The Sadrists announced today the results of their referendum on who should be Iraq's next prime minister.
The Sadrists claim that 1,428,000 voters participated across Iraq, which is over double the number of votes their candidates tallied in the national elections. Needless to say, these 'elections' were conducted without oversight and did not adhere to any accepted standards for polling, and hence the numbers are very suspect.
The value of the referendum, however, is that it exposes the politics of the Sadrist movement.
The results were:
Ibrahim al-Ja'afari (former PM from the Da'awa Party): 24 percent
Ja'afar al-Sadr (son of the chief ideologue of the Da'awa Party who was executed by Saddam in April 1979): 23 percent
Qusay al-Suheil (top member of the Sadrist 'politburo'): 17 percent
Nouri al-Maliki (PM incumbent): 10 percent
Ayad Allawi (former PM): 9 percent
Baha' al-'Araji (Sadrist MP from Nassiriya and highest independent Sadrist voter earner in the national election): 5 percent
Ahmad Chalabi (courter of the Sadrist vote): 3 percent
Adil Abdul-Mahdi (current Vice President from ISCI): 2 percent
Rafi' al-'Isawi (Sunni from Anbar, ran on Allawi list, current Vice President): 2 percent
Other: 5 percent
What the Sadrists wanted from this 'referendum' was to shoot down Maliki's prospects for a second term by claiming that their 'base' had rejected him. The Sadrists form the majority bloc within the Iraqi National Alliance (INA) which Maliki's State of Law bloc needs to ally with in order to form a cabinet. They also demonstrated that almost the same number of 'voters' had chosen Allawi (9 percent) to Maliki's 10 percent, so the Sadrists are as free to negotiate with Allawi as they would with Maliki. This is a bargaining tool meant to show that they could easily break with the INA and crown Allawi as the next premier.
The Sadrists already know that they can't have one of their own (Qusay al-Suheil or Baha' al-Araji) as PM since they are an overall minority (10 percent) among the Shia vote. Al-Suheil, a 45 year-old agricultural hydraulic engineer (PhD) from Basra, got 17 percent of the vote, but he only managed to scrape together 8,415 votes in the general election (in Baghdad, where he ran). Plus, al-Suheil is unknown to the wider Iraqi public while al-'Araji, a prominent Sadrist MP and head of the Legal Committee of parliament with dual Irish and Iraqi citizenship who recently blurted out some caustic sectarian remarks, has a multitude of corruption cases against him waiting to break, according to sources in the Integrity Commission.
And they also know that even though Ja'afari is popular among Sadrists, he cannot become PM again as most Iraqis, irrespective of whether this is fair or not, attribute the 'sectarian' outbreak to Ja'afari's tenure as PM in 2005.
Ja'afar al-Sadr is an unknown quantity for the Iraqi political elite. Almost all he has to go on is genealogy: he's the only son of Muhammad Baqir al-Sadr, one of modern Shi'ism most important thinkers. Not only that, but the Sadr family had historically played an important role in Shi'a and Iraqi history over the last two hundred years, which would make Ja'afar the equivalent of Shi'a royalty; he was 10 years-old when his father was executed. He is Muqtada's second cousin, as well as his brother-in-law (Muqtada is married to his sister). During the opposition days, the only time we heard about Ja'afar was in 1999 or 2000 when he managed to escape to Iran. The story at the time was that the Hakims and the Iranians suspected that he was a Saddam spy, and the man who smuggled him out of Iraq (all I remember was that he was from the town of Shatra) was interrogated and tortured by either the Badr Corp or by Iranian security. Since then, Ja'afar studied by correspondence with the Islamic University of London, and had a brief stint as a student with Sheikh Kadhim al-Haeri, a top Iraqi-born cleric in Iran who is close to the Revolutionary Guard. At one point, Ja'afar made his way to Beirut, where another line of the Sadr family resides. His participation in the election last month as no. 5 on Maliki's slate for Baghdad was his first foray into politics. He was the second top vote earner with 28,779 votes, after Maliki.
Ja'afar had been marketing himself as a secular candidate. It should be noted that the first time his name was mentioned as a PM candidate was by Ibrahim al-Sumaida'i, a political analyst and gadfly, during an Al-Arabiya talk show before (I think) the election.
So are the Sadrists really supporting Ja'afar for the PM slot? Why would Muqtada create a rival to himself from within the Sadr family? If Ja'afar gets the job, then he would slowly yet ultimately eclipse Muqtada as the representative of the Sadr family, and he would only increase in stature among wider Iraqi constituencies at Muqtada's expense. So why would the Sadrists throw their lot behind him? Is this a message from the Sadrist midlevel leadership to Muqtada, along the lines of 'You are replaceable'?
The emergence of Rafi' al-'Isawi, at least in Shi'a eyes, as the least provocative Sunni partner within Allawi's list is a significant point. Tariq al-Hashemi, Usama al-Nujaifi, and Salah al-Mutlag are all rejected as too extreme. But 'Isawi, a former leader of the Islamic Army that was cultivated by the Americans who propelled him upwards to the position of Vice-President (...after Salam al-Zoba'i resigned), is seen as a moderate, and he could very well displace Allawi as the face of the Iraqiyya bloc, or at least lead a breakaway faction that forms a cabinet with whoever is chosen by dominant Shia and Kurdish slates as prime minister.
The simple act of placing his name on the ballot (...and getting as many votes as Adil Abdul-Mahdi, whom the Sadrists hate as the acolyte of the Hakims, and who is popularly rejected due to the Ziwiyya bank incident) is a poignant message in and of itself.
Furthermore, I thought Bayan Jabr's name was on the ballot, but his name was not announced among the results. Jabr, the Finance Minister and Hakim ally, received almost 69,000 votes in the general election in Baghdad, which was a surprise to most.
So it is clear what the Sadrists don't want: no more Maliki. But it isn't clear who the Sadrists think should replace Maliki. Overall, this gambit serves to constrict the Sadrists in the ongoing political negotiations, rather than help shape them. It could very well be that the Sadrists, in their instransigence and vetoing certain candidates, may play themselves out of the game.UPDATE:
I feel I need to further clarify my opinion about this referendum as Western reports begin reporting on them and taking them seriously: these are cooked up numbers. There was no vote.
There was a show for the cameras that people were voting, but whatever results those ballots added-up to were most likely ignored. The results were readied beforehand. This media stunt was a naked and brazen attempt by the Sadrist politburo to shape Iraq’s ongoing political negotiations for the formation of a government. How else can one explain how a Sunni write-in candidate like Rafi’ al-‘Isawi was picked by 2 percent, that is 30,000 voters of the alleged tally? How did a secondary Sunni figurehead factor so prominently among the Sadrist constituency in the preceding weeks to the point that thousands of them remembered his name and jotted it down on the ballot? Could it be that it’s because he’s about to embark on an official trip to Iran as a representative of the Iraqiyya slate?
How did Qusay al-Suhail, another write-in candidate, jump from 8,500 votes to 250,000 votes (17 percent) in the span of a month since the national elections?
Please do not take these numbers seriously. The Sadrists are having fun with mathematics, and trying to shape the debate. They think they are disqualifying candidates, while inserting new names into the mix. Iraq had a real election last month. Those numbers are real and are an accurate reflection of what the Iraqi voter wants. The Sadrists numbers reflect what a handful of members on the Sadrist politburo want, or even maybe, and this is just a maybe, what some Iranian power centers want. It is an exercise in political make-belief. Remember, the Sadrists are but one component among many that can go into the formation of a government.