Elections are wonderful things. Despite the calculated duplicity which campaigning for the vote requires, and despite their association with politicians, elections remind voters – and observers around the world – that ordinary people, individually and together, can affect the futures of the societies in which they live.
Earlier this month, Iraq witnessed its fourth parliamentary election since 2005. In this election, which took place on May 12, the Iraqi people voted to determine the composition of the country’s legislature, the Council of Representatives.
This alone is cause for celebration. Iraq was, under two decades ago, a one-party state. Now it has so many parties that they jostle to participate in government.
Other spurs for positivity are not far away.
Iraqis in Mosul, Fallujah, Hawija, and other cities recaptured from the Islamic State (ISIS) were able to cast their ballots unimpeded. The unfreedom enforced upon them by force of arms has not held. For them, democracy is back. Iraq’s leaders, who failed to stop the ISIS advance in 2014, may yet be redeemed through their participation in that democracy. Such things are cheering to imagine.
Of course, one must not lose sight of the procedural problems this election brought: the low turnout, and, more seriously, the imperfect balloting and the intimidation some voters suffered. These cannot be dismissed; all must be investigated.
But it would be perverse and counterproductive to allow these criticisms to obscure a few salient facts: Iraqis voted; they did so largely freely; and in so doing they were able not just to affect the composition of the Council of Representatives, but the nature of their government.
As the elections approached, talk of alliances and coalitions abounded.
Analysts and experts reasonably suggested that the elections themselves would likely be a sideshow, with the real business of picking a government done behind closed doors, as party leaders and functionaries hashed out deals to secure influence in exchange for the support of their parties in the legislature.
That was not incorrect.
As Hussein Ibish explains in Bloomberg:
It takes 165 votes to form a governing majority in parliament, and with large numbers of smaller ethnic, sectarian, and regional groupings in play, months of jockeying for position are virtually inevitable.
This is compounded by the dreadful 2010 court ruling which … mandates that first crack at forming a new government does not automatically go to the electoral victor but, assuming nobody has an outright majority, to whoever can assemble the biggest post-election bloc.
After voting on May 12, the usual backroom deals began to take shape. But those deals – still in progress – are built on a set of results which were met with real surprise by observers.
The coalition of Muqtada al-Sadr, a man variously described as a ‘firebrand cleric’, took first place, winning a plurality of seats, though nowhere near a majority.
That Sadr and his allies – forming the Sairoun bloc, which includes the Communist Party of Iraq – could win over 50 seats is itself remarkable, not least given Sadr’s history of opposing the Iraqi government in protests which drew crowds and summoned spectacle.
But it is Sadr’s religious politics which attract most attention.
During the American occupation, following the deposition of Saddam Hussein, Sadr became a strident critic of the foreign soldiers on Iraq’s soil. More than that, his militias, the Mahdi Army, actively fought the occupiers, inflicting casualties on foreign troops and imperilling the stability of the new Iraq.
Since then, however, Sadr’s methods have changed. And more than that, so too has his apparent mentality, political and religious. Sadr has boldly stated the importance of cross-sectarian politics, meeting Sunni leaders domestic and foreign. He has banned sectarian slogans at his rallies; he has criticized the way many Shia politicians in Iraq look to Tehran rather than Baghdad.
Sadr competed rhetorically with Iraq’s prime minister, Haider al-Abadi. He accused the latter of sectarianism when Abadi attempted to form an electoral alliance with Hadi al-Ameri – an alliance containing pro-Iranian groups, such as the Badr Corps, and political wing of the Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF), which includes many Iranian-aligned militias.
The criticism was legitimate. But that deal fell through, and now both Sadr and Abadi, having greeted the election with fine words about process and the future, look likely to strike a new arrangement. Abadi is willing, he says, to work with the election’s victors. Consider his words in an op-ed for the Washington Post:
My government will do all it can to ensure that the transition to the next government is conducted in a stable and transparent manner, providing the basis for a strong, democratic order based on the rule of law. I have called for dialogue with the other coalitions to form a government predicated on the following criteria: a reform-based agenda that builds on the successful policies of the current government; achieving economic prosperity, maintaining our non-aligned diplomatic stance with other countries based on mutual interests, and protecting our security gains and ensuring terrorist groups do not return. At no point will I consider working with those who are either tainted by corruption or known for sectarianism. Any potential ministers must be technocrats, and the new government must be demonstrably non-elitist, representative of the people rather than dominated by one side or denomination.
Sadr, meanwhile, has called for a technocratic, reforming government, a government which is dynamic and focused on the challenge of tackling Iraq’s systemic social and political ills.
It remains to be seen whether any government, technocratic and dynamic or otherwise, can solve the issues affecting Iraq and its people. Such a government will have to address corruption, poverty, and unemployment; alleviate tensions between the Iraqi state and the country’s minorities; and deal with the reconstruction of territory liberated from ISIS.
These are not nice problems to have. No one sane could face them certain of success. But those who are likely to govern Iraq have so far said the right things and made the correct gestures. Such things matter, and they justify a touch of optimism.
And, meanwhile, those external forces who had hoped to solidify their power in Iraq through the ballot box have failed. Qassem Soleimani, leader of the Quds Force within the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps, who might have once expected to exert significant influence on how the next Iraqi government took shape, has gone to Baghdad as planned.
But, after the results were announced, Soleimani arrived with considerably less chance of achieving his aim. He is rather likely to leave empty handed.
It would be inaccurate to suggest that Iraq’s elections be viewed with uniform positivity. Mere pleasure at their having taken place is insufficient. Satisfaction that Iran did not get what it wanted can only last so long. The difficult business of governing is about more than this.
But elections were held. Iraqis voted. And in doing so they confounded observers and expectations and delivered a surprising result. That’s the beauty of democracy, promised but rarely seen; that is the magic of elections. And those things will continue to inspire excitement and even a little wonder, while the politicians once more set to their real and serious task. Heartened by the democratic display, we can only wish them well.
This piece was originally published at Arc Digital.