BAGHDAD, Iraq - In a surprising reversal in the Iraq election race, the Nationalist cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, who has been a long-time adversary of the United States was said to be leading in the early results on Monday.
According to the country’s electoral commission, by Monday, with more than half of the vote counted, early returns showed that Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi was performing poorly, while Sadr had made a surprise comeback.
It announced partial returns from Saturday’s balloting, when tens of thousands of people got out to vote in the country’s first parliamentary election since it declared victory over the Islamic State militant group.
The partial returns put the populist coalition organized by the influential Shiite cleric, Sadr, was in the lead in four provinces, including Baghdad.
Sadr - who led an insurgency against U.S. forces and incited sectarian bloodshed against the Sunni population - has, in recent years, sought to recast himself as a populist.
He has rallied against corruption and failing services and has struck a political alliance with Iraq’s secularists and Communist Party.
Early results showed that none of the competing blocs appear on track to win a majority in parliament and name a prime minister.
However, while the Shi’ite leader, Sadr’s bloc will be able to take a leading role in the political horse-trading to find a compromise candidate, Sadr himself cannot become prime minister, since he himself did not run for a seat.
Meanwhile, the results also showed that Shi’ite militia chief Hadi al-Amiri’s bloc, which is backed by Iran, was in second place, and Abadi, who was once seen as the front-runner, trailed in the third position.
According to the election commission, the preliminary results were based on a count of over 95 percent of the votes cast in 10 of Iraq’s 18 provinces.
While Abadi is a rare ally of both the U.S. and Iran, Sadr is an opponent of both of the countries.
Sadr has led two uprisings against U.S. forces in Iraq.
Sadr has projected himself as an Iraqi nationalist and has a zealous following among the young, poor and dispossessed.
He has, however, been sidelined by the influential Iranian-backed figures.
Ever since a U.S.-led invasion toppled Sunni dictator Saddam Hussein in 2003 and ushered the Shi’ite majority to power, both U.S. and Iran have wielded influence in Iraq.
According to local reports, even if he faces a massive setback in the election, analysts believe that Abadi might still be granted a second term in office by parliament.
On Monday, the Prime Minister called on all political blocs to respect the results, and suggested that he was willing to work with Sadr to form a government.
In a live televised address, Abadi said, “We are ready to work and cooperate in forming the strongest government for Iraq, free of corruption.”
As per the rules, the government should be formed within 90 days of the official results.
On Sunday, the Independent High Electoral Commission said that the turnout in Saturday’s voting was 44.52 percent with 92 percent of votes counted.
While full results are due to be officially announced later on Monday, the turnout was said to be significantly lower than in previous elections.
The election has taken place in Iraq, at a time when the country is struggling to bring down soaring unemployment and is aiming at reintegrating its disenfranchised Sunni minority.