Iraqi Voters Backing al-Sadr’s Coalition Over Prime Minister’s, Early Election Results Show

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MOSUL, Iraq—Iraqi voters appeared to deal a blow to Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi in this weekend’s election, giving surprisingly strong support to an unlikely coalition of communists and followers of populist cleric Moqtada al-Sadr in partial preliminary results.

Mr. Sadr, a firebrand whose militias once fought openly with U.S. forces and were implicated in sectarian bloodshed, has since entered the political mainstream. His new alliance with Iraq’s communists did well in a contest in which many Iraqis stayed home and those who did vote said they wanted to shake up a political status quo known for corruption and bad governance.

With preliminary results counted in 10 of Iraq’s 18 provinces, Mr. Sadr’s coalition came in first in four of them, including the country’s most populous city, Baghdad, and was near the top in all of them, according to preliminary results.

Mr. Abadi’s coalition didn’t come first in any of the provinces for which results were released, suggesting his chances of re-election may be slim even after his government led the country to victory over Islamic State last year. Neither Mr. Abadi’s coalition, seen as being implicitly supported by the U.S., nor Iran-backed groups were as successful as Mr. Sadr.

The predominantly Shiite provinces for which results were released account for around one-third of the seats in Iraq’s parliament.

The early results don’t necessarily mean that Mr. Sadr will become prime minister, a post chosen in a round of political horse trading between political parties after the vote. But the vote gives him a powerful voice in the coming negotiations.

In an election that outside observers saw as a test of Iran’s influence against that of the U.S., Mr. Sadr doesn’t fall neatly into either camp, running against both Iranian and American influence in Iraq.

In recent months, Mr. Sadr has criticized Iranian influence in Iraq and received overtures from Saudi Arabia, a Sunni Muslim country that sees him as a possible bulwark against its rival Tehran. In 2016, Mr. Sadr was one of the few politicians with the ability to mobilize a protest movement against corruption that culminated in the storming of the fortified Green Zone and broke into parliament. His Sairun coalition was born from that movement.

“In the past, it was Sadr’s people who protected the country against terrorism and I believe it is they now who will protect the country against corruption,” said Ali Hussein, a 29-year-old Baghdad resident who voted for the Sairun coalition.

Mr. Sadr already had 34 lawmakers in the previous parliament but banned them from running in Saturday’s election, seeking to appeal to voters fed up with old faces.

In Baghdad, Iraq’s biggest constituency with 71 of parliament’s 329 seats, Sairun came first with nearly twice as many votes as the runner-up, which was the Fateh, a coalition representing Shiite militias with close links to Iran. Mr. Abadi’s Victory coalition ranked fifth. Fateh came first in the southern oil-rich province of Basra.

Mr. Abadi is expected to win more seats than his Shiite rivals in Sunni provinces that were occupied by Islamic State, for which results have yet to be announced. The outcome of the vote in the Kurdish north is also yet to be announced amid claims of fraud that may force a manual recount.

Less than 45% of eligible Iraqi voters cast ballots, the lowest since the country became a democracy, reflecting growing political disenchantment even after Islamic State’s defeat rallied the country together.

Mr. Abadi, a moderate Shiite Muslim with tacit support from the U.S., was seen to have an edge over a host of opponents, including Iran-backed former militia leaders and former Iraqi Premier Nouri al-Maliki.

Iraqis went into their fourth election since the 2003 U.S.-led invasion with a brittle unity forged in the war against Islamic State, which took over a large swath of the country in 2014 and ruled for three years until their defeat last year.

Iraq’s leaders face a daunting list of challenges, including rebuilding areas devastated by the war and preventing the resurgence of Islamic State. Iraq needs more than $80 billion to fix the damage done by Islamic State, according to the World Bank, but is struggling to attract foreign investment.

The low turnout marked a contrast with previous Iraqi elections in which the official tally has exceeded 60%. Unlike many other countries in the Middle East, where elections are either rigged or not held at all, in Iraq they are largely free and fair.

But few Iraqis expect the change they are seeking to be reflected in the government that will begin to take shape.

Iraq’s constitution and laws protect the interests of the political parties aligned with Iraq’s three main groups: the majority Shiite Muslims, Sunni Muslims and Kurds in the north. They have shared power since 2003, essentially divvying up ministries and government offices among themselves to ensure their political survival while failing to provide jobs and even basic services to large parts of the population.

“At the end of the day nobody’s going to be a clear winner which means there’s going to have to be some kind of power sharing agreement,” said Renad Mansour, a research fellow specializing in Iraq at Chatham House, a policy institute in London. “It’s going to be the same parties working within the same system.”

Write to Isabel Coles at isabel.coles@wsj.com and Ali Nabhan at ali.nabhan@wsj.com

Appeared in the May 14, 2018, print edition as ‘Early Vote Returns In Iraq Suggest Political Shake-Up.’

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