Muqtada al-Sadr's Boycott of Iraq Elections: A Political Tactic or a Strategic Decision?

EPC | 02 Aug 2021

Powerful Iraqi cleric and leader of the Sadrist movement, Muqtada al-Sadr, announced on July 15, 2021 his decision to boycott the upcoming elections, and "withdraw his hand" from all members of the current and future governments, ​as he put it. Needless to say, this step raises questions about the motives that led to taking such a decision and to what extent it is serious, especially since it followed extensive preparations made by the Sadrist movement for the upcoming vote, and projections that it would be the biggest winner of the new electoral system. This is in addition to statements by several leaders of the movement that it will form the next government. Shortly after al-Sadr's announcement, a decision was issued by his private office to shut down the political body of the Sadrist movement and appoint its main officials, Nassar al-Rubaie and Muhammad al-Mawsili, as advisors to al-Sadr. Also, prominent movement politicians such as Hassan al-Kaabi, Hakim al-Zamili and Maha al-Douri quickly announced their withdrawal from the upcoming elections in compliance with al-Sadr's directives. Later, al-Sadr left Iraq for Lebanon, where he has a residence, apparently as a sign of moving away from the Iraqi politics, as he did in previous times. This paper discusses whether this step is a political tactic or an irreversible decision.

The crisis of the ministries of electricity and health

Al-Sadr's announcement came under ambiguous circumstances, foremost of which was the fire that broke out in Al-Hussein Hospital in Nasiriyah, killing more than 92 people. This incident comes a few months after another fire in Al-Khatib Hospital in Baghdad, which killed more than 80 people, and led to the resignation of the Minister of Health, Hassan Al-Tamimi, who is considered by many to be close to the Sadrist movement. The latest tragedy occurred at a time when the country is gripped by a severe electricity crisis, exacerbated by high temperatures, a shortage of gas and electricity supplies from Iran, and the shutdown of some power generation systems, as well as acts of sabotage that affected some supply networks. The outages sparked a wave of protests in several Iraqi cities, which led to the resignation of the Minister of Electricity, Majid Hantoush. 

It goes without saying that the Sadrists wield so much influence in the ministries of health and electricity that some consider them to be "Sadrists", something the Sadrists reject and insist that they left the prime minister free to choose the appropriate ministers for these two ministries. However, there is no evidence to prove the affiliation of Tamimi and Hantoush to the Sadrist movement or that there is a special relationship between the two parties. But at the same time, the influence that the Sadrist movement enjoys in the two ministries, through those who occupy positions below that of the minister, seems beyond doubt. The strategy of the Sadrist movement was based on building influence in the lower and middle ranks of the ministries, rather than assuming the position of minister, which they often prefer to give to a technocratic figure.

As a result, the opponents of the Sadrist movement, especially rival Shiite actors, moved to hold the movement responsible for the failure in the two ministries, and to use such incidents as a means to undermine al-Sadr’s influence and popularity before the elections scheduled for October 2021. Regardless of the extent of the blame that the Sadrists bear for the failures of the two ministries, Al-Sadr felt the magnitude of the political and moral losses that he would sustain due to the influence of his movement in the two ministries, especially as he presents himself as a champion of reform and a fighter against corruption and quotas. These incidents were accompanied by doubts, and even statements, that specific parties were behind these fires, especially after the announcement of the arrest of a person who was said to have been assigned to start a fire in a hospital in Najaf. The same applies to acts of sabotage against the electric power distribution network. So far, the extent of the damage caused by these operations, nor the party(s) behind them have not been determined. The belief that arsonists set off the fires and sought to exacerbate the electricity crisis fueled a feeling of targeting that was noted in the words used by al-Sadr in his speech in which he announced the decision to withdraw from the elections.

Although the electricity crisis seems to be a foregone conclusion because it occurs almost every summer with high temperatures, the outbreak of fires in hospitals at this rate was not expected. Nevertheless, such incidents were not surprising given the dire situation and rampant corruption in hospital management, as is the case in most government institutions. Al-Kazemi's government was already expecting a difficult summer, and attempts by actors opposed to it to hold it responsible for the failures in providing basic services. This may be one of the reasons that prompted Al-Kazemi to not participate in the elections, for fear of the escalation that he will face in the summer. Certainly, this was reflected in his recent rhetoric which he directed against those who want to hold his government responsible for crises created by previous governments. As a result, these crises were not a source of political and popular pressure on the Al-Kazemi government alone, but also embarrassed the Sadrist movement, which is the main political supporter of the Al-Kazemi government. This explains the statement issued by Muqtada al-Sadr after the Nasiriyah hospital fire, in which he called on the government to "immediately, seriously and resolutely seek to punish the negligent... otherwise, the entire government is responsible for what is happening."

A religious and populist leader like al-Sadr was not accustomed to finding himself in a position of accountability and responsibility. As expected, he tried to blame the government and absolve himself of having any role in bringing the situation to its current state. His declaration of an election boycott could be placed in this context. It seems as if this decision was taken under the pressure of the crisis and to evade responsibility for the aforementioned failures.

Tensions with Iran and its allies

In addition to the above, it is possible to point out other motives behind al-Sadr's decision, especially those related to his complex relationship with Iran and its Iraqi Shiite allies. Reports indicated that the head of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards' intelligence, Hossein Taeb, has recently visited Iraq, and met met with Shiite factional leaders, the Prime Minister, Mustafa Al-Kazemi, and possibly Moqtada Al-Sadr as well. The visit aimed to establish a common ground with Shiite factions that have become caught in intra-disputes and rivalries and to formulate an appropriate policy for Tehran in Iraq and counter the U.S. military presence there. Undoubtedly, the visit came at a time when the most hard-line factions are happy with the election of the conservative figure, Ebrahim Raisi, as president of Iran, because they expect his government to be more supportive of them in light of the pressure they are facing from Al-Kazemi and other political and societal forces, most notably the Sadrist movement. Muqtada al-Sadr did not hide his concern about the election of Ibrahim Raisi as the new president of Iran. In a June 21 statement, he wished that "[Ebrahim Raisi's election] would not plague the region with more radicalism and escalation of conflicts," reflecting his fear that Iranian weight would be thrown behind his hard-line Shiite rivals. If we link this to statements made by al-Sadr in 2018 expressing his conviction that Iran could “burn Iraq” if it wanted, it can be said that al-Sadr sensed a significant escalation in the next stage, linked to enormous Iranian pressure on him through his Shiite rivals.

It was noted that Al-Sadr, during his speech in which he announced the decision to boycott the elections, put behind him the flags of armed militias affiliated with him (the Mahdi Army, the Promised Day Brigade, the Peace Brigades) as if he wanted to convey a message that he was ready for confrontation. In his speech, al-Sadr warned that the “fate of Iraq would be the same as of that of Syria and Afghanistan”. Recently, there have been increasing calls warning of a Shiite-Shiite war, often referring to an armed confrontation between the Sadr militia and pro-Wilayat al-Faqih militias. Therefore, it seems that al-Sadr - in a moment of weakness - wanted to assert his strength and his ability to go to confrontation.

The Sadrist Movement and the Elections

Listening carefully to Al-Sadr's speech, two things become clear: First, he used the expression “boycotting the elections” and not “boycotting the political process”, the expression he used previously, suggesting that he wanted his transition from being on the defensive to being offensive to be calculated and not radical. Second, al-Sadr used general and largely "political" terms, if we take them in the context of what is known about his statements. Despite his criticism of the "corrupt", the "subordinates" and the "normalizers", he avoided referring to a specific party and was keen not to burn his own bridges if needed. These indications reinforce the assumption that the decision to boycott the elections is more of a "tactic" than an irreversible strategic decision. Most likely, the boycott is an attempt to catch a breath and rearrange the cards, while at the same time avoiding blame for the failures of the movement and the fact that many of its members are accused of corruption. It may also be aimed at establishing a safe distance between al-Sadr and his political wing in a way that protects the political and symbolic capital of Muqtada al-Sadr, on which the movement depends for its continuity.

But this raises a question about what will happen on October 10, the date of the early elections in Iraq. Most of the political blocs, especially those that hoped for a possible alliance with the Sadrist movement, have publicly called on al-Sadr to reverse his decision. Among those blocs are the "Hikma Movement" led by Ammar al-Hakim, and Parliament Speaker "Mohamed al-Halbousi". It was also rumored that the President of the Republic, Barham Salih, visited al-Sadr at his residence in Najaf in an attempt to persuade him to reverse the decision. "Moderate" actors fear that al-Sadr's decision will lead hard-line actors in the "Al-Fateh" coalition to dominate the Shiite political scene, thus weakening the chances of forming a "moderate" coalition that will keep these actors in check after the elections.

Although many of the Sadrist movement’s candidates announced their withdrawal from the elections, this did not have any legal effect because the Electoral Commission announced that the deadline for withdrawing the nomination had passed, and it was no longer possible to amend candidate lists. This means that, legally and procedurally, the Sadrist movement is still a competing party in the elections. However, if al-Sadr insists on boycotting the elections, this will raise the question about the possibility of holding them in the absence of a major actor (which won first place in the last elections), and whether al-Sadr's decision will open the door to postponing the elections.

It can be said that the chances of deferring the vote have increased after Al-Sadr's decision. Even if he were to reverse the decision later, the time remaining in light of this ambiguity would confuse the Sadrist electoral machine, although it would also give it the factor of surprise and initiative if Sadr decided to retract the decision before the elections and with a package of measures and decisions that restore the reputation of the Sadrist movement. Most likely, Al-Sadr's absence from the elections will prompt many other actors, especially those who sprung from the October protests or adopted their demands, to call for postponing the elections due to the lack of appropriate conditions for them. Some of these actors will also see in this absence an opportunity to fill the void that will result from the Sadrist absence. On July 24, the Communist Party announced its decision to boycott the elections without linking this to Al-Sadr's decision, but it may have been encouraged to take this position because of Al-Sadr's decision.

The postponement of the elections may have benefits for the Sadrists and for many political actors. If the elections are set again on their original date in April 2022, this will allow the Sadrists to weather the effects of summer crises related to electricity and other problems related to basic services. It will also offer more time to understand Iranian policy in Iraq under Ebrahim Raisi, especially with the possibility that the negotiations on the Iranian nuclear program have produced clear results. In this case, it is expected that the request for postponement will receive support from Parliament, which most of its members want to complete their parliamentary session, as well as among most of the October protest movement actors. However, such a request may be rejected by the parties that have prepared for the elections and expect good results in them, or those that feel that the postponement will not be in their interest.

Possible Scenarios

Three possible scenarios can be envisaged for the position of the Sadrist movement in the next stage:

The first scenario is based on the assumption that al-Sadr reverses his decision before the elections or after the end of the summer crises and announces participation in the vote in response to popular demands or under any other excuse. This may happen through an internal re-arrangement process that holds certain people responsible for some of the failures and corruption in the ranks of the movement, and a promise of reform and change.

The second scenario expects that al-Sadr’s withdrawal at this stage will lead to the postponement of the elections to April 2022 in a way that allows him and Al-Kazemi’s government to overcome the summer crises, rearrange their cards, and choose the timing, conditions and form of the return without the pressure of the current time. In this case, the Sadrists will participate in the upcoming elections after a similar re-arrangement process as mentioned in the previous scenario.

The third scenario assumes that al-Sadr insists on his decision in a way that undermines the legitimacy and credibility of the upcoming elections and opens the door to the outbreak of an armed conflict with pro-Wilayat al-Faqih factions, especially if this is accompanied by a deepening of the political crisis and the decline of the Najaf authority’s role due to the possibility of Sistani’s illness or death.

Conclusions

Muqtada al-Sadr's decision to withdraw from the early elections in October 2021 was a surprise to many observers, given that the Sadrist movement had prepared early and effectively for those elections, expecting to strengthen its leadership on the political scene and play a decisive role in the formation of the next government.

Al-Sadr's decision came at a time when the basic services sector suffered major collapses, especially the fires that broke out in hospitals in Baghdad and Nasiriyah and power outages. Much of the blame has been placed on the ministries of health and electricity, which are linked to the movement. The decision also came in the context of undeclared tension with Iran and its allies who are competing with al-Sadr in the Shiite arena and feel a kind of confidence after Ebrahim Raisi's victory in the Iranian presidential elections.

Therefore, it appears that al-Sadr's decision was a tactical retreat to distance himself from the pressures arising from the problems of basic services and those related to the Iran-US conflict. The decision also appears as a new attempt, similar to previous attempts, to stand down a little and then come back with new momentum, either before the early elections or if they are postponed to April 2022. This will give al-Sadr more time to make the necessary corrections and overcome the losses caused by the summer crises, and then return at a time when Iranian policy in Iraq has become more clear.

Latest Scenarios