk specifically. These issues, along with a general dissatisfaction with the Iraqi political class, likely contributed to 44% voter turnout. This was the lowest turnout rate since the ouster of Saddam Hussein, with noted electoral violations on all sides.

The results of the election surprised many: Sadr’s Sairoon Alliance garnered the most votes, followed by Hadi al-Amiri's Fatah Coalition with PM Abadi's Nasr Coalition coming in third. Once seated, members of parliament must form a ruling coalition, which has taken months in the past. This process may see the breakdown of the cross-ethno-sectarian blocs, as governing differs greatly than campaigning. Despite the disappointing results, Haider al-Abadi may still see a significant role in the new government. Abadi has already signaled a desire to participate in the resulting ruling coalition, and the Sairoon Alliance noted that Abadi’s Nasr Coalition is their “closest” potential partner. In fact, Sairoon has stated an openness to a non- Sairoon PM, as Sadr himself did not stand for election and is therefore is not eligible to become the next PM.

However the government is composed, Iraq faces important challenges and delicate balances in both domestic and foreign policy realms: First, the next PM should seek to take advantage of the post-ISIL relative sectarian calm to move beyond internal divisions and focus on governance and vital public services. Whether the Popular Mobilization Forces or former child soldiers of ISIL, the next government must be sure to not repeat the de-Ba’athification errors of the past, wherein the U.S. encouraged the complete denial of members of Saddam Hussein’s Ba’ath Party from public life in Iraq, leading to an unemployed, disenfranchised class of Iraqis.  

Another important concern for the next government must be confidence in the political system itself. The central government must promote an investment into the success of the Iraqi government among voters, which is partly undermined by widespread corruption. Sadr’s electoral success seems tied to his declaration that ‘Corruption is terrorism’, highlighting the central governance problems in Iraq of both corruption and a continuous loss of human capital to both conflict-interrupted education and the Iraqi diaspora. Returning internally-displaced Iraqis and Iraqi refugees home is paramount to curbing the flow of talent out of education and out of the country.  

With respect to foreign policy, PM Abadi has been able to be an ally to both Washington and Tehran, whereas Sadr has, in the past, proved to be a villain to both foreign powers. In this context, the next government will need to confront continued U.S. military presence, as well as create and maintain delicate relational balances between the Kurds and Turkey, Iran and Saudi Arabia, the U.S. and Russia and China, as well as the other GCC countries.

In the midst of continuing regional tensions, Iraqi leaders have a chance to rise above the ethno-sectarian divisions which have been a hallmark of the past 15 years. The post-ISIL political space in Iraq is promising, but many of the politicians responsible for squandering the country’s resources and opportunities in the past will likely again be given the reigns. The coalition building of the next few months will be critical in determining what path the Iraqi political class will take.