The majority of political powers in Iraq are insisting on holding parliamentary elections as scheduled in October in spite of the boycott announced by anti-government protesters and civil society groups. What about influential cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, head of the Sadrist movement, who announced that he would not take part in the polls?
Undeterred, political parties have forged ahead with their electoral campaigns as the polls are only some 70 days away.
Openly, Sadr’s rivals, especially commanders of some Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF) factions, have urged him to retract his withdrawal and return to the ring. Behind closed doors, however, they are eager for the election of a parliament devoid of Sadr representatives.
Before his boycott, the cleric had vowed that his Sairoon bloc would win 100 seats at the legislature, as he eyed appointing a loyalist for the position of prime minister. The vow was ambitious and would have made the elections unpredictable.
In recent weeks, however, Sadr realized that his chances for claiming a sweeping victory were slim, especially with the eruption of protests against poor services in the country. Sadr’s close associates viewed the protests as a personal attack against him and his electoral run. Winning a parliamentary majority appeared unlikely with protesters turning against him, forcing Sadr to withdraw from the race.
Sadr and the protest movement’s boycott were prompted by different conditions on the ground. Sadr realized that his image had taken a hit in recent weeks that would not allow him to preserve his religious and political grip. The protesters, on the other hand, have become victims of political assassinations.
The government and electoral commission appear determined to hold the elections on time in spite of the boycott, making the chances of their postponement slim. They are also sending out indirect messages to Sadr to renege on his withdrawal.
A senior figure in a Shiite coalition rivaling Sadr said it was “hard to believe” that he would stand aside and watch political parties form a government after the elections.
Something will happen before the polls, he predicted.
Sadr’s associates have said that they “know nothing” of his plans for the coming months. They have expressed their concern that his withdrawal would cost him his popular following as the people grow tired of his mercurial ways.
The Shiite figure said: “Sadr needed to spark some major political and popular development that changes the equation that allows him to return” to the elections.
“The Shiite blocs do not want to take the risk of joining a parliament that lacks wide Shiite representation,” he added.
Since his boycott, limited and cautious efforts have been made to open dialogue between Sadr and representatives of the protest movement.
It is unlikely that these efforts will achieve any breakthrough given that Sadr is a main target of the angry youthful protesters.
As it stands, Sadr stands to be the greatest loser.
Time is not on his side and his rivals will be eager to fill in the void of his absence in the elections. Moreover, Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi is under internal and foreign pressure to hold the elections. Holding talks with US President Joe Biden last month, he was urged to hold the elections as scheduled, making it even more unlikely that they will be postponed.