Muqtada al-Sadr’s Bid to Nominate Iraq’s Next Prime Minister

EPC | 11 Jan 2021

Seven months before the date set for the early parliamentary elections, in June 2021, the Sadrist Movement launched its electoral campaign by revealing that it seeks to win the majority of seats in the next parliament and thus have the right to name the Prime Minister. This came through a series of coordinated positions by the Movement’s leader Muqtada al-Sadr and his senior aides, and was met with a mixture of caution and skepticism on the part of the political and popular circles, given the radical changes that this would cause in the map of the distribution of influence between the main Shiite actors and, subsequently, in the Iraqi political balances.

Aspiring to leadership

Given a broad popular base and a large ideological armed wing, Muqtada al-Sadr did not find any difficulty in projecting himself as a major player on the political scene in post-2003 Iraq where he turned into something like a "kingmaker" whose blessing needs to be sought by the heads of successive governments, despite his fluctuating opinions and contradictory positions. Indeed, he participates in the ruling institutions and raises the banner of opposition to them at the same time; he names his representatives in the government while shirking responsibility for their poor performance and corruption; he simultaneously demands the imposition of the rule of law and establishes a parallel authority of his own; and he calls for confining the possession of weapons to the state but refuses to disarm his own militia.

Therefore, Sadr’s revelation through the account of Saleh Muhammad al-Iraqi (a fake Twitter account believed to belong to the leader of the Sadrist Movement) of his intention to seek to double the size of his parliamentary bloc in the early parliamentary elections in order to win the right to nominate a candidate for Prime Minister, the subsequent observance of the Friday prayers in the Tahrir (Liberation) Square on 27 November 2020 amidst a large congregation, and his call to "restore the Shiite House", all indicate a radical shift in Sadr’s approach to his political role towards the pursuit of direct power rather than continuing to seek to control it.

Advantages and obstacles

Although the leaders of the Sadrist Movement had previously promoted in previous elections, in the context of stimulating their popular bases to vote intensively, the possibility of winning more than a hundred seats in the Council of Representatives (COR) (out of a total of 329 seats), the current situation that emerged from the new election law on the basis of multiple constituencies (one district for every four seats) and the victory of those who garner the largest number of votes, regardless of the electoral list on which they ran, the total votes of its candidates, or the surplus votes of the winning candidates, have convinced Muqtada al-Sadr and his advisers that the early elections are the Movement’s opportunity to seize the rule of Iraq. This is attibutable to several considerations, the most important of which are the following:

1. The large and solid popular base of the Sadrist Movement, which largely enabled the Movement to maintain the largest share of parliamentary seats in the last elections in May 2018.

2. The maturity of the electoral mechanism that was established by the Movement and that has proved its effectiveness in previous parliamentary elections, by dividing the electoral districts into sectors, and the selection of the best candidate for competition and publicity in each sector.

3. The heavy concentration of the Movement’s constituents in certain areas, most of which have turned into the epicentres of the new constituencies, especially in the capital Baghdad which accounts for the largest number of seats (69 seats distributed over 17 constituencies), as opposed to the distribution of the constituents of the other the Shiite actors and parties on a larger scale, especially its rival the Dawlat al-Qanoun (State (Rule) of Law) Coalition where the victory of between 4 and 10 of its Members of Parliament (MPs) in the previous elections benefited from the surplus votes of the Coalition leader Nouri al-Maliki.

4. The security dominance of the Saraya al-Salam (Peace Companies), the armed wing of the Sadrist Movement, over most neighbourhoods of the Rusafa (also Rasafa) side of Baghdad, which includes 9 electoral districts out of the capital’s total constituencies, giving the Movement’s candidates the advantage of action on the ground, spreading their propaganda and holding their election rallies at the expense of the competitors, assuming that the Movement does not resort to the methods of harassment and intimidation.

5. The administrative influence of the Movement’s followers on the branch offices of the Electoral Commission, which is used to hiring local employees, often upon the recommendation of the dominant party or actor in the region. This would raise concerns about the fairness of the competition for 34 parliamentary seats, whose initial signs appeared in the intensification by the Commission’s mobile teams of the processes of updating the data of Sadrist voters at home. While this is a legal procedure, it would not be readily available for rival parties.

6. The expectations of a greater decline in the percentage of voters compared to the 2018 elections constitute a crucial element in the Movement’s calculations where the value of every vote of its supporters would be doubled, which seems to be strongly relied upon by the Sadrists.

7. The decline in the number of actors that are candidate to seriously compete for the first place after the disintegration of the Nasr (Victory) Coalition led by Haider al-Abadi, its failure to institutionalise the remnants of its allies in a well-defined entity, and the growing competition within the Fatah (Conquest) Alliance between the Kataib Hezbollah (Battalions of the Party of God) and Asaib Ahl al-Haq (Leagues of the Righteous).

On the other hand, there are some complications facing the Sadrist Movement in its new political aspirations, including:

1. Some of Sadr’s followers believe that he made the Movement lose many of its symbols and leaders over the years, by punishing and excluding them, such as the jihadist aide Abu Duaa, the former head of his parliamentary bloc Dhiaa al-Asadi, the former Deputy Prime Minister Bahaa al-Araji, and many others, which may affect the Movement’s ability to win over voters who do not see in Sadr’s candidates many known or experienced figures.

2. The participation by many of Sadr’s followers in the popular protests that began in October 2019, and their formation of electoral grassroots that call for the selection of personalities that belong to the protest squares, such as Sheikh Asad al-Nasiri.

3. The Movement’s lack of new rules of play. For example, the call for political reform has become the main slogan of the popular protesters, and the role of the Islamic Resistance is being exploited by the Shiite powers competing with Sadr, such as the militias of the Asaib and Kataib Hezbollah.

The electoral calculations

According to the new Parliamentary Elections Law, the Sadrist Movement will run in approximately 43 of the 45 constituencies with a Shiite majority or with a large number of Shiite population distributed over 13 governorates, namely: Baghdad (17 districts), Basra (6 districts), Karbala, Najaf, Maysan, Wasit and Diwaniyah (3 districts each), Babil and Diyala (4 districts each), Dhi Qar (5 districts), and Muthanna (2 districts), as well as one district in each of Salah al-Din and Nineveh, which comprise 11 districts with no chance for the Sadrists to wrest any of their seats due to the de facto dominance of the (pro-Iran) loyalist Hashd (Popular Mobilisation Committee, PMC) factions in the Shiite districts and sub-districts therein.

The Sadrist Movement is competing to win between 163 and 178 seats in the face of two groups of opponents: the main group includes the Fatah led by Hadi al-Ameri, the Iraqiyoun (Iraqis) led by Ammar al-Hakim, and the State of Law led by Nouri al-Maliki. As for the secondary group, it includes the Nasr led by Haider al-Abadi, the Marhala (Stage) Movement which is close to Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi, the new movements and parties that emerged from the October Revolution, public figures, and tribal leaders.

There is almost a consensus among observers that the Sadrist Movement will renew its victory in the early elections, according to the data currently available, although the disagreement continues about the size of that victory.

Observers believe that most of the strengths on which the Sadrist Movement relies house their opposite as well, for several reasons, the most prominent of which are the following:

1. It is highly probable that the four-district system, in the light of the concentration of the voting Sadrist bloc in certain neighbourhoods, would deprive the Sadrist Movement of the capability to influence the election results at the governorate level, as happened in the past elections, especially in neighbourhoods of an open urban nature and neighborhoods of mixed sects or that continue to house a proportion of Christian or Kurdish populations.

2. The limited increase in the number of votes garnered by the Movement in the 2018 elections, which barely exceeded 60,000 over the 1.4 million votes it won in the 2014 elections, despite the increase in the number of registered Iraqi voters by 8 percent.

3. The splits within the Sadrist ranks as a result of Sadr’s turn against the protest movement since February 2020, after the demonstrators refused to nominate Mohammad Tawfiq Allawi as a candidate for the premiership in place of Adel Abdul Mahdi, given that the Sadrists responded by seeking to disperse the sit-ins, which caused dozens of deaths and injuries. This prompted an important Sadrist leader, namely Sheikh Asad al-Nasiri, Imam of [the southern city of] Nasiriyah Friday, to announce stripping off his turban and joining the demonstrators, amid reports that many mainstream Sadrists have silently abandoned the Movement’s activities, which was clearly observed during the Friday prayers in Tahrir Square, which witnessed a decline in the size of the crowds despite deploying state resources, including buses and vehicles, to transport Sadr supporters from the capital's various regions and the rest of the provinces.

4. Driving the Movement's opponents, especially the loyalist factions and parties close to Iran, headed by the State of Law Coalition and the Ataa (Giving) Movement led by Faleh al-Fayyad, to cluster within one list, or establish a mechanism for coordination and exchange of support, especially that they would target the same audience of people most affected by sectarian slogans.

5. The emergence of indications that a large segment of the electorate, who boycotted the last elections, is ready to practise a kind of punitive voting against the Sadrist Movement, whose repressive practices against the demonstrators brought to mind the events of 2006 and 2008. In this regard, the name of the Iraqiyoun Coalition, led by Ammar al-Hakim, emerges, either alone or in alliance with the Nasr Coalition, as one of the possible alternatives to confront Muqtada al-Sadr's project, thanks to the former’s youth partisan organisation and well-built electoral mechanism that won it 21 parliamentary seats despite its lack of a popular base and charisma, let alone suspicions of corruption and abuse of influence that hover around it.

Resort to the sect

In the context of the series of controversial calls that he launched since February 2020, all aiming at ending the popular protest movement according to the deal he struck with Iran shortly after the assassination of Qasem Soleimani and Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis in early 2020, in exchange for recognition of him as the leader of the Islamic Resistance factions in Iraq, the leader of the Sadrist Movement Muqtada al-Sadr, on 2 December 2020, called in a tweet on Twitter on the Shiite blocs to "accelerate the restoration of the Shiite House through intensive meetings to draft doctrinal and political codes of honour", without forgetting to criticise the protesters whom he described as “a group of boys without awareness or piety who try ... to discredit the revolutionaries, reform, religion and sect, supported by the external forces of evil and some figures at home”. This sparked a wave of harsh criticism from the protest movement’s crowd, which raised banners with the slogan “the Iraqi House” in the demonstration squares, and caused the flooding of social media pages with a torrent of satirical posts about Sadr’s regression to the sectarian trench for electoral purposes after nearly eight years of investing in the personality of the national leader who transcends sectarian divisions and of the representative of the "Iraqi" Movement who was bet on by some academic, press and media elites and promoted as a discrete opposite of the pro-Iran sectarian movement.

The main Shiite political blocs did not show great enthusiasm for Sadr’s invitation, most likely for fear that it would be another step in the path of trying to impose his hegemony on Shiite policies, and because the call was characterised by ambiguity and the absence of a clear mechanism and goal. It is noteworthy that the invitation did not exclude any party. This was interpreted as including the former Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, the leader of the State of Law Coalition, which is considered by Sadr as one of his most prominent opponents. However, there were not enough signs that things were back to normal between the two. Hussein al-Maliki, the son-in-law of Nouri al-Maliki and a member of his coalition, issued a statement indicating that the Shiite forces had agreed to revive the Seven-member Committee, which brings together representatives thereof, in order to "de-escalate and avoid the media bickering prior to the elections". However, so far, there have been no assurances by other parties in this regard.

Likewise, no clear stances in response to Sadr’s call were announced by the Hikmah (Wisdom) Movement led by Ammar al-Hakim, whose political relationship with Sadr has been strained since the dissolution of the Islah (Reform) Alliance, nor the Fatah Alliance led by Hadi al-Amiri. However, the Hezbollah Battalions, a militia organisation that does not yet have a political party to represent it, declared, in a statement issued on 6 December 2020, its support for Sadr's call, praising his stances in "confronting deviations and calling for the defence of our Islamic principles". It seems that the Battalions have for some time been seeking to establish a special and independent role for themselves, and have found in Sadr’s call also an opportunity to provide another cover for striking "civilian" protesters, especially that their statement went on to refer to the "suspicious parties" that have deceived the youth and pushed them "toward adopting manifestations that carry many violations against Islamic values ​​and fundamentals of religion”.

For its part, the Nasr Coalition, led by former Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi, issued a statement announcing response to Sadr's call, although linking it to starting a systematic movement to adopt a national honour code that would be binding on all Iraqi forces and actors. Abadi's position seems to be linked also to his attempt to revive his electoral chances as a credible representative of the "State" and "Moderation" Movement, which contributes to explaining Abadi's announcement in December 2020 that he has resigned from all leadership positions in the Islamic Dawa (Call) Party, calling for a critical review of the party's experience, renewing its leadership, and injecting new blood into its structure. It is clear that the large gap between Maliki and Abadi played a role in this decision, especially that the former continues to control the main body of the Dawa Party.

Within the framework of these movements, the Fatah Alliance announced that it would enter the elections within a unified list, with the addition of the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq (ISCI) thereto, and the formation of a leadership body consisting of Hadi al-Amiri, Qais al-Khazali, Ahmed al-Asadi and Humam Hamoudi. Hadi al-Amiri was also chosen as Secretary-General of the Coalition. This step comes after speculation that the Coalition may break up as a result of intra-rivalries. However, it seems that the new electoral system that requires voting for individual candidates will allow the Coalition to survive as a general framework and organise the distribution of the voting blocs among the candidates according to the agreements of the political forces of the Coalition.

Interestingly, the State of Law Coalition led by Maliki and the Ataa led by Faleh al-Fayyad, despite their close ties to the Fatah Alliance, still prefer not to merge with this Alliance, especially in view of the struggle that this could create for its leadership. On the other hand, the spokesman for the Sadrist Movement emphasised that his Movement tends not to enter into alliances before the elections because the nature of the new electoral system does not require such alliances.

Conclusions and expectations

In addition to the fact that the issue of choosing the Prime Minister in Iraq has always been subject to an internal consensus among representatives of the social components on power-sharing, a regional consensus between Najaf and Tehran, and an international consensus between Tehran and Washington, which made winning the majority of legislative seats a mere marginal detail therein, the Sadrists’ win of nearly a third of the parliamentary seats and two-thirds of the Shiite seats seems to be almost impossible in the light of the dissolution of their alliances with civilian forces (communists and civil activists) and the forces of Shiite Moderation (Hakim and Abadi), and Iran's lack of interest in directing its allies to convert the call of Muqtada al-Sadr, the only quarrelsome ally with elements of self-power, for restoring the Shiite House into a government coalition that he would dominate and that would give him control over the security and military establishments.

However, does Sadr, who has always been keen on keeping a distance between himself and direct responsibility, really want to install a Sadrist prime minister in case his followers won the 100 seats? The answer is most probably no, due to several considerations, the most important of which are the following:

1. The fact that Sadr, who is fond of assuming the role of a spiritual guide who is protected from criticism and accountability, favours to control the allocation of the premiership to whomever he wants and dismiss him whenever he wants, which means stripping the Prime Minister's will and controlling his decisions without having to bear their political consequences.

2. Employing his parliamentary power to obtain a number of ministries and hundreds of senior positions and special ranks as part of the process of penetration into the structure of the state that he had started during the era of Adel Abdul Mahdi's government.

3. Refraining from the risk of installing a Sadrist Prime Minister in the foreseeable future, especially in the light of the economic crisis that is expected to last for many years to come, thereby losing the legitimacy of using the street as a pressure card on its opponents in favour of the opposing political, religious and societal forces, especially the civil ones whose abuse has become morally and financially the preoccupation of the leader of the Sadrist Movement and his followers, under the slogans of fighting moral decay, social corruption, atheism and blasphemy.

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