It is an idiosyncrasy of the Iraqi election system that it is only now, after the votes have been counted, that the real politicking is beginning. While many observers have been surprised by the results of the first election since the defeat of ISIS – with Prime Minister Haider Al Abadi’s Victory Alliance ending in third place – Iraqi voters have been left with a familiar line-up of faces. The outcome is, perhaps, more profound than simply a deep-rooted frustration with established sectarian leaders. Shia cleric Moqtada Al Sadr might have defied expectations to emerge victorious in the election but his success speaks largely to his denunciation of corruption and external influence. More than 15 years after the fall of dictator Saddam Hussein, Iraqis have tired of the country’s corrupt political elites. Disenchantment with the system of governance led to a turnout of 44.5 per cent, explicable in part by the internal displacement of 2.6 million Iraqis and those who lacked official documentation to register to vote. Iraq’s jaded electorate yearns for a brighter, non-sectarian future. But as the political jockeying gets underway, the emphasis should be on working towards healing fractures rather than creating new ones.
As it stands, Mr Al Sadr’s bloc is poised to take 54 seats in parliament, more than any other coalition. Although 165 seats are required to form a government, it nonetheless elevates the controversial cleric from the fringes of Iraqi politics to the role of kingmaker. Many expect him to form an alliance with Mr Al Abadi, prompting a scramble from regional and global players to influence a future government. Brett McGurk, the US presidential special envoy to the anti-ISIS coalition, was reportedly in Baghdad on Monday to meet Mr Al Abadi and other coalition leaders. Meanwhile Qassem Suleimani, the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps commander, is in Iraq in a brazen attempt to advance Iranian interests. As different factions hammer out coalitions, it is still unclear how they will tackle Iraq’s many challenges, most notably its endemic corruption. An estimated $100 billion is required to rebuild Iraq after the war against ISIS destroyed 20,000 homes and businesses in Mosul alone. Extremism remains a daily threat while allegations of vote-rigging in northern Kurdish regions have raised the prospect of violence. Numerous communities lack jobs, utilities and services.
Low turnout reflects voter apathy in a country bedevilled by years of violence and power grabs. It is imperative that prolonged political jostling does not stand in the way of effective change and whatever government emerges from a precarious period puts the needs of ordinary Iraqis front and centre.