A populist coalition formed by nationalist Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr has taken a surprise lead in Iraqs election, putting a dent in prime minister Hadi al-Amiris re-election bid.
Thecountry’s electoral commission released results for 10 of the 19 provinces on Sunday evening, but has given no indication as to when more returns would be announced.
Mr al-Sadr appears to have tapped into growing public resentment in what some perceive as a corrupt political elite at the head of government.
Running a campaign highly critical of both the United States and Iran, the controversial cleric and militia leader has struck a chord with millions of poor Shiite voters.
The 44-year-old will not become prime minister if his coalition wins as he did not stand in the election, but would be in a position to play kingmaker in the increasinglylikely event of victory.
An election win would mark a stunning comeback for Mr al-Sadr, side-lined by Iranian-backed rivals as Tehran began asserting its influence in Iraq after the fall of Saddam Husseins regime in 2003.
Virtually unknown outside his home nation before the US invasion, al-Sadr soon became a symbol of resistance to foreign occupation.
Much of his authority derivedfrom his family, including hisfather, thegrand ayatollah Mohammad Sadeq al-Sadr, who was assassinatedfor defying Saddam in 1999.
He became the first to form a Shiite militia to fight against American troops after the 2003 liberation turned into an occupation.
The Pentagon would latercall his Mehdi army the biggest threat to Iraqs security after he led two uprisings against US forces.
As news spread of Mr al-Sadr’s gains at the ballot box, some of his followers celebrated in Baghdad, chanting Iran out.
Iraq is rich, the country doesnt need Iran, it can stand on its feet and be prosperous it just needs good management,said Mohammed Sadeq, a trader in the city of Hilla who voted for al-Sadr’s list.
The cleric struck unlikely alliances in the formation of his coalition, shocking many by siding with secularists and the Iraqi Communist Party to form the bloc.
Known as Sairoon, Arabic for On the Move, the group has said it would focus on rebuilding infrastructure and providing health and education to the poor.
The importance of this vote is that it is a clear message that the people want to change the system of governance which has produced corruption and weakened the state institutions, said communist party secretary general, Raed Fahmy.
By contrast, incumbent prime minister Mr al-Abadi has performed poorly, placing third or fourth in many provinces and finishing as low as fifth in Baghdad.
In a national address Monday, he vowed to keep the country safe under his command until a new government is formed.
I call on Iraqis to respect the results of the elections,he added.
Only 44 per cent of voters turned out, the lowest in the four elections since the removal of Saddam.
Under the Iraqi system, one of the dozens of coalitions formed for the election must gain a majority of the 329 seats in parliament in order to choose a prime minister and form a government, a process that may take months.
Political power in the country is traditionally divided along sectarian lines among the offices of prime minister, president and parliament speaker.
The Shiite majority has held the position of prime minister in elections since the fall of the Saddam regime, while the Kurds hold the presidency and the post of parliament speak is held open for Sunnis.
Under the Iraqi constitution, no less than a quarter of the parliamentary seats must be held by women, with nearly 2,600 running for office this year.
Additional reporting by agencies