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Muqtada Sadr is preparing a bid to gain Iraq’s prime minister position

The populist cleric appears to be gearing up for the upcoming parliamentary elections slated for June 2021 in a bid to win the premiership.

Iraqi Shiite cleric and leader of the Sadrist movement Muqtada al-Sadr has launched what looks like an early electoral campaign in preparation for the parliamentary elections slated for June 6. Sadr had said before that he would not participate in the elections this time, but he has changed his mind and declared that not only will he participate in the elections, he also plans to win a majority required to gain the premiership.

Sadr has ordered his followers to gather on Dec. 4, in a mass demonstration attending Friday pray and declare unity against the opponents. This was seen as mobilization for widespread participation in the early parliamentary elections.

In the same vein, thousands of his supporters answered Sadr’s call to demonstrate in Tahrir Square in the center of Baghdad on Nov. 27, demanding “an end to corruption.”

Sadr did not attend the protests to address his supporters, some of whom were wearing army fatigues. He sent a representative, Sheikh Khudhayer al-Ansari, who tried to emulate the religious and political oratory style of Sadr and his father, Mohammed Sadiq al-Sadr.

Sadr’s propaganda among his supporters is that he “does not seek to be in power” but “wants to vanquish those who want to harm Iraq.”

The top Shiite cleric tried to reassure the people and political forces that his move to win the elections will not be through “violence, killings, starting fires, blocking roads, bombing, occupation or any form of injustice.”

Nonetheless, Sadr’s supporters put on quite a violent show in the city of Nasiriyah, capital of the Dhi Qar governorate, raising speculation that Sadr might resort to violence to snatch a victory in the early elections and secure the position of prime minister.

On the evening of Nov. 27, Sadr’s supporters clashed with sit-in protesters at Haboubi Square in Nasiriyah, killing seven people and wounding more than 70.

Protesters in Dhi Qar said that Sadr’s supporters wanted to take over the square and disperse the sit-in, which resulted in clashes between the two sides.

A few hours after the brawl, Sadr’s supporters set ablaze the protesters’ tents in Haboubi Square, which have been pitched since October 2019. These protesters have been calling for real reforms and holding those who killed their friends accountable. They were not satisfied with the resignation of former Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mahdi, nor with Mustafa al-Khadimi’s promises of early elections, which did not persuade them to end their demonstrations, as happened in Baghdad.

The protesters in Dhi Qar built new tents, returned to the square, and continue to protest.

It is true that the Iraqi cleric urged his supporters to join the October 2019 demonstrations, but he turned against the protesters months later, which prompted them to shout slogans against him in the streets. Sadr is criticized by many on the streets of Iraq. 

According to observers, Muqtada wants to end the protests.

“Sadr got what he wanted from the demonstrations, which is a new electoral law approved by parliament,” a source in the Iraqi Communist Party told Al-Monitor. “People in the streets are no longer sparing Sadr in their slogans and chants."

Sadr does not seem to be banking on the votes of Iraqi protesters in the upcoming elections, especially since the new electoral law divides Iraq into small electoral districts, which works to the advantage of the Sadrist movement — capable of distributing its supporters’ votes to its candidates. Meanwhile, protesters are divided and split between different groups.

Sadrist parliament members have been intensifying their television appearances on political programs in a bid to promote voting in the elections; they're calling on demonstrators to end their protests and resort instead to elections to bring about the political change they demand.

Harith Hasan, a nonresident senior fellow at the Malcolm H. Kerr Carnegie Middle East Center, said the “Sadrist movement widely believes that the new electoral law would allow it to increase its seats in parliament because the seats in the new electoral law have been distributed widely in different Iraqi districts, and Sadrists believe they can gain more seats by managing their voters to vote for a specific candidate in each district."

During Iraq's three parliamentary elections held between 2005 and 2014, the Sadrist movement maintained about 11% of the seats. In the 2018 vote, however, it won about 15.8% of the parliamentary seats, making it the largest bloc with 52 parliament members.

Amin Zwair, a parliament member for Sadr’s Sairoon Alliance, said, “The Sadrist supporters are ideological, and we can direct them.”

He told Al-Monitor, “When we instruct our voters to vote for a candidate, they do it."

Yet it seems unlikely that the Sadrist movement will have the upper hand in the Cabinet formation, as the Iraqi political game does not guarantee a parliamentary majority for any party without having to form alliances with other political forces. The political parties will not feel comfortable handing over the most important positions in the Iraqi government to Sadr.

In fact, the results of the elections cannot be predicted as of now, but the Sadrist movement appears to be playing its cards to try and seize a win and has already launched its electoral campaign by mobilizing people in large demonstrations in the street. Most importantly, no one can predict Sadr’s next move.