Muqtada al-Sadr: Iraq’s kingmaker in uncertain times

Muqtada al-Sadr remains one of Iraq’s most influential political figures and plays a pivotal role when it comes to the country’s future. He is currently considered the kingmaker, but it remains unclear if he can form a government with stability.

In the latest elections, al-Sadr’s party obtained 70 of a total of 329 parliamentary seats – a significant increase compared with the result of 2018, when his movement won 54 seats.

Despite this election result, al-Sadr did not run as a candidate for Iraq’s prime ministership.

The reason is relatively simple and founded in al-Sadr’s political strategy, Ruba Ali Al-Hassani, postdoctoral researcher at Lancaster University & Project SEPAD, told Al Jazeera.

“Sadr’s strategy to maintain followership is his claim to be a reformer. Using this claim, he has supported the Tishreen/October Movement for months until Iran called on him to withdraw this support,” said Al-Hassani.

“His flip-flopping on this particular matter may have cost him some followers, but for the most part, his followership is blindly loyal and truly believes in his image as a reformer. On this basis, I can see Sadr avoiding the premiership to maintain his claim to reform. His party also is strategic in its alliances. In the 2018 election, it allied with the Communist Party of Iraq to maintain this reform title.”

“This is all ironic, considering that he has had Sadrists in previous cabinets holding ministries such as the very deteriorating Ministry of Health while claiming to bring about reform,” Al-Hassani added.

The questions around his persona have not had a significant impact on his popularity, however.

“By falsely claiming to boycott the election in the late summer, he won leverage because all the politicians who would seek legitimacy in the election needed him to participate. This was a smart move, so when Sadr did officially ‘rejoin’ the elections, we learned that he never really intended to boycott, as his party had been mobilising in the meantime with a mobile app, voter card registration, etc,” said Al-Hassani.

While al-Sadr’s parties obtained the most seats and thus the ability to form the next government, he still faces complex encumbrances, particularly ideological ones, Al-Hassani noted.

“With some Iran-backed parties like Fatah, threatening violence unless they get the vote recount which they demand, government-formation will be a challenge. Sadr, with his own militia, Saraya al-Salam, can fight Iran-backed units of the PMF but would rather not. Instead, he has been calling for calm.”

‘Taking sole responsibility’

In terms of what the government will most likely look like, Al-Hassani considered one scenario in particular to be the most conceivable.

“Sadr will most likely need to enter into an agreement with Fatah and its partners, albeit reluctantly. With that said, there is a greater chance in him forming an alliance with [Nouri] Maliki, his former foe.”

“Whatever happens next in Iraq will need Sadr’s approval as in the past,” she added.

“Sadr claims that the next government will be a Sadrist one and the prime minister a staunch Sadrist and it may become a reality, but other partners will be needed to form a government and the risk of taking sole responsibility for government failures may mean that he accepts a coalition that reduces the Sadrist identity of the government,” he said.

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