Bad news about Iraq’s election

Last week at this time, relying on a report by the Washington Post, I wrote that Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi is the front-runner in Iraq’s national elections. This was good news, I said, because Abadi had worked closely with the U.S. in the fight against ISIS, was campaigning on a message of national unity, and seemed to enjoy support across sectarian lines.

The frontrunner Abadi may have been. However, it appears he will not win. Instead:

An electoral ticket backed by the influential Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr emerged as the early front-runner in Iraq’s elections, according to preliminary results released late Sunday, dealing a significant blow to the reelection campaign of Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi. . . .

Sadr’s coalition, called Sairoon, won by a large margin in the capital, Baghdad, which accounts for the largest number of seats in Iraq’s 329-seat parliament. A ticket led by the commander of a Shiite militia close to Iran came in second.

Abadi’s coalition, which had been forecast to win and was Washington’s choice, came in fifth in the capital and was running third overall, according to the preliminary results.

Some readers probably remember Moqtada al-Sadr from the first few years following our 2003 invasion of Iraq. He commanded a Shiite militia that fought against U.S. troops during those bloody times.

The U.S. showed considerable forbearance in not killing the bastard, it seemed to me. I remember thinking that if Sadr survived, he would one day become an immense force in Iraqi politics — possibly for better, more likely for worse.

Sadr did not run for president this year. However, he is the power behind the Sairoon coalition. As such, if the early election results hold, he will be in a position to determine Iraq’s next leader.

Sadr’s coalition apparently did not run on a pro-Iran or hardcore Shiite platform. According to the Post, Sadr formed a cross-sectarian, non-Islamist electoral coalition that pushed an anti-corruption message. He expressed hostility towards his old enemy, the United States, but at the same time opposed Iran’s growing influence in Iraq.

This probably means that a victory by Sadr’s coalition would not the worst possible outcome for the U.S. However, it would still likely be bad news in my view.

The other main story of the election is voter apathy. Iraqi pundits thought voters would flock to the polls for the first big election since the demise of ISIS in Iraq. Instead, voter turnout came in at about 45 percent. That’s considerably less than the 63 percent turnout of 2014 and 2010.

Why the decline? Disaffection with Iraqi politics, presumably.

A number of prominent Iraqis urged an election boycott. Most notably, Iraq’s top Shiite cleric, Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, signaled his displeasure with the field of candidates and instructed followers not to support any hopeful who has failed the country in the past. In a departure from his stance in past elections, Sistani said there was no religious obligation to participate in this election.

Iraqis don’t seem all that interested in politics right now. But politics may still be interested in them.