Politics and Governance Iraq Blog Post
Sadr’s Boycott Threat Puts Election Timeframe in Question
Muqtada al-Sadr’s announcement that he will boycott upcoming parliamentary elections has thrown the electoral process into disarray at a time when the future stability of Iraq depends on legitimate and transparent elections.
Geneive Abdo and Yaser Mekki Jul 21, 2021 العربية
Shia cleric Muqtada al-Sadr speaks during a press conference in Najaf, Iraq, Feb. 10. (AP Photo/Anmar Khalil)
Geneive Abdo
Visiting Fellow
Yaser Mekki
Shia cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, a formidable force for decades in Iraqi politics who has millions of followers, announced July 15 that he will boycott Iraq’s parliamentary elections scheduled for October. His decision creates significant problems for Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi and his government by raising the question of whether elections can be held without Sadr and his coalition.
Sadr, who is infamous abroad for using his militia, the Mahdi Army, to battle U.S. and coalition troops in Iraq after the fall of Saddam Hussein, has withdrawn from participation in elections many times in the past, when he believed he could gain politically. And in a somewhat more charitable assessment that has evolved over time, the mercurial but astute Sadr is widely perceived as a maverick in Iraqi politics, able to take political risks – and even make the occasional miscalculation, usually fatal for lesser figures, with little impact on his political standing, given the hold he exerts over his sizeable group of followers. His recent announcement, in which he said Iraq was being subjected to a “satanic regional scheme to humiliate the country and to bring it to its knees,” could be a ploy to force the elections to be postponed.
The timing of his announcement appeared opportunistic: It came as Iraq mourned the death of at least 92 people who were killed in a fire that spread through a coronavirus ward at a hospital in the southern town of Nasiriyah. Iraqi President Barham Salih, government officials, and grieving Iraqis blamed the tragedy on rampant government corruption, mismanagement, and neglect, which Sadr tried to capitalize upon. In a tweet two days before his election announcement, he wrote: “It is incumbent on the government to work immediately to firmly and seriously punish those to blame for the hospital fires, whether in Nasiriyah or other provinces, no matter their affiliation.”
Sadr does not officially hold an elected position, providing him with the opportunity to serve as the consummate opposition figure. In this role, he often states his opposition to the current government and the ongoing protest movement, which began in October 2019, that the prime minister and president support. He used the hospital fire to try to argue that his movement offers a better alternative to the government, even though members of his Sairoon coalition hold 54 of 329 seats in the parliament – the largest bloc. Further, Sadr’s loyalists maintain influence in several ministries and are particularly powerful in the health and electricity ministries. These are the very institutions Iraqis blame not only for the hospital fire but for the uncontained coronavirus pandemic and severe electricity shortages during the summer’s boiling heat.
According to a recent Reuters report, in fact, over the last two years, members of his Sairoon coalition have taken senior jobs that have brought the Sadrists notable financial power. Ministries where Sadrists or their allies hold power account for between one-third and one-half of Iraq’s $90 billion draft budget for 2021.
Several politically active Iraqis have said they believe one of Sadr’s objectives with his recent announcement is to deflect public anger and blame away from his loyalists in the ministries responsible for the fire and electricity shortages and redirect public attention to the elections. They believe Sadr has lost support, and he thinks he can regain popularity with time, if the elections are postponed. “In the long run, the Sadrist movement can benefit from postponing the elections, and this announcement may be a means of pressure to postpone them. His popular bases are less than in the past, and his Sunni allies, including the Kurds, are not in a good position now, even if the elections were held today,” said Afadhel Ahmad, an Iraqi blogger and political analyst.
As Ahmad noted, Sadr might be in a weaker position than he was before the 2018 elections. In the past, he has emerged as a major power broker: He was considered the primary victor of the 2018 elections because his Sairoon coalition won the most parliamentary seats, and he served as a major player in the political jockeying to choose the new prime minister and Cabinet posts, after the elections were held.
In the upcoming elections, however, Sadr’s opponents could diminish his ability to totally dominate the polls. His two major rivals that are fielding candidates in the elections are Iranian-backed Shia militias and the protest movement, which he disavowed in 2020, ordering his forces to beat some of the demonstrators. Although it is unlikely the political parties formed by the young protest leaders could receive more than a few seats in Parliament, Sadr’s opposition to the movement has discredited him with the Iraqi street. The issue for Sadr is not only whether his coalition will dominate the polls but also the degree of control he will personally have over the formation of the next government, which will occur after the elections are over.
Ali Abusaisy, a Sadr political ally, said Sadr has been under attack by other political parties, and this was one reason for his withdrawal. “The enormous pressures applied by some parties in recent days and in a systematic manner by generating hate speech against the Sadrist movement is a justifiable reason to exit the competition,” he said in an interview.
Some Iraqi political activists believe the announcement is a threat ahead of the elections, a threat Sadr could be deploying to enhance his bargaining position as he tries to make deals with the parties representing the Iranian-backed Shia militias and the powerful Shia political elites, who have been in politics for years. The implicit threat is that he will play the spoiler if elections are held without him. “Shia political blocs competing with al-Sadr may be keen to reverse his decision not to participate in the elections,” said Zaid Abdel Hadi, an activist from the National House Party – a new party formed by members of the protest movement. “The reason is that no government will be formed without al-Sadr. And if one is formed, he will bring it down through his protest and political tools that are protected by weapons,” Hadi said.
Several months ago, according to Iraqi sources in Baghdad, Sadr even pressured Kadhimi to dissolve a Shia secular-oriented political party he was forming, which was comprised of some of the young demonstrators, to prevent the party from competing in the elections because Sadr thought it would detract from his objectives.
As a capricious kingmaker for years in Iraq, it is unclear if Sadr will go through with his threat to boycott the elections. Other major Shia political parties, including one led by former Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi, are urging him not to boycott. And it is unclear at the moment if his loyalists will indeed boycott if Sadr carries out his threat.
But for now, he has thrown the electoral process into disarray at a time when the future stability of Iraq depends on legitimate and transparent elections. Iraqis are accustomed to Sadr’s maneuverings and are cynical of his every move. Activist Ali Al Sunbuli reflected this cynicism: “We do not know what this man wants, but what we do know well is that he has tens of thousands of supporters, and he can move them as he wants with one tweet that does not take more than 10 minutes to write.”
Perhaps the only point for Sadr is to gain more leverage than he already maintains over the political sphere, and placing the electoral process in disarray for a period may do just that.
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Geneive Abdo is a visiting fellow at the Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington.
Yaser Mekki is a young Iraqi activist.
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