Following the surprise win by controversial Shia cleric Moqtada al-Sadr and his Sairoon coalition in Iraq’s May 12 parliamentary elections, a new coalition government has yet to form. USIP’s Sarhang Hamasaeed analyzes what led to al-Sadr’s victory, low voter turnout at the polls, the state of the political process in Iraq, and Iraqis’ expectations for meaningful reform from the next government.

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Complete Transcript

Tim Farley (Host):  Recent elections in Iraq have proven to be somewhat surprising and, I think, maybe problematic for some people. And we are watching very closely as what has been taking place in Iraq is perhaps a movement to more conservatism, but even more disturbing perhaps is the lack of participation. As our next guest writes on the surprise-turn preliminary results from Iraq's May 12th parliamentary vote indicate that a coalition led by controversial cleric, Muqtada al-Sadr, a staunch opponent of both U.S. and Iranian influence in Iraq, won the most seats. With about 90 percent of ballots counted, incumbent Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi's coalition is in third, slightly behind a ticket led by Hadi Al-Amiri, who is viewed as Iran's preferred candidate. Let's talk a little bit more about this with the author of that, Sarhang Hamasaeed, who is Director of Middle East Programs at the United States Institute of Peace, and it tweeting @sarhangsalar. Sarhang, thank you for joining us once again on POTUS. I appreciate your being here.

Sarhang Hamasaeed: Sure. Thank you for having me back.

Tim Farley (Host):  I'm watching this; obviously this came as a surprise to many people. Was it a surprise to you?

Sarhang Hamasaeed: No, actually. For me, following Iraq closely and having been there on the ground in February and March again this year, the biggest surprise for the West was that Prime Minister Abadi did not do better, and even then, there were signs and indicators that he would not do as well as the international community and others in the region hoped for, and that a second term would not be guaranteed. Probably a bit more shocking surprise to those who were monitoring the elections was actually that al-Sadr did better, and that surprise is coming from, again, about not being that person.

Sarhang Hamasaeed: And second, Muqtada al-Sadr being in the memory of the Americans and others who followed Iraq and militia leader leading the change with Mahdi about 14 years ago and for that militia being accused of fighting against the U.S. forces on the ground and being involved in sectarian fighting against the Sunnis. But what many people did not track over the years is that under pressure from the Iraqi government and so forth from the United States, Muqtada al-Sadr gave his militia up and became a member of the political class in Iraq and supported different [inaudible 00:02:54] in the previous Iraqi elections. And in the past couple of years, he has rebranded or reinvented himself as a reformist leader. There are those who believe him and there are skeptics as well.

Tim Farley (Host):  You note in your piece that Muqtada al-Sadr is not only an opponent of the United States, but also of Iranian influence. So would you consider him a nationalist or would you consider him a ... How would you characterize his potential leadership?

Sarhang Hamasaeed: Well, he definitely casts himself for many of the Shi'a base of Iraq as an Arab nationalist, an Iraqi who wants to be out of the control of Iran. And he has, in the past three or four years, also attracted support and partners from the Sunni communities, the Sunni Arabs of Iraq. So he has allied with non-governmental actors, many in the public, and the secularist forces, that [communist 00:03:59] forces who demanded reform from the Iraqi government and asked for better services and better jobs.

Sarhang Hamasaeed: So this coalition was on full display well before the elections on the streets of Baghdad where Muqtada al-Sadr participated in public sit-ins and that basically increased his credentials that he's someone who is for reform and he is for an Iraqi state that is not controlled by external powers, including Iran. Obviously, his history as a militia leader and strong ties with Iran again cast doubts over his true intentions, but from the many Iraqis I have spoken with across the diversity of Iraq's communities, they believe him.

Tim Farley (Host):  Once again, we are speaking with Sarhang Hamasaeed, who's the Director of Middle East Programs at the United States Institute of Peace. Talk about the low turnout, 44.5 percent. You say that indicates that many Iraqis lost faith in their political class, and that the electoral process could bring new leaders and change to the government and their lives. Are people not happy with the leadership, or is this a concern of yours that perhaps the whole process is in danger of collapsing?

Sarhang Hamasaeed: There are two sides to this. One is that historically post-2003, the Iraqi public has been asking the political class for improvements in security, in providing services, in jobs, and fighting corruption. And they feel that government after government, they have failed on delivering on these demands, and demands that became promises in previous elections and the political class did not deliver on those. So for many people, they see security problematic, they saw the rise up of the terrorist organization, the Islamic State, they have seen the Kurdistan region trying to break away through a referendum for independence. They see that services in the south of the country are not where they need to be. The people felt that, okay, they go out and vote and they get promises from the politicians. But once they are in the government, they do not deliver on those promises and they see results that are the opposite.

Sarhang Hamasaeed: The second piece to that is that they feel, at the end of the day, even some candidates change. At the end of the day, probably about a dozen political leaders and parties will remain in power, so there is no real change as they saw it. So when I was there again earlier this year and last year, we had seen mixed indicators that for the most part the civil society of Iraq and then governmental leaders and community leaders were saying turnout will be low because we don't have faith that there will be change. People in the political class were saying, no, this is different. We are presenting new candidates. We heard the message and we'll act differently. But election day, I think the people have spoken. More than 50 percent did not participate, and that's a strong message to say that they don't have faith in the political class.

Sarhang Hamasaeed: Political process, also there are accusations of fraud that are being investigated right now. If the next government when formed does not deliver on the demands of the people and these accusations of fraud are not dealt with seriously, it could bring the political process into serious trouble because people lose faith that change could come through peaceful means.

Tim Farley (Host):  We are nearly out of time, but I did want to ask this question. You mentioned that Iran, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, the United States all have the interest of preserving the territorial integrity of Iraq, prevent the rise of the Islamic State or a similar group again. However, key points of divergence remain. Iran wants an Iraq that's weak, Saudis want Iraq out of Iran's sphere of influence, and U.S. wants to see Iraq stronger. Is Iraq in a better position now for any one of those three compared to what it was under Saddam Hussein?

Sarhang Hamasaeed: I think it is better compared to Saddam Hussein because under Saddam Hussein, Iraq was a danger to Iran 8-year long war in the 1980s; was a danger to Saudi Arabia because after the invasion of Kuwait in 1990, and also a danger to regional stability from the perspective of the United States and also Turkey. So Iraq is in a better place, but none of these actors like how Iraq internally is shaping up in terms of instability.

Sarhang Hamasaeed: So seeing the Iraqi energy and the people, I see a strong desire from the Iraqi people that they want a different future, therefore the continued engagement of the United States and the regional actors in a positive way for the government of Iraq to form and deliver on security and economic needs of the people will be critical for Iraq to be a stable government, not a place for terrorism, and not a danger to its neighbors.

Tim Farley (Host):  Sarhang, as always, I appreciate your spending time with us today. Thanks so much for your perspective.

Sarhang Hamasaeed: Thank you. Thank you for having me back.

Tim Farley (Host):  Sarhang Hamasaeed, who is Director of Middle East Programs at the United States Institute of Peace, putting in perspective the recent elections in Iraq, what happens next, and what to draw from it. You can read what he's been writing online. You can also tweet to him @sarhangsalar.

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