On May 12, Iraq held its first parliamentary elections since the defeat of the so-called Islamic State. The vote was an achievement in itself, being mostly competitive, fair, and free of violence. In a region characterized by authoritarian predictability, the outcome was unexpected. Notwithstanding the delay in the release of the final results, with some constituencies having yet to vote, and allegations of voting irregularities, notably in the ethnically-mixed and contested city of Kirkuk, what emerged was the potential for an Iraqi alternation of power, one that may become a norm.

The elections highlighted the wide and dangerous gap between rulers and ruled in Iraq by reflecting massive popular rejection of the post-Ba‘th political order. Only 44.5 percent of registered voters cast ballots, the lowest voter turnout since the start of the electoral process in 2005. Two-thirds of the inhabitants of Baghdad, which elects the largest share of parliamentarians in the 329-seat parliament, boycotted the vote. In Nineveh, the governorate liberated from the Islamic State, electoral participation was the highest nationally, yet did not exceed 53 percent.

The participation level was a blow to a political establishment disparaged for its incompetence, divisiveness, and endemic corruption, and rightly blamed for successive cycles of violence since the overthrow of former Iraqi president Saddam Hussein. Blocs led by onetime prime ministers Ayad Allawi and Nouri al-Maliki lost around two-thirds of their parliamentarians, while several top politicians were ousted from long-held seats.

The Al-Nasr (Victory) Coalition led by Prime Minister Haidar al-‘Abadi lagged behind those of two other influential Shi‘a leaders, Muqtada al-Sadr and Hadi al-‘Ameri, whose lists finished first and second, respectively. ‘Abadi benefited from his successful fight against the Islamic State and his response to the Kurdish independence referendum of September 2017. He enjoyed a certain popularity as a leader above sectarian and ethnic affiliations. Yet, he also suffered from the discredit of his political party, Al-Da‘wa, which has ruled Iraq for more than a decade. He also failed to convince voters that he could deliver much-needed systemic change, let alone improve Iraq’s infrastructure and provide public services and jobs.

Both Sadr and Amiri are perceived as more capable of implementing such transformative tasks. Muqtada al-Sadr is the son of the revered ayatollah Mohammed Sadeq al-Sadr, who was assassinated by Saddam’s regime in the late 1990s. In the aftermath of the 2003 U.S. invasion, Muqtada and his followers militarily resisted American forces and successive Iraqi governments, while at the same time angering Iran for championing a distinctively Iraqi form of Shi‘ism and nationalism. They eventually joined the political process, benefiting from all the advantages it offered to enrich themselves, yet they always threatened to resort to street politics and overthrow the system if their demands for reform and an end to corruption were not met. Their electoral alliance with the Iraqi Communist Party and civil society groups, albeit imbalanced and ambiguous, was seen as an important step toward their political maturity.

‘Ameri, in turn, is a former Iraqi exile who lived in Iran during the years of Saddam’s rule, where he developed close links to the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps. He is a politician, a former minister, and a parliamentarian, as well as a commander of numerous militias during the fighting against the Islamic State. ‘Ameri has alternatively been seen as an uncompromising Shi‘a leader and a pragmatic politician who cultivated close ties with Iraqi Sunni constituencies and the Western powers.

Both leaders have in common the fact that they are Islamists who have gained strength from a model of militia governance drawing on a reservoir of Shi‘a youths. These young men have been recruited from the margins of society, in rural or semi-urban areas where populations have been left outside the system and the patronage and clientelistic networks it has engendered. They have been socialized in a popular culture that legitimizes spectacular violence, and embody a lumpen radicalism that is not so different from that of their Sunni counterparts, many of whom fought in the ranks of the Islamic State.

At this juncture, the stakes for Sadr and ‘Ameri are high. Both must seek to restore the capacities of the Iraqi state, forge a national identity that encompasses all sects and ethnicities, and protect Iraq from the rising likelihood of a confrontation between the United States and Iran. A reassuring factor is that the Iraqi system is designed to prevent one party from controlling the whole system. Whichever militia leader ends up being the kingmaker in the formation of the next government will have to accommodate the Sunni and Kurdish parties, as well as regional and international patrons.

Alliances in Iraqi politics are the fruit of a subtle and fluid game, one not wholly premised on ideologies or programs. Rather, as the final vote count is tallied, pragmatism, personal relations, and agreements over rent-sharing will very likely introduce a hefty dose of compromise.