With over half the votes counted, powerful Shia cleric Muqtada al-Sadr has emerged as the leading contender in Iraq’s parliamentary elections, a remarkable comeback after being sidelined for years by Iranian-backed rivals.
While final results for Iraq’s parliamentary election are expected later on Monday, early results show Iran-backed paramilitary commander Hadi al-Amiri’s bloc to be in second place, and Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi’s list in third.
Results from eight provinces are yet to be announced, including from Nineveh – which has the second-largest number of seats after the capital Baghdad.
The parliamentary elections on Saturday serve as the first national referendum since the defeat of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL, also known as ISIS) in 2017.
The vote was widely seen as a verdict on Abadi’s tenure and his pledge to be more inclusive of Iraq’s Sunni minority.
PM Abadi heads the Nasr Coalition (Victory of Iraq), its name capitalising on his government’s victory over ISIL in 2017.
Many analysts have seen the British-educated Abadi, a Shia who as prime minister nurtured ties with Washington and Tehran, as potentially winning a second term as prime minister.
“The country has just overcome ISIL which has affected the way voters see the election. Everyone is hoping for change and they see Abadi as a possible force for that change because of his victory over ISIL,” Ahmed Tariq, an Iraqi professor of international relations at Mosul University, told Al Jazeera ahead of the vote.
Abadi has been mainly concerned with fending off Shia Muslim groups other than Sadr’s alliance, which are seeking to pull the country closer to Tehran.
Sadr is one of the few Shia leaders to keep a distance from Iran, and instead shares Saudi interest in countering Iranian influence in Iraq. Sadr sought to broaden his regional support, meeting Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman in Jeddah last year.
The cleric made his name leading two revolts against US forces in Iraq, drawing support from poor neighbourhoods of Baghdad and other cities. Washington called the Mehdi Army, the Shia militia loyal to Sadr, the biggest threat to Iraq’s security.
Sadr leads the al-Sairoon Coalition (The Marchers) that brings together his Sadrist Movement and the Iraqi Communist Party. The coalition has pushed an anti-corruption and anti-sectarian campaign.
According to a nation-wide poll conducted in March, 66 percent of the Iraqi people viewed Sadr favourably across most of Iraq’s provinces.
But possible scenarios after the vote are dependent not only on the number of votes received by the candidates but also on Iran’s role and its ability to pressure Shia coalitions into forming alliances.
Al-Amiri’s Fatah Coalition, currently in second place, has close ties to Iran. The faction acts as an umbrella for traditionalists of the Islamic Supreme Coalition of Iraq (ISCI) and groups affiliated with the Shia militia groups – the Popular Mobilization Units (PMUs).
No one group is expected to win the 165 seats required for an outright majority. Instead, the bloc that wins the most seats will have to bring together a majority by getting the support of smaller alliances.
The process of choosing the next prime minister is expected to take months and will likely result in power being dispersed across different political parties with clashing interests.