Although the May 12 Iraqi parliamentary election was the country’s fifth since 2005, it was remarkably different from the previous ones in many ways. For the first time since the beginning of the democratic process in Iraq following the removal of Saddam Hussein’s dictatorship in 2003, Iraqi electoral lists, by and large, did not use sectarian, tribal, or regional concerns for political advantage. According to the campaign rhetoric of all lists, even the previously sectarian ones, the election was about building a modern democratic Iraq that’s strong, civil, free of corruption, and fair to all its citizens. It’s questionable, however, if these groups will keep their promises, especially those known for corruption, if they do come to power once again.
Notwithstanding this shift, most of the Iraqi electorate decided not to vote, perhaps believing that however they voted, the “same old faces” would come back to the scene. Voter turnout, around 45 percent, was the lowest in the country’s democratic history, despite the presence of a multitude of distinct choices in candidates. On the Islamist side, the old lists, albeit with many new names, were competing in full force: Sairoon, or Marchers, led by Muqtada al-Sadr with his new allies, the Iraqi Communist Party, won 54 seats; Fatah, or Conquest, led by the head of the Badr Organization, Hadi al-Amiri, won 47 seats; Nasr, or Victory, led by incumbent moderate Islamist Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi, won 42 seats; State of Law, led by former Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki, won 25 seats; and Hikma, or Wisdom, led by cleric Ammar al-Hakim, won 19 seats.
While Fatah, Hikma, and State of Law are backed by Iran, Sairoon and Nasr present themes that support a popular Iraqi dynamic that is against corruption and for a strong independent state that enjoys good relations with all neighboring countries, including Iran, and the international community. Both lists are newly formed, although the candidates are not necessarily new.
On the secular side, the Wataniya coalition, led by Ayad Allawi, dominated, although it won only 21 seats, the same as in the last election. Other secular lists, such as Civility (which won two seats), Civil Democratic Alliance (which won one seat), and provincial lists in Anbar (which won five seats), Salahuddin (with two local lists, one won seven seats and the other one seat), and Nineveh (with two local lists, one won three seats, while the other won two seats) are largely secular.
The results of the elections are inconclusive, leaving all lists, great and small, a lot to play with. Due to the multiplicity of lists, there will be hard and lengthy bargaining time before an agreement to form a parliamentary coalition can be reached.
Each list has a role to play since the largest, Sairoon, has only 54 seats. Forming a new government requires a simple majority of 165 seats, and this will require at least four major lists. But in Iraq, political coalitions tend to include representatives from all lists, otherwise they will disappear from the political map. Iraqis won’t vote for candidates who have no leverage or influence.
There are still sectarian lists in the sense that they are made up of all-Shia or all-Sunni members. Fatah, State of Law, and Hikma are all-Shia lists, while Qarar, or Decision, and other small regional lists in the provinces of Anbar, Salahuddin, and Nineveh, are all-Sunni. But the other major lists, Sairoon, Nasr, and Wataniya, are cross-sectarian and cross-ethnic.
A potential alliance to form a government would be Nasr with the Sairoon and Wataniya lists, together with the two main Kurdish parties, the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan and Kurdistan Democratic Party, which hold 43 seats between them, and the Sunni regional lists in Anbar, Salahuddin, and Nineveh. A possible list to add would be the all-Sunni seemingly secular Qarar list. But this means excluding the pro-Iranian Fatah, Hikma, and State of Law lists. Iran, influential as it is, won’t allow this combination and can disrupt the process in many ways, not least through the pro-Iranian lists in Parliament. This means, Fatah, at least, will have to be part of any coalition government. However, the conflicting political agendas would be a destabilizing factor in the government.
The biggest hurdle will be to achieve an agreement among all the parties on the “three presidencies,” as they are called in Iraq (speaker, president, and prime minister), before Parliament could even be convened. In the past, the position of speaker was given to the Sunnis, president to the Kurds, and prime minister to the Shia. This combination is not stipulated by the constitution, and it may change this time. The constitution stipulates that the president call Parliament to convene within 15 days of the ratification of the election’s results by the Federal Court. Parliament will have 15 days to elect a speaker (with two deputies), and then elect a president. The president will then receive a nomination for prime minister from the largest alliance in Parliament. The prime minister-designate will have 30 days to form a government. If he or she fails, the president will ask the nominee of the second largest alliance to try. It’s a lengthy and cumbersome process and usually takes place after hard bargaining, and regional and international mediation.
Thus far, Abadi stands out as the most likely to be chosen as prime minister, given that he enjoys one characteristic that others don’t: universal acceptability. He is broadly acceptable to Iraqis, regional powers, and the United States. Further, Iran can work with him if he is the agreed-upon choice. He possesses national, Islamic, and Shia credentials and were Iran to openly oppose him it would risk alienating Iraqis. Most Iraqi leaders can work with him, too, except perhaps his predecessor, Maliki. But the strings that Maliki can pull are no longer strong enough to influence the choice of prime minister. He only has 25 parliamentary seats (two of them are held by his sons-in-law) and is still officially the secretary general of the Islamic Dawa Party, of which Abadi is the chairman of the politburo. Although Maliki is more senior in the party hierarchy than Abadi, he will risk alienating many members of the party, and Iraqis at large, if he is seen to be impeding the appointment of a senior party figure as prime minister. That’s why he won’t stand in Abadi’s way, at least publicly.
Forming a coalition is going to be a long and arduous process and it will require some mediation, perhaps arm-twisting, by the United States and other regional powers to reach a successful conclusion. In 2010, the process lasted nine months, even with U.S. and Iranian mediation, and it may take just as long this time.