BAGHDAD – Men crowded small metal tables in outdoor tents and checked off their choice for prime minister. Among them were the incumbent, Nouri al-Maliki, and his main rival, Ayad Allawi.
Iraq held parliamentary elections less than a month ago. But the unofficial ballot held across the country on Friday was less about who rules the country than a demonstration of the staying power of Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr’s populist movement.
Backers of al-Sadr, who organized the referendum, said they hoped it would allow ordinary Iraqis to have a say as al-Maliki, Allawi and other political figures bargain over the formation of the next government. The tussle for positions is increasing tensions and fears of a return to sectarian violence.
Al-Sadr also has a direct interest in the political competition: While al-Maliki and Allawi ended up a virtual dead heat, al-Sadr’s organization is in a position to play kingmaker. And the vote could well preview his long-term goal. If other major parties fracture and al-Sadr can keep his core leadership in tact, he could muscle them aside and run the country in a few years’ time when the Americans are gone and his rivals are in disarray.
In addition to al-Maliki and Allawi, other choices on the ballot at a polling station in Baghdad’s Sadr City slum were the current Vice President Adel Abdel Mehdi; former premier Ibrahim al-Jaafari; and Jaffar al-Sadr, the son of one of the founders of al-Maliki’s Dawa party.
The Sadr organization left an empty box for voters to write in their own candidate. Anyone, no matter their political affiliation, was free to vote and choose whomever they wanted.
While some seats are still being disputed, backers of al-Maliki and Allawi each won about 90 seats in the parliamentary elections. Al-Sadr’s movement holds at least 38 seats.
The U.S. military curbed the fiercely anti-American group’s militia at the height of Iraq’s civil war in 2006, when it was blamed for death squad killings.
Al-Sadr backers predict their movement will outlast rival political parties. Many voters here said they had written in the name of Sadrist candidates for prime minister, and talked of the day when their movement would dominate its rivals.