Many commentators and reports before and after the January 2009 provincial elections predicted that Moqtada al-Sadr would do badly in the vote. The results were a mixed bag for his followers. The movement did not say whom it supported until just before the balloting. It lost Maysan the only province that it controlled, and Sadr City as well to Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s State of Law List. The Sadr Trend also did badly in Basra the site of a government crackdown in early 2008. At the same time the Sadrists finished second in four provinces, gained more representation than they had before, and could be forming ruling coalitions with Maliki’s List.
Because of the government’s operations against the Mahdi Army, and the movement’s late announcement of what lists it backed the Sadrists appeared to be at a disadvantage before the provincial vote. Beginning in March 2008 Prime Minister Maliki launched military operations against the Sadrists in Basra, Sadr City, Maysan, and the rest of the south. There was obviously a political element behind these moves, as the Prime Minister has not shied away from using the security forces as a political instrument. In April the political council for national security said that the Sadrists would be banned from the provincial elections if they did not disarm. That led Sadr to announce in June that his followers would not run their own candidates in the vote, but would rather support independents. Who exactly they were was not announced until early January 2009, when Sadr’s office said that they were behind two lists, the Blameless and Reconstruction List and the Independent Trend of the Noble Ones. That left little time for the Sadrists to organize. However, Sadr still controls dozens of local mosques across the country that spread his message, and has been attempting to reform his movement by disbanding the Mahdi Army and creating a new social and religious group the Mumahidoon, Those Who Pave The Way. This gave him a way to get out the vote at the grassroots level. At the same time, he had to compete with the Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council and Maliki who both saw Sadr’s followers as being up for grabs, and made a concerted effort to recruit them.
The Sadrists saw the elections as an important way to regain political influence that they had been losing since 2007, but seemed to realize the limits of their power as well. In the January 2005 elections, Sadr told his followers to refrain from voting, that was only partially heeded. Sadrists won 12.7% of the vote in three provinces, included control of Maysan, and seats in Baghdad and Qadisiyah. In the parliamentary vote, the movement received thirty seats. In 2006 the Sadr movement helped make Maliki prime minister, and received several ministries in return. However after that high point, the Sadrists became more and more political outsiders. In 2007 Sadr pulled his followers from the cabinet to protest Maliki not setting a date for a U.S. withdrawal effectively eliminating any influence Sadr might have over major government decisions. The Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council also convinced the Prime Minister to isolate the Sadrists in parliament, and form a new ruling council with them, the Kurds, and the Sunni Iraqi Accordance Front that excluded Sadr’s followers. During the later half of the Surge, the Mahdi Army also became a major target of the U.S. Maliki’s offensives in 2008 shattered much of the militia as well. During this whole time the movement was also fracturing as more and more leaders began ignoring Sadr’s commands for their own grab at power. The 2009 election therefore was a major way for Sadr to not only get back into politics, but to show that his movement was still relevant. The Sadrists were therefore one of the one of the main voices calling for balloting as soon as possible, over the objections of the Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council and Kurds who wanted to hold onto their positions in the provinces. As the vote finally approached, Sadr’s spokesmen said that they did not expect to win any province except Maysan, but were rather looking to gain enough seats to make sure no party dominated any province. The spokesmen also said that they hoped to gain around one-third of the votes across the south so that they would be part of any ruling coalition that was formed.
In the early election results the Sadrists lost in their strongholds, yet won seats across more provinces than they did in 2005. The Independent Trend of the Noble Ones came in second in four provinces Maysan, Dhi Qar, Baghdad, and Babil, third in Najaf and Wasit, fourth in Karbala and Basra, and fifth in Qadisiyah and Muthanna, and eighth in Diyala. They received 8.1% of the votes across those eleven provinces, far below the 33% Sadrist leaders were hoping for. Their greatest defeats were in Maysan where they lost control of the province to Maliki’s State of Law List, Baghdad where apparently Sadr City voted for Maliki as well, Najaf where Sadr’s main office is located, and Basra, the site of the Prime Minister’s first crackdown. In the capital, although they came in second, they only garnered 9% of the vote, a 29% difference from Maliki’s State of Law List who with 38%. In Basra the Sadrists finished fifth with 5%, and came in third in Najaf with 12.2%. In Maysan the vote was much closer with Maliki’s State of Law winning with 17.7%, but the Sadrists coming in second with 15.2%, only a 2.5% difference. On the positive side in 2005 Sadrist only gained seats in three provinces, but this time will have representation in eleven. They are also apparently forming a ruling coalition with the State of Law List in Baghdad and across the south. Despite Maliki’s offensives against the Mahdi Army, both sides have a mutual animosity towards the Supreme Council. Sadr’s strategy apparently worked on this front. While they did not win any provinces, and lost power in some, they did get votes in new ones, and have the opportunity to join with the winning State of Law List to govern.
Where Moqtada al-Sadr is heading is yet to be seen. Following one setback after another since 2006, his movement finally has something positive to talk about. The election results, while mixed, did give his list enough seats to be players in the ruling coalition if the reports prove to be true. It shows once again that Sadr is a survivor, and that when he appears to be done, his movement is still capable of a comeback. What is not known is if an alliance with the State of Law List will give the Sadrists any real positions of power in the provincial councils, and whether they will be able to delivery on any promises. The seats will give them access to patronage to rebuild their base, and build on before the parliamentary elections scheduled for the end of the year. On the other hand the provinces will have a 50% budget cut, which will limit this capability. In the provincials Shiite voting was down across the country, with many disillusioned with the current ruling elites. That could continue unless the Sadrists, and all the other Shiite parties, prove that they are better than the politicians they are replacing.
Sadrist Finishes In 2005 Provincial Elections
Received 12.7% of vote in three provinces
Maysan: 1st place 31.9%
Qadisiyah: 6th place 4.2%
Baghdad: 6th place 2.0%
Sadrist Early Returns In 2009 Provincial Elections
Received 8.1% of vote across 11 provinces
Maysan: 2nd place 15.2%
Dhi Qar: 2nd place 14.1%
Baghdad: 2nd place 9%
Babil: 2nd place 6.2%
Najaf: 3rd place 12.2%
Wasit: 3rd place 6%
Karbala: 4th place 6.8%
Basra: 4th place 5%
Qadisiyah: 5th place 6.7%
Muthanna: 5th place 5.1%
Diyala: 8th place 3.1%
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