One conclusion that can be drawn from the early parliamentary elections in Iraq, which were held on October 10, is that while the results of the voting alone cannot determine who will rule the country, they still do matter.

The main story was the low turnout, which Iraq’s Independent Higher Electoral Commission estimated at 41 percent, using a dubious formula that most international and local monitoring organizations rejected. A coalition of these organizations estimated turnout at an even lower 38 percent. Regardless of which number is the more precise, the participation level replicated a pattern visible since 2018, showing that a majority of Iraqis are disenchanted with the political system and have little hope that elections will make a difference.

The elections, which had been seen as a way out of the crisis that followed the mass protests in 2019, were intended to relegitimize the system and allow better conditions for free and fair competition. Yet these conditions have not been fully met. Armed groups have continued to assassinate and intimidate activists, while there are no implementable rules to rein them in, nor to monitor the financing of major political parties. This reality pushed several of the new parties linked to the protest movement to boycott the election.

Nevertheless, there was considerable improvement in the measures intended to prevent electoral fraud and irregularities. In addition, the new electoral system, based on multiple districts in each governorate and on the single nontransferable vote, created more uncertainty for the political parties. It made it difficult for them to simply repeat their previous electoral behavior when candidate lists were used.

The results reflected this combination of factors. On the one hand, mainstream parties such as those of the Shia cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, former prime minister Nouri al-Maliki, the speaker of parliament Mohammed al-Halbousi, and the former president of the Kurdistan Region Massoud Barzani, appeared to be the main winners. On the other hand, there was more room for independents and newcomers to win a greater number of seats in the latest elections than during any of the previous elections, and they actually would have won more had the turnout been higher.

For example, Imtidad, a party linked to the protest movement, is projected to win at least nine seats, exceeding the number of those obtained by an alliance of two established politicians—Ammar al-Hakim, the head of the Alliance of National State Forces, and former prime minister Haidar al-Abadi. If groups that supported the protests and individual parliamentarians rally around a unified agenda, they could form a formidable bloc of 30–40 seats out of 329 seats in parliament. This could mean, in practice, that the protest movement would be seated at the table of power in Iraq. While this bloc would be unlikely to implement radical change, it could play the role of a responsible opposition, something Iraq has lacked.

Election results have shown a considerable shift in the balance of power in favor of two competitors—Sadr and Maliki. If anything, Sadr’s gains—projected to be 72–75 seats—reflect his having an organized party. It is not that Sadr’s base has expanded significantly; the opposite may be true given that the total votes he received in this election appear to be less than what he received in the previous one. But the Sadrist movement has turned itself into an effective electoral machine, skillfully taking advantage of the new electoral system and fully using its voting power. The Sadrists were also helped by the low turnout, well-managed coordination between different levels of their organization, and the clarity of their political identity.

The other good performer among Shia voters was Maliki, who is projected to win 35–37 seats, after winning 25 in the last election. While there is a large gap between him and Sadr in terms of seats, the fact that he outperformed Fateh, an alliance of Iran-allied groups and paramilitaries that won 48 seats in the previous election, surprised many observers. Fateh is projected to win about 20 seats this time, and it appears that Maliki picked up most of those the alliance lost. Indeed, the power gained by Fateh and allied paramilitaries after 2014 was in part the outcome of the fragmentation of the coalition Maliki had formed when he was a prime minister.

Maliki’s fortunes have now been revived because he fielded strong candidates and appealed to Shia voters who associate him with a strong Shia-leaning state rather than one dominated by militias. The former prime minister also attracted votes from social categories that benefited from his government’s lavish spending on employment and patronage when oil prices were at their highest.

The first reaction to Sadr’s large win was the decision of the losers, led by Iran-allied groups, to rally around Maliki. But this time it is the former prime minister who is in the driver’s seat. Simultaneously, Fateh rejected the election results due to suspected voting irregularities, and allied armed groups threatened to intervene. The escalation in their rhetoric could quickly deteriorate into street clashes or armed conflict with Sadr’s supporters. More likely, this escalation, perhaps accompanied by limited confrontations, is intended to force Sadr to accept a power-sharing agreement with an alliance that includes his Shia rivals. Ultimately, among the main aims of Fateh-linked groups is to ensure the continuation of the Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF), an umbrella of paramilitary groups led by Iran-linked militias, the continuation, also, of the pro-Iran groups’ influence over key leadership positions within the PMF, and limited governmental oversight over the PMF.

This is when the election results will matter less than the capacity to engage in extralegal actions, and when such factors as combat ability and the influence of external actors become part of the mix. Sadr is both rational and pragmatic, and while he will resist attempts to deprive him of the key benefits of his electoral win, he may not be inclined to enter in an armed conflict with a camp backed by Iran.

Sadr’s next step is difficult to predict. In a speech announcing his bloc’s victory, he laid out the objectives of a Sadrist-led government, including strengthening the state’s control over militias. However, the threats from militias and the potential cost of a Shia civil war could push him to compromise and accept a government in which all parties share in the spoils. It would again be a “truce government,” one designed to prevent the worst outcome, namely civil conflict. But it would also perpetuate the structural shortcomings of the system in such a way as to further delegitimize it.