Several big stories came out of Iraq’s sixth election since the 2003 US-led invasion. The first is low voter turnout which officially at 36 per cent of eligible voters is the lowest recorded in the country’s post-2003 electoral history. With many Iraqis disillusioned with a political system which entrenches a corrupt political elite at their expense, this was expected, reflecting a trajectory of fewer Iraqis voting in each election.
More surprising is the relative success of Muqtada al-Sadr’s movement, which has increased its seat tally from 54 in 2018 to 73 while its main rival from the previous election Fateh – which represents the Popular Mobilization Forces – saw a decrease from 48 to only 16.
This result suggests Sadrists have increased in popularity while Fateh’s support has declined, but the vote total reveals a different story. While the Sadrists outperformed their rivals in seat count, they received fewer votes than their main rivals combined, with Fateh receiving 467,000 votes and SoL (State of Law) 502,000 while the Sadrists received only 885,000.
This discrepancy highlights a key aspect of the new 2019 electoral law. As a recent Chatham House Iraq Initiative paper highlights, the newly adopted single non-transferable vote (SNTV) – a first-past-the-post (FPTP) system conducted within multi-seat constituencies – was intended to create a more transparent electoral process by removing the need for complex seat allocation algorithms and forging a closer link between voters and the elected.
Carefully calibrated electoral strategies
However, it has two significant functions as this election clearly illustrates – vote wastage and the need for parties to carefully calibrate their strategies to achieve success at the ballot box.
Under the old electoral systems of open or closed list proportional representation, votes cast for a candidate could be redistributed to other candidates from the same party. So if 5,000 votes were needed to win a seat and ‘candidate A’ received 10,000 votes, the surplus 5,000 votes would be redistributed to ensure the election of ‘candidate B’.
Under the new system, all 10,000 votes would stay with ‘candidate A’, resulting in a significant number of wasted votes – and this is what happened to Fateh. A failure to accurately assess the structure posed by the new legislation meant that while it received almost as many votes as the Sadrists, it won far fewer seats.
The Sadrists played the new system effectively, accurately anticipating support levels within each constituency, nominating the correct number of candidates to run, then persuading their supporters to distribute votes equally between candidates.
They also had elaborate networks both online and on the streets, such as the location-based mobile app with details for each district, social media groups for each constituency, and dedicated personnel focused on seat acquisition as opposed to simply number of votes.
Under previous electoral laws, in areas where parties believed they had high levels of support, the obvious strategy was to field multiple candidates and therefore acquire multiple seats. But under the new law, this strategy can misfire badly because, when several candidates from the same coalition compete for votes in one area, there is a risk none of them will receive enough votes to be elected, resulting in an overall loss for their electoral coalition.
This is what happened in the first district of Qadisiya where the Sadrists put forward just one male candidate and won the highest number of votes. They also strategically ran one female candidate who won the female quota seat. Other parties, however, ran multiple candidates, none of which secured enough votes to win a seat.
Parties which focus on just one candidate in each constituency reduce the likelihood of wasted votes but this also means they could potentially fail to maximise seats in areas where they have the strongest support. For example, Baghdad’s eleventh district of Al-Karkh saw State of Law candidate Alia Nussaif receive more than 20,000 votes, beating the district’s second successful candidate by more than 8,000 votes – votes that could have secured State of Law a second seat in that district if used strategically.
So although it may look like the Sadrists and Fateh have completely different levels of popularity, in reality the results reveal the sophistication and coherence of the Sadrist electoral machine and the challenges presented by the new electoral system.
Lists with greater cohesion, such as Maliki’s State of Law and the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP), could better navigate this new strategy. Fateh, however, is comprised of competing parties, such as Badr, Sadiqoon, and Sanad. Each party wanted to field their own candidate under the Fateh list, resulting in the vote wastage.
Time to negotiate another coalition
However, as the recent Iraq Initiative paper argues, electoral results are not the only factor impacting the upcoming government formation process because, while the Sadrists have won the most seats, they now must negotiate a coalition.
In successive elections, this process has resulted in consensus governments which include the same ruling parties regardless of their success at the ballot box. While Fateh have lost some political capital, they still maintain powerful coercive capital and are likely to have a greater influence in government formation than their number of seats would suggest.
This article was updated in January 2022 to reflect final vote numbers.