On 10 October, Iraqis voted in federal parliamentary elections for the sixth time since the US-led invasion of 2003. Or, at least some of them did.

The national elections authority put turnout of registered voters at 41% – a post-2003 low. Fewer than one-third of eligible voters both registered and voted. Although the elections, the first under a new electoral system, delivered several surprising results, the public’s disillusionment defined these elections.

The common refrain from much of the public is that Iraq’s governing elites are incurably entrenched, incompetent and corrupt, making voting pointless. Several other factors kept voters at home. Increases in poverty and unemployment have increased the electorate’s disillusionment. Reduced oil revenues have limited the patronage offering from the main parties in control of the state. No governing party had anything of substance to say during the campaign, and few candidates did more than rally their most loyal followers with zero sum, us-or-them political messaging.

Yet the elections did deliver some changes, largely due to the introduction of a new electoral system. For the first time, Iraq’s electoral map was broken down from 18 provinces into 83 constituencies. Votes were tallied on a single non-transferable vote system, instead of the prior proportional representation system that doled out seats using an arcane formula prone to abuse by major parties.

The new system has rewarded both cohesively managed political parties and independent candidates, and caught several established parties off guard. The overall victor was prominent Shia cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, who has developed from the leader of an anti-US insurgency to an aspirant statesman. His party secured 73 out of 329 seats, up from 54 in 2018. Sadr’s victory gives his party a commanding plurality in parliament – more than twice the size of any other party. Conversely, Fatah - a Shia Islamist coalition of parties affiliated with Iran-backed paramilitary groups – saw its seats collapse by almost two-thirds, from 48 to just 17. Sadr’s gains and Fatah’s losses have upset the electoral balance that guided an uneasy duopoly that the two have been balancing since the last election in 2018.

The latest election also decimated the moderate Shia Islamist Hikma and Nasr parties, which slunk from a total of 61 seats to just five. In 2018, the Sadrists and Fatah mistrusted each other, but they at least agreed on the appointment of a pliant prime minister and on how to carve up state institutions between them. Sadr and Fatah planted political appointees throughout key government institutions, and Fatah secured large budgets for the state paramilitary agency, which funds its affiliated fighters. The resulting weak government was disastrous for Iraq’s governance but held the governing Shia Islamist elite together.

Sadr’s win has unified his rivals against him. Sadr’s rivals have clubbed together to reject the election’s validity and jerry-rig a post-election coalition to challenge in the aggregate what Sadr achieved at the ballot box. Fatah has put militias outside the International Zone to protest the results.

As losing parties grasp for leverage, Sadr likely sees a one-time opportunity to break free from Iraq’s the conventions of Iraqi governance, in which all parties join in rudderless governments in exchange for apportioned control of ministries and agencies. He has advocated for a majority government that will leave out losing parties, an untested proposition in Iraq’s post-2003 governing system. He has also stated willingness to a sustained US military assistance mission in Iraq after its combat mission formally ends on 31 December. These messages are welcome in Washington, whose influence in Baghdad has atrophied to the point where their best hope is that Sadr, whose movement has been defined partly by its anti-Americanism, can act as a bulwark against Iranian influence from Fatah and its stablemates.

But foreign stakeholders cannot afford to be so credulous of Sadr’s reformist, nationalist message. Although Iraq’s electoral system has changed, its ossified, ethno-sectarian political system has not. Despite Sadr’s recent call to exclude losing parties in the new government, he will likely compromise with his Iran-backed rivals. A business-as-usual coalition government remains the most likely outcome. Sadr’s promises of structural political changes, and post-2021 military cooperation with the US will likely be on the negotiating table.

The national elections authority is still mopping up manual recounts. Negotiations to form the next government will run well into 2022. Foreign businesses will face months-long delays and disruption as the caretaker government waits to see who will take control. Brinkmanship between Sadr and his rivals will elevate incidental threats from protest activity and sporadic political violence in the coming months. Political control of several ministries will likely shift as horse-trading between blocs begins: the Ministry of Oil and Ministry of Labour and Social Affairs, both important to many foreign businesses, are among the most likely to change hands.

In the end, Sadr’s victory will change less than he would like, and the election poses more questions than answers for Iraq’s security, political stability and investment prospects. The threat of militia violence aimed at Sadr or the government will persist for several weeks. The next government is unlikely to have a federal budget ready before April 2022. Incumbent caretaker prime minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi is unlikely to survive in the haggling to come, but there is no clear frontrunner to replace him. Urgent policy issues, from fiscal management to environmental crises, will take a back seat to elite bargaining for several months, and newly elected reformist parties and principled independents will form a new, but marginal, opposition.

As a technical operation, the 10 October election was a success, but it has done little to revive Iraq’s ailing democracy.

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