Muqtada al-Sadr remains one of Iraq’s most influential political figures and plays a central role in the future of the country. He is currently considered a kingmaker, but it remains unclear whether he can form a government with stability.
In the last election, al-Sadr’s party won 70 out of a total of 329 seats in parliament – a significant increase from the 2018 result when his movement won 54 seats.
Despite this election result, al-Sadr did not run for the office of Prime Minister of Iraq.
The reason is relatively simple and lies in al-Sadr’s political strategy, Ruba Ali Al-Hassani, a postdoctoral fellow at Lancaster University & Project SEPAD, told Al Jazeera.
â€œSadr’s strategy of gaining allegiance is his claim to be a reformer. With this claim he supported the Tischreen / October movement for months until Iran asked him to withdraw this support, â€said Al-Hassani.
â€œHis flip-flop on this particular issue may have cost him a few followers, but for the most part his following is blindly loyal and genuinely believers in his image as a reformer. On this basis, I can see that Sadr is avoiding the office of prime minister in order to maintain his reform claim. His party is also strategic in its alliances. In the 2018 elections, it allied itself with the Communist Party of Iraq in order to maintain this reform title. “
“This is all ironic considering he had sadrists in previous cabinets holding ministries like the very deteriorating Ministry of Health while claiming to be reforming,” added al-Hassani.
However, the questions about himself do not have a significant impact on his popularity.
â€œBy falsely claiming to boycott the late summer elections, he gained influence because all politicians who wanted legitimacy in the election needed his participation. That was a smart move and when Sadr officially rejoined the elections we learned that he never really had any intention of boycotting as his party had meanwhile mobilized with a mobile app, voter card registration, etc., “said Al-Hassani.
Although al-Sadr’s parties received the most seats and thus the ability to form the next government, he was still faced with complex, particularly ideological, burdens, Al-Hassani noted.
â€œWith some Iranian-backed parties like Fatah threatening violence if they don’t get the vote they have requested, forming a government will be a challenge. Sadr can fight against Iran-backed PMF units with his own militia Saraya al-Salam, but prefers not to. Instead, he called for calm. “
“Take responsibility alone”
With regard to the likely appearance of the government, Al-Hassani considered one scenario in particular to be conceivable.
â€œSadr will most likely have to reach an agreement with Fatah and its partners, albeit hesitantly. Against this background, there is a greater chance that he will form an alliance with [Nouri] Maliki, his former enemy. “
“Whatever happens next in Iraq will, as in the past, require Sadr’s approval,” she added.
However, any coalition al-Sadr may or may not form is likely to have a negative impact on his own party, Sajad Jiyad, a fellow at Century International and director of the Shia Politics Working Group, told Al Jazeera.
“Sadr claims that the next government will be a sadrist and the prime minister a staunch Sadrist, and it could become a reality, but it will take other partners to form a government and the risk of assuming sole responsibility for government failures, may mean that he accepts a coalition that reduces the sadistic identity of the government, â€he said.
Al-Sadr is the son of Grand Ayatollah Sayyid Muhammad Muhammad-Sadiq al-Sadr, a Shiite dignitary who was politically active against former leader Saddam Hussein, whom he paid with his life in 1999.
â€œThe sadrist base is important in Baghdad and the southern provinces because it represents a Shiite underclass who fought during the previous government but saw Muhammad al-Sadr as a religious authority who cared for them and preached to them more than anyone else dared. This base still feels marginalized today and al-Sadr appeals to them as heir to his father’s position, but also as their voice against all other political and religious groups, â€said Jiyad.
In addition, al-Sadr is also deeply woven into the power structure of the Iraqi state. His confidants sit in government offices, as deputy ministers and in leading positions.
After the US overthrew Saddam Hussein in 2003, al-Sadr and his supporters opposed the intervention force. His supporters inflicted painful losses on US troops. As a result, al-Sadr became one of the most wanted men in Iraq.
Recently, he has also increasingly turned against the influence of Iran. “He tries to deviate from Iran’s goals in Iraq, but is influenced by Iran from time to time,” Al-Hassani noted.
Therefore, al-Sadr does not seem to have a clear strategy towards Iran for the future.
â€œWe can assume that Sadr will flip-flop on some issues and distance himself from Iran while still maintaining some connections with it. His influence lies in his unpredictability, and that can be a psychological weapon against his political counterparts. Of course, Iran will find a way to influence the government formation process to ensure that parties like Fatah retain their power, â€said Al-Hassini.
Religious influences also played a role in al-Sadr’s popularity. While he is Shiite, he has by no means excluded Sunnis and continues to advocate a non-denominational position.
â€œIn contrast to Fatah and other parties, Sadr does not rely on sectarian rhetoric in his election campaign. Instead, he’s running populist to gain more support. He is ready to form cross-denominational alliances, which gives his positionality more power, â€said Al-Hassani.
That said, Iraq’s political parties remain largely denominational, and it can take many years for new parties that focus on issues beyond identity to become dominant, Jiyad noted.
Al-Sadr also knew how to take advantage of the protests in the country by supporting the demonstrators.
He presented himself as the tribune of the people and the spearhead of the resistance against oppression, corruption and other abuses. All of this gave him a high degree of legitimacy in the eyes of his followers. However, a double game is also being played here, said Al-Hassani.
â€œDuring the Tishreen protests, his ‘deputy’ directly incited violence against demonstrators in Nasiriya and praised the violence that followed. When we debate today, we must not forget his threat to activists and protesters.
“Sadr is by no means innocent, nor is he a man of the people as he claims to be,” added al-Hassani.
With the violent suppression of the protests, hopes for an end to corruption and the grievances that went with it grew. Hopes for a united Iraq with a robust civil society were also severely dampened. All of this has contributed to the increased volatility in the country, but the origins of the ongoing crisis lie elsewhere.
â€œWhat has made the situation unstable is the violence practiced by state and non-state armed groups: the murders, kidnappings, open murders of demonstrators in broad daylight. Freedom of expression in Iraq is seriously threatened. Many activists had to flee either to the Kurdish region of Iraq or abroad. There is a lack of job opportunities, there is a deteriorating health system during the pandemic and infrastructure, not to mention the resulting social problems like domestic violence, drug addiction, an increase in suicide rates etc., “said Al. -Hassani.
â€œAt the moment the volatility lies in threats of violence and fear of escalation. It is left to political winners like Sadr and behind the scenes political agreements to determine what happens next, â€she added.
Whoever becomes the new head of state in Iraq will find it harder for al-Sadr and his party to be at the center of power – and at the same time to position themselves as the leader of a movement against the establishment. After all, governing means making decisions.
In addition, the democratic legitimacy of the new government, with a turnout of 41 percent, seems to have been massively weakened even before it was formed.