Iraq: Islamist Muktadar el-Sadr is winner of the election

Iraq: Islamist Muktadar el-Sadr is winner of the election

According to the first preliminary election results, it looks like the Shiite Islamist Muktadar El-Sadr has become the strongest force in the Iraqi elections, albeit with a election participation of only 41%.

 “Preliminary results: Shiite cleric Al-Sadr probably election winner in Iraq Updated on October 12, 2021-08: 18 Muktada al-Sadr faces a clear election victory. His militia used to fight US troops, today he pretends to be a reformer. But many Iraqis do not believe him. The current of the Shiite cleric Muktada al-Sadr faces a clear victory in the parliamentary elections in Iraq. According to preliminary results of the election commission, she reached more than 60 of 329 seats in the House of Representatives in the vote on Sunday. Al-Sadr claimed victory on Monday evening. In Baghdad, followers of the preacher celebrated in the streets. In a televised address, Al-Sadr warned other states not to interfere in the formation of governments. At the same time he declared war on corruption. All corrupt would be held accountable. Al-Sadr’s current was already the strongest force in the 2018 parliamentary election. According to the preliminary results, the Fatah coalition, which was second at the time, had to accept significant losses. It is linked to the Shiite militias and is supported by Iran. Fatah could lose more than half of its seats.

Al-Sadr’s movement campaigned for reform Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kasimi had brought the vote several months forward after mass protests against the country’s political leadership. The demonstrations that broke out in October 2019 were directed against rampant corruption, the weak economic situation and poor infrastructure, among other things. IS terrorist militia cells are also still active in the country. In 2014, the extremists overran large areas in the north and west of the country. Al-Sadr’s movement campaigned for reforms. However, it is part of the political elite that many Iraqis blame for the country’s ills. The distrust in politics was also evident in the voter turnout, which fell to a record low of around 41 percent during the vote. Observers saw this as a clear sign of the frustration of many Iraqis with the political situation. Supporters of the protest movement had called for a boycott of the election. They do not expect any change in the balance of power within the existing political system.

The current system was established after the overthrow of long-term ruler Saddam Hussein in 2003. His followers live in the poorer areas of Baghdad Al-Sadr, who himself did not run, had claimed the office of head of government for a member of his movement prior to the election. It is unclear whether he can enforce this. He needs allies for a majority in parliament. The USA and Iran also have an influence on the formation of a government. Prime Minister Al-Kasimi, as a compromise candidate, is given the chance of a further term in office. He is highly respected in the West, but did not take part in the election himself and therefore has (…)

 The turnout is the lowest since the overthrow of Saddam Hussein, many people have lost hope in the political parties and  parts of the opposition called for a boycott of the elections In addition, the elections can be seen against the background of the protests in Iraq in 2019, which then petered out due to the corona crisis and increased repression on the part of the government and which Thomas von der Osten-Sacken analyzed in his contribution:

“Baghdad’s Tahrir Square The situation in Iraq is in many ways similar to the Arab Spring

Last autumn, a previously unknown protest movement arose in Iraq. It is directed not only against its own incompetent government, but also against Iranian influence. Who are the protagonists of this movement? What are their political concerns and what are their chances of success? From Thomas von der Osten-Sacken The average age in Iraq is 21 years, 57 percent of the residents are younger than 25. This makes the country one of the youngest populations in the Middle East. If hundreds of thousands of Iraqis take to the streets, it is automatically a youth revolt. And that is exactly the protest movement that has been protesting against corruption and a general lack of prospects there since October 2019. These mass demonstrations are about a lot, but above all about the future of a generation that for the most part no longer has any memories of the times under Saddam Hussein and that sees no place for itself in the existing structures. Almost every third youth in Iraq is unemployed, while the number of poor is increasing. In the oil-rich city of Basra in southern Iraq alone, almost half of the population lives below the poverty line.

 The people in Iraq are not only young, they are also well educated. The number of students at universities and other colleges has been growing for years. But they usually don’t have any chance of finding a suitable paid job later on. Contaminated sites of the civil war These protesters grew up in a destabilizing civil war that split the country after 2005 and also enabled the rise of the Islamic State. Even her parents knew little about war, sanctions and a permanent traumatic crisis. They too have seen parties and political classes prove notoriously incapable and unwilling to tackle any of the myriad of pressing problems. To this day, there is still a lack of stable electricity and water supplies in the south of the country. Funds seep away in the coffers of a chronically corrupt administration, in which group membership plays a more important role than competence: Politics in Iraq, like in Lebanon, was organized strictly along denominational or ethnic affiliations. This became clear after the overthrow of Saddam Hussein, whose ruling Ba’ath party relied on the Arab-Sunni minority and, in addition to the Kurds in the north, also discriminated against and oppressed the Shiite majority in the country.

After 2003, Shiite parties saw their hour come: with the help of Iran, they succeeded in largely marginalizing the Sunni and seizing the state and security apparatus. Because whoever controls this, also has the income from oil and gas sales, which to this day account for almost 95 percent of Iraq’s economic output. This rentier system is based on clientelism and an artificially inflated state sector in which up to three quarters of the working population somehow make a living. If the oil price falls, as it did after 2014, the entire system falls into a deep crisis. As a result, displeasure has been growing for years, especially in the south of the country and in the capital Baghdad. As early as 2018, there were repeated demonstrations and protest rallies, which at the time were mainly captured and controlled by Muqtada al Sadr. Sadr, son of the high-ranking Ayatollah Muhammad Sadiq as-Sadr, whom Saddam Hussein had murdered in 1999, has gone through countless political changes since 2003. First he became known with his Mahdi militia, which fought a bloody war on the Americans and their „Iraqi collaborators“ in close cooperation with Iran. He later declared himself an Iraqi nationalist and sought distance from Tehran. In the last election, Sadr’s movement even entered into an alliance with the traditional Iraqi Communist Party and won with a program whose demands anticipated those of the later protest movement on many points. In the lengthy government that followed, the alliance gave in to Iranian pressure and agreed to a coalition with pro-Iranian parties. Since then, Sadr has stood between the government and the protest movement. It is unclear which side he will ultimately choose. Initially, he verbally supported the demonstrators, but in January he clearly distanced himself from them.

Citizenship versus denominationalism It is true that the 2018 protests were all-Iraqi in name, and participants deliberately refrained from displaying symbols and flags of Shiite parties. But they were almost exclusively limited to the south of the country and Shiite districts in Baghdad. Only with the massive expansion of the movement in autumn 2019 did it become apparent that the new generation wanted to overcome the entrenched religious and ethnic divisions. As at the same time in Lebanon and in other Arab countries, in which there have been mass protests in the past decade, the national flag has become a revolutionary symbol. Here, according to the message, no longer members of ethnic groups or denominations take to the streets, but Iraqi citizens who demand their right to participation and a better future together. Already in the so-called Arab Spring 2011, a new understanding of citizenship played a central role for the entire region, a momentum that, incidentally, was not perceived as such in Europe.

 With the exception of Tunisia, in no country in the entire MENA region is there an idea of the equality of residents as free and equal citizens before the law, but gender and denomination determine in civil and marriage law issues. In Tunisia, too, after the overthrow of Ben Ali, there had to be long and heated discussions until the last remnants of the Sharia laws were deleted from the country’s comparatively progressive constitution. Since then, people have had full civil liberties, for example all Tunisians can now marry without being restricted by religion. In Iraq, too, more and more citizens are protesting against the all-encompassing influence of religion and the clergy on politics and the state. As everywhere in the Arab world, the acceptance and prestige of Islamic parties are dwindling, especially among young people. „The separation of religion and state is more important than that of women and men,“ demanded a young demonstrator on Tahrir Square in Baghdad, thus getting the message of the protest movement to the point. As in the entire Arab world, it essentially calls for a “fundamentally new relationship between citizens and the state” [i].

The demonstrators on the streets of Iraq want nothing less than a revolution, they are demanding not just political reforms, but fundamental social changes. While protests have so far been largely a men’s business, a noticeable number of young women are now taking part and defying the bloody repression that has so far led to over 400 deaths and ten thousand injuries. On Tahrir Square in Baghdad there is already equal rights that we want for society as a whole, it is said again and again in conversations with demonstrators. There is no exclusion, most of the protest signs on Tahrir Square in Baghdad are bilingual in Arabic and Kurdish. And yesidians and Christians who demonstrate how they are welcomed again and again. Balsam Mustafa writes that the place has become the example of Iraq on a small scale, “where people are creating a collective community, healing their wounds, re-claiming their national identities, and re-writing their current history beyond sectarianism, chaos, divisions and fears „. [ii]

Rebellion against Iranian influence

Despite this proclaimed national unity, the overwhelming majority of protesters come from regions of Iraq where the majority of the protesters are Shiite. Neither in the Iraqi-Kurdish autonomous regions nor in Sunni-dominated central Iraq have there been any similar demonstrations to date. In the language of denominational politics, one could therefore say that it is a Shiite revolt against a Shiite-dominated establishment in Iraq that is largely controlled by Iran. At least that is the reading of the events in Tehran. If Iran has so far been the focus of Arab protest movements, it has been able to play the denominational card: Whether in Iraq itself or in neighboring Syria, protests against the governments have so far been immediately denounced as Sunni-dominated movements that are also and above all directed against Shiite sections of the population . Since Shiites can look back on a long tradition of bloody persecution all over the region, this depiction mostly found fertile ground.

When militias, formally subordinate to the Iraqi government, but de facto receiving their orders from Iran, shot at demonstrators in autumn, the pent-up anger against their own government also erupted against that of the neighboring country to the east: protesters set fire to several times in Najaf the Iranian consulate, pictures of Ayatollah Khomenei and Ali Khamenei went up in flames and the offices of loyal parties and militias were repeatedly destroyed. Since then, Iranian goods have been boycotted through the targeted “Let them rot” campaign. This open rejection surprised those in power in Iran, who had previously believed Iraq largely under their control. When the influential Iraqi clergy in Karbala and Najaf stood behind the demonstrators and demanded the withdrawal of all foreign troops, including the Iranian ones, from the country and forced the resignation of Prime Minister Adel Abdel Mahdi, the situation for Tehran became threatening. The Lebanese cross-denominational protests also find broad support in the predominantly Shiite south of Iraq. They are also directed against close allies of Iran, namely Hezbollah and the Amal militia. Together with Syria, where Iranian troops have been deployed since 2011 and bloodily crushed the opposition, Iraq and Syria form the backbone of the informal Iranian empire, which is celebrated as the “axis of resistance”. Should Tehran lose control of these countries, it would be a severe, presumably insurmountable blow to the Islamic Republic.

Clergy on the side of the protesters

The Shiite clergy in Iraq has been a growing threat to those in power in Iran for years. Iraqi Ayatollahs traditionally represent a theological view that is in contrast to Khomenei’s doctrine of the governorship of legal scholars (Welāyat-e Faqih). According to the Iraqi Shia, clerics should only be advisory and moral role models, but not rule themselves. That is why the majority of clerics in Iraq have supported the country’s democratic constitution since 2003, and even religious parties never think of sending clerics to government.

By openly criticizing Iranian interference in Iraq and the violence against the protest movement, the Ayatollahs in Iraq, whose highest representative Ali al-Sistani is also highly respected in Iran, legitimized the protest movement in Iraq as by no means “godless” or controlled by the West, as is the case likes to spread pro-Iranian propaganda. While the Islamic Republic of Iran has always been able to stage itself as the mouthpiece of the Shiites in the Arab world, it now has to do with demonstrations that are specifically directed against their influence. The solidarity on Iraqi streets with the recent protests in Iran, which criticized the Tehran regime with previously unknown radicalism and called for an end to its theocratic constitution, was all the greater.

The more bloody security forces in Iraq act against the protesters, the more determined they seem to defend their occupied places. They defied the most brutal violence, whether they are being shot at or with the notorious tear gas grenades, being beaten or arrested. Their will to oppose the security apparatus with enormous sacrifices is fed less from hope than from sheer despair: they have nothing more to lose, it is said again and again. A protester summed up the mood months ago: “We are peaceful and unarmed. Why did they attack us with live ammunition? We will not forgive the politicians for this and if we fail this time, we will be back. We will protest again. We have nothing to lose other than our lives. „[Iii] Compromises with the government therefore seem increasingly unlikely. Hatred and anger have been increasing for weeks, while the political parties in Baghdad have so far been unable to find a way out of the crisis. For months they fought over a successor to the resigned prime minister. Even if the formation of a government succeeds, it will almost certainly not only be rejected by the streets, but will also prove incapable of implementing the required reforms. Because if a new government were to comply even partially with the demands of the street, it would have to be able to demonstrate sovereignty above all towards Iran.

No good prospects

 While in 2011, during the Arab Spring, there was still an almost naive belief that a better future only depends on the overthrow of the existing regimes, the experience of the past decade has shown that the miserable situation does not change, but often even worsens in the short term. Such illusions no longer exist today: the new generation, whether in Iraq or other countries in the region, grew up in dysfunctional landscapes of ruins. The young people witnessed how Syria was bombed, Yemen sank into chaos and the Islamic State exercised its reign of terror. These 17 to 25 year olds only know economic misery, mass exodus and a political establishment that unrestrainedly enriches itself, but has nothing to offer them. Apart from the brutality with which the own government takes action against any dissidence, mostly only worn slogans of ‚resistance and struggle against imperialism and Zionism‘ remain. This „old Middle East“ is in agony and reacts reflexively with violence and propaganda to the worsening crises.

The existing structures are now so ailing that they could probably not be reformed even with good will, which is nowhere to be seen within the power apparatus. In addition, there is a lack of mediating institutions and actors between the demonstrators and the system. The activists of the Arab Spring faced a similar dilemma almost ten years ago; since then the situation has by no means improved. On the contrary, most of the region’s states have continued to run down and are de facto bankrupt. The societies are deeply divided into two increasingly irreconcilable opposing camps: the opponents of the ruling (dis) order and their everywhere shrinking supporters. Although the latter has weapons, money and the declared will to unconditionally maintain power, it has lost all legitimacy in the eyes of large parts of the population. Meanwhile, the machines are finding it increasingly difficult to keep their clientele engaged with financial and other gratuities.

Despite the weakness of the old systems, there are no good prospects for the protest movement. It is largely isolated, and it cannot count on any significant solidarity or even support from the so-called international community. Anyone who also messes with Iran, whether deliberately or not, is dealing with an opponent who seems ready for anything in order to maintain power and influence. Even if the demonstrators in Iraq have so far opposed the security forces and militias in an impressive manner, their resistance will not last forever. However, as the last few weeks have shown, this protest movement cannot simply be violently suppressed. Those in power know that. A return to the previous status quo therefore also seems unthinkable. „

 The last elections in Iraq in 2018 resulted in interesting new alliances alongside the dominant Dawa party. The Islamist Shiite leader Muktadar al Sadr now wants his Islamist Party of the Right to form an alliance with the atheist Communist Party of Iraq. The KPI was particularly strong in the 50s and 60s, the Soviet Union was already hoping that Iraq would become communist, but Saddam Hussein’s pan-Arab Baath party then smashed the KPI with the help of the US CIA, which is why it became a marginal one Existence was condemned. After the collapse of the Communist Soviet Union, its insignificance was to accelerate

To get some more attention, the first thing the KPI did after Saddam was toppled to wave its flag  when US troops marched into Baghdad in a TV-fair manner and overthrew the statue of Saddam Hussein. Before the US troops hung the US flag over the statue, the first thing US Americans saw on TV  was the red flag of the communists.  as a result of the worsening economic crisis, sectarian tensions, increasing corruption, the emergence of IS and the increasing influence of Iran on the Iraqi politics the CPI was strengthened a bit, although it still remains a fairly small party. However, it has a good reputation among the poor layers of Iraq as a social, national and non-corrupt force that also opposes foreign influence, be it from the United States or  Iran. It is precisely this image that the Islamist al Sadr and his Party of the Upright want to take advantage of as the Shiite Islamist now wanting to enter into an alliance with the atheist-secular KPI. While the KPI stands for secular women’s equality, separation of religion and state Muktadar al Sadr for the exact opposite including the ban on alcohol and cigarettes.

Al Sadr’s social base coincides in part with that of the KPI: The poor slums in East Baghdad (Sadr City), Hilla, Amara and Basra along with other cities. But he also has a broad rural base that the more urban KPI does not have. KPI and the Party of the Righteous have the social base in common, as they are national and anti-corrupt. Muktadar el Sadr would like an Islamist Shiite state under his control, which, however, is independent of the pro-Iranian forces and Iran, which is why it, like the Dawa party, has recently been ensnared and supported by Saudi Arabia. Iran, in turn, does not like this at all. Ali Akbar Vilayeti, an advisor to Iran’s Supreme Spiritual Leader Ali Khamenei, announced during his visit to Baghdad in February that Iran would never allow the secular, liberals and communists to gain strength in Iraq again Sadr’s new alliance with the KPI now sets an anti-sectarian, anti-Iranian counterpoint.

What the KPI envisions is questionable. The alliance is likely to be of more use to Sadr than the KPI – it only serves as a bait for him. Such alliances are not that new either. The communist Tudeh party in Iran had also allied itself with Ayatollah Khomeini in 1979, as they saw in him, like the Soywet Union, an anti-American and anti-imperialist force to overthrow the Shah. Khomeini once in power, then smashed the Tudeh party, established his God state and had the communists, seculars and liberals put in the torture chambers and shot them en masse. For the Shiite Islamist Al Sadr, the KPI is a useful idiot, who also has secular forces wants to mobilize for his list, in the deceitful hope al-Sadr would tolerate it after a seizure of power. But initially he is not strong enough to do so, which is why this question does not arise acutely.

 Another interesting development in Iraq shortly after the alliance with the KPI: Muktadar El-Sadr’s non-denominational Sarun alliance had already formed a coalition with the pro-Iranian-Shiite Fatah front in June 2016 and spurned the Shiite-pro-Western secular third party that emerged from Abedis Dawa Perhaps also the result of the cancellation of the Iran deal and the decision of the United States to decide on Jerusalem. We can look forward to the government declaration and the positioning of the new government coalition. Is Muktadar el-Sadr now anti-American / anti-Israeli, although Saudi Arabia in particular saw him and the Dawa and their successor organizations as bearers of hope against Iran, and does he stabilize Iraq or destabilize it? Will he be as pro-Iranian as his new ally? How are the USA, SA, Israel and the Gulf States reacting to El Sadr’s new coalition, which includes communists, Kurds, non-denominational and secular forces on the one hand, but also the pro-Iranian-strict Shiite Fatah on the other? How does that work together? Or does he have to establish himself as a charismatic integrator who insists on Iraqi nationalism?

Or does he want to get rid of his secular and Sunni and Kurdish allies in the slipstream of Iran and establish his own Islamist rule? Or will he mediate more as a centrist between the various factions and position himself as a mediator and indispensable unifier and try to pursue a nationalist neutrality of Iraq between Iran and the USA? Or did he, like Kim and Putin, also hope for a meeting with Trump on an equal footing, which should be ridiculous. Also unclear how the two government will react to it .. In any case it is quite possible that Iraq will become the new battlefield of the US-American-Iranian confrontation, insofar as the new coalition does not respond enough to the wishes of the USA or the Iran positions it because it is not easy to maintain a neutrality position that can stay out of the conflict between the two, and in view of the depressed economic and political situation, it remains to be seen whether el-Sadr and his new government alliance can bring about improvements or not lead to mass protests again comes and to what extent he is more ideologically represents a Shiite Islamism or Iraqi nationalism.

However, one of the forces and parties which boycotted the election was the Iraqi Communist Party. The party also claims an even lower turnout in the elctions as the reported 41%. According to them, Iraq’s early parliamentary elections on 10October 2021 was characterised by a very low turnout, at about 20%, confirming the fact that Iraqi voters have no confidence in an electoral system designed to perpetuate the corrupt ethno-sectarian power-sharing system that was installed after the US war and occupation of the country in 2003.

The Iraqi Communist Party, that actively supported the popular October Uprising in 2019, had stressed that early elections was one of the principal demands of the Uprising aimed at bringing about radical change, ridding the country of the ethno-sectarian power-sharing system and political sectarianism and opening up prospects for establishing a civil democratic state and social justice.

However, there was growing deep concern about various aspects of the electoral process, including a flawed Electoral Law. It was amended by parliament and designed to serve the interests of the rulers and dominant blocs. The date for elections was postponed, at the request of the so-called “independent” Electoral Commission, from 6th June to 10th October 2021. Vote buying started early, with corrupt politicians and their parties spending money lavishly in the absence of any real controls. The Parties Law, which should prevent such practices and bans political parties with armed formations from participating in elections, has not been implemented.

No effective measures have been taken to prevent a repeat of the shameful rigging and manipulation of the voting process that marred previous elections. The real figure for the turnout in the last parliamentary elections in 2018 was about 20%, while official figures claimed it was 44.5%.

A very important demand by the protest movement, and also by Iraqi Communists, was that the perpetrators of the killings of more than 700 peaceful young protesters during the October Uprising must be brought to justice. But the transitional government of Mustafa al-Kadhemi, installed in June 2020 after the overthrow of his predecessor Adel Abdul-Mahdi by the protest movement, has failed to deliver on its promises.

In view of this situation, the Iraqi Communist Party, after conducting an internal referendum of all its party members and organisations, declared in July 2021 its decision to boycott the elections. It also warned that blocking the path to peaceful democratic change through free and affair elections will only deepen the political crisis and open the door to grave consequences, endangering civil peace. The rulers will then be held fully responsible for pushing the country toward the abyss.

However, the CPI seems to think that every new government due to the old structures will fail and as the CPI then is not hold responsible for the continuation of the desastrous structural crisis, the masses will then flood to the CPI which brings a revolution, smashes ofd the old structures and bring a new society and a new Iraq. But maybe in this case it could be likely that the old forces and the Iraqi and pro-Iranian Islamists, including Mukatadar el-Sadr will suppress and smash the CPI in a sustainable bloodbath, similar to Saddam Hussein or like General Suharto dealt with the former third biggest Communist party of the world, the Communist Party of Indonesia in 1965.

The following is an excerpt and preprint from an interview with Thomas von der Osten-Sacken that Global Review will publish in full length after his trip to Iraq.

Global Review: How do you evaluate the election results in Iraq, also in view of the low turnout, legitimacy of the government and the fact that the Islamist Muktadar El Sadr appeared to be the election winner? How exactly did the results turn out and who did not run and boycotted the elections? To what extent will the USA and Iran try to influence the formation of a government and who are their preferred candidates? Is a new government under el-Sadr a prospect for possible improvements in Iraqi conditions, or is it part of the problem?

Thomas von der Osten-Sacken: The most important result of the election seems to be the extremely low turnout, the overwhelming majority, almost 60%, stayed away from the polls. This is an alarming sign given the very high turnout after the fall of Saddam Hussein. Many from the protest movement have called for a boycott, and former reform parties such as Goran in Kurdistan, which are now part of the establishment, have lost a lot. This is a clear sign that the majority of Iraqis are no longer putting their hopes in the ruling parties. Of course, those won who were able to mobilize their supporters, especially the Safr Bloc and Nuri al-Maliki. The parties loyal to Iran, on the other hand, have also suffered losses. Sadr is a kind of hybrid figure, he initially supported the protest movement, for example, and uses a very nationalistic language that is not only directed against the USA but often enough also against Iran. At the same time, he has good relations with Tehran, but is considered to be much less corrupt than the other party leaders. In the last election three years ago, he even ran in an alliance with the communists. You can certainly call him an Islamist, but he is a very colorful figure who combines many elements and is not a recipient of orders from Iran. What is interesting is that where they competed, independent candidates did very well. The parties that are strongly in the Sunni triangle have also achieved good results, which shows that where the new system was vehemently rejected and opposed after 2003, a change of mind has taken place. The US only wants to get out of the Middle East, actually only the fight against IS plays a role for them. Iran will, as usual, try to exert as much influence as possible, but this election is also one that shows that so many Iraqis are opposed to this interference and have therefore boycotted the elections. The low voter turnout was taken as a warning in the first statements of various politicians, even if not much should happen as a result. The political establishment is too corrupt for that. I think we will come back to a government after months of coalition negotiations in which a large number of parties will be represented. Overall, however, these elections will change very little in the desolate economic and social situation in the country

[i][i] Dr. Roel Meijer (in consultation with Laila al-Zwaini): „Citizenship rights and the Arab Uprisings“.  The Hague 2015. S. 34.

[ii] Balsam Mustafa : „Women in Iraq are rising from the ashes of war to join protestors calling for political change“. The Independent 05.11.2019

[iii] Mustafa Habib: „Iraq’s Young Protestors ‘Have Nothing Left To Lose’“. Niqash, 06.10.2019

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