Iraqi supporters of Al Sadr celebrate after results of Iraq's parliamentary election were announced in Baghdad, Iraq. Image Credit: REUTERS

Dubai: Powerful nationalist cleric Muqtada Al Sadr was leading in Iraq’s parliamentary election with more than half the votes counted, the electoral commission said, a surprise comeback for a Shiite leader who had been sidelined by Iran-backed rivals.

Shiite militia chief Hadi Al Ameri’s bloc, which is backed by Tehran, was in second place, according to the count of more than 95 per cent of the votes cast in 10 of Iraq’s 18 provinces.

The preliminary results are a setback for Prime Minister Haider Al Abadi who, despite entering the election as the apparent frontrunner, appeared to be running third.

Al Sadr presented himself as more of a nationalist. His success is a glimmer of hope for Iraq and for those who’d like to see Iraq emerge from a cycle of sectarian strife.”

 - Fawaz Gerges | Professor of Middle Eastern Studies at the London School of Economics

Fawaz Gerges, Professor of Middle Eastern Studies at the London School of Economic, and a leading expert on the region, said that the most important point to note was Al Sadr ran on an anti-sectarian platform. Speaking to Gulf News, Gerges noted: “Al Sadr presented himself as more of a nationalist. His success is a glimmer of hope for Iraq and for those who’d like to see Iraq emerge from a cycle of sectarian strife.”

Gerges said despite the large number of Iraqis who did not vote – only 44.52 per cent cast their ballots – there is still a large segment of the population that wants a different Iraq, one that is neither under Iranian or US influence. Unlike Al Abadi, a rare ally of both the United States and Iran, Al Sadr is an enemy of both countries that have wielded influence in Iraq after the US-led invasion that toppled dictator Saddam Hussain and ushered the Shiite majority to power. Al Sadr has led two uprisings against US forces in Iraq and is one of the few Shiite leaders to distance himself from Iran.

Celebrations erupted on the streets of Baghdad after the commission’s announcement, with thousands of Al Sadr’s supporters singing, chanting, dancing and setting off fireworks while carrying his picture and waving Iraqi flags. “For the first time I can say congratulations to the leader and congratulations to the Iraqi people, congratulations on winning first place in Baghdad, and God willing we will be the first in Iraq,” said Abbas Allawi, a candidate on the Al Sadr-backed Sairoon list.

Many of his supporters chanted “Iran out”.

Whoever wins the election will have to contend with the fallout from US President Donald Trump’s decision to quit Iran’s nuclear deal, a move Iraqis fear could turn their country into a theatre of conflict between Washington and Tehran.

44.52%  voter turnout in Iraq’s parliamentary election

Asked about Iran’s reaction to the result, Gerges said, “Iran realises that the socio-political landscape in Iraq has changed. Al Sadr is one of the leading Shiite leaders in Iraq. But I hope Iran realises that Iraq’s Shiite community is not a herd. Tehran will do its best to maintain its hegemony in Iraq and try to exercise its influence. I think the secular rise is a testament to the complexity of the Iraqi political scene.”

He also added that observers need to reinspect their views of Iraqi society. “Al Abadi may continue to be prime minister, in a coalition that has Al Sadr’s bloc. But Al Sadr will be the kingmaker.”

The low turnout could have helped Al Sadr in the polls, as the cleric has a loyal following, especially among the urban poor. Speaking to Gulf News, Glen Ransom, a Senior Analyst at Control Risks’ office in Dubai, said the performance of Al Sadr’s coalition “appears to be driven by its alliance with secular parties, which broadened its appeal, and dissatisfaction with the political status quo, Al Sadr’s anti-corruption and cross-sectarian messaging, and overall low turnout that was an advantage given Al Sadr’s loyal support base”.

Al Sadr’s apparent victory does not mean his bloc could necessarily form the next government as whoever wins the most seats must negotiate a coalition government, expected to be formed within 90 days of the official results.

Al Sadr will not become prime minister as he did not run in the election but his apparent victory puts him in a position to pick someone for the job. Winning the largest number of seats does not automatically guarantee that, however. The other winning blocs would have to agree on the nomination.

In a 2010 election, Vice President Ayad Allawi’s group won the largest number of seats, albeit with a narrow margin, but he was blocked from becoming prime minister for which he blamed Tehran.

18 Iraq provinces where the polls were held

The same fate could befall Al Sadr. Iran has publicly stated it would not allow his bloc to govern.

“We will not allow liberals and communists to govern in Iraq,” Ali Akbar Velayati, top adviser to the Islamic Republic’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, said in February.

His statement, which sparked criticism by Iraqi figures, was referring to the electoral alliance between Al Sadr, the Iraqi Communist Party and other secular groups who joined protests organised by Al Sadr in 2016 to press the government to see through a move to stem endemic corruption. Ransom said: “The coalitions that are able to assemble the largest alliance after the final results will have the first opportunity to form a government, which could technically exclude Al Sadr’s coalition.”

-With inputs from Reuters