May 11, 2018
The Iraqi parliamentary elections on May 12 are likely to be critical in their symbolism but far from definitive in their outcomes. Free and fair elections that lead to the peaceful political transition of members of the Council of Representatives—a process consistent with the 2005 Constitution—could help to solidify Iraqi democratic confidence. Nonetheless, how Iraqis vote is unlikely to clarify the political trajectory of the state.

The elections will decide the new occupants of 329 parliamentary seats across the eighteen provinces of Iraq. Those individuals will then have the responsibility of electing the next prime minister of Iraq. Incumbent Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi has largely sought a balanced role between actors competing for influence in Iraq, primarily Iran and the United States. The composition of parliamentary seats after the May 12 election will provide an indication as to the trajectory of Iraq under its new prime minister. However, whether the state remains relatively neutral in the years after defeating the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) will not be clear immediately after the polls close.

Implications of Fragmentation       

A fragmented political landscape in Iraq also means that the future prime minister of the country will not be apparent immediately following the elections. Divisions  within sectarian groups make it unclear whom elected officials will ultimately select for the job of prime minister. First, fragmentation in the Shia sect will likely preclude any party from acquiring a super majority of votes, which means the majority party will have to negotiate alliances and build a coalition to select a prime minister.

Further, in 2010 and 2014, the Kurds played an important swing role in the prime minister selection process with a relatively united political voice. However, the Kurdish referendum and economic challenges have left the Kurds politically divided, making their decisiveness in the 2018 elections uncertain.

Meanwhile, much of the Sunni population remains displaced after the rise of ISIS in Iraq, which will reduce their numbers at the polls. Additionally, the ISIS experience may contribute to many Sunnis casting votes that reject sectarian divisions—votes that might have both a direct effect on the party composition of parliamentary seats in Sunni-majority areas and an indirect effect on the alliance-building calculations of the majority party.

Importantly, this fragmented landscape will obscure the political trajectory of Iraq in terms of its stance vis-à-vis Iran. In the likely lack of a supermajority party, Iran will seek to form a Shia alliance that would enhance its influence in Iraq as well as its ability to interfere in the Middle East writ large. The May 12 election outcomes may affect the likelihood of Iranian success in these alliance-building efforts—and how readily select Shia lists will comply with its efforts.

Leading Shia Lists

Several other results from the elections may provide indications as to the likely political trajectory of Iraq.

First and foremost, the number and geographic breadth of seats that Abadi’s ruling coalition wins may influence his alliance calculations. Abadi’s list, the Victory Alliance, has sought to capitalize on the success of defeating ISIS and anti-sectarian attitudes by fielding candidates across the country, including in Sunni and Kurdish regions. Electoral success in minority provinces might increase the likelihood that Abadi will pursue a cross-sectarian alliance rather than a Shia alliance, contrary to Iran’s preferences.

The electoral success of the Fatah list would largely be a vote of support for the sectarian Popular Mobilization Units, which had played a prominent role in expelling ISIS from large parts of Iraq. The Fatah list, led by Hadi al-Ameri of the Badr Organization, withdrew from a short-lived alliance with the Victory list in early 2018, but is likely to readily align with Shia parties in a prime minister selection process consistent with Iran’s preferences. Consequently, the number of seats that the Fatah list gains could affect the size of this Shia alliance. Additionally, the strength of support for the Fatah list could be an indication to Abadi that a cross-sectarian alliance is less likely to succeed by resting on the merits of the ISIS defeat.

Similarly, the strength of former Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s State of Law list would influence the prospect of a Shia alliance. The State of Law and Victory lists resulted from the fragmentation of the Dawa party, to which Abadi belongs but Maliki leads. The extent of electoral support for the State of Law list might reflect the direction of the Dawa party, and therefore influence whether Abadi decides he could afford to reject a Shia alliance and still win the premiership.

The Critical Role of Other Actors

Ultimately, minority groups and the Shia list led by Muqtada al-Sadr, the Alliance of Revolutionaries for Reform that brings together Communist, secularist, and Islamist parties, could play a critical role in influencing the political trajectory of Iraq. Sunni support at the polls for Abadi and the Victory list might contribute to a cross-sectarian alliance favorable to his future success. Meanwhile, the Kurds might prove to be a more challenging ally in light of Abadi’s response to the Kurdish referendum, during which the Iraqi government retook control of the city of Kirkuk. However, they might recognize an Abadi premiership as preferred over a Maliki or Ameri government that would be non-conciliatory toward the Kurds. Further, the pro-reform Sadr-led list is unlikely to join a sectarian Shia coalition given its diverse political composition, and could be a ready member of a cross-sectarian alliance. Finally, the United States could chose to engage and support such an alliance that would undermine Iran’s influence in Iraq.

The outcome of the May 12 elections is, therefore, unlikely to make immediately clear the political trajectory of Iraq. However, the outcome will ultimately be critical as it will influence Iran’s ability to form a favorable Shia alliance to elect the next prime minister and affect the country’s alignment in the coming years.

Andrea Taylor is a nonresident fellow in the Atlantic Council’s Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East.

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