What do Iraq’s election results mean for Turkey?
Compared to the past, Turkey did not take sides in the Iraqi general elections held this month, according to Bilgay Duman from Ankara-based Center for Middle Eastern Strategic Studies (ORSAM). Experts cite many factors about the surprise election victory of the bloc led by Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr. Turkey’s neutral stance in the election is certainly not one of them.
As for the reasons for Turkey’s neutral stance compared to the past, one possible explanation could be the view among many Iraqis and members of the international community that the elections would be a competition between Iran and the United States.
In the period before the election, Turkey had improved its ties with the government of Prime Minister Haidar al-Abadi, who was on good terms with both Washington and Tehran. Once seen as the front-runner, al-Abadi’s bloc ultimately finished third in the race.
In its quest to target the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) presence in Iraq, Turkey tried to use the leverage of both Iran and the United States in Iraq. The former’s support is important as it has strong presence in the field. The latter’s support is equally important not only in terms of its leverage over the central government thanks to the military and financial assistance it provides Baghdad for its fight against the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) but also because of the actionable intelligence it can provide to chase the PKK in Iraq.
From this angle, al-Abadi’s loss might have come as bad news for Turkey. But looking at how al-Sadr has been characterized by media outlets “as a long-time adversary of the United States who also opposes Iranian influence in Iraq,” his electoral victory should not be seen as necessarily a bad option for Turkey.
The Turkish government is now in a “wait and see” mood, said Duman from ORSAM.
What matters for Turkey is a functioning government in Baghdad. This requires al-Sadr to form an inclusive coalition government avoiding ethnic and sectarian alienation. According to some observers, the election results can be interpreted as Iraqi voters moving away from identity politics and toward issue-based politics.
Iraqi politicians have been forced to form cross-sectarian coalitions to remain relevant. But if voters have indeed crossed ethnic and religious lines while voting - and if indeed Iraqi politicians take this message - this might be the beginning of a benign period for Iraq, which has been ravaged by sectarian divisions for over two decades.
Unfortunately, the future of the new government depends on Tehran.
“We will not allow liberals and communists to govern in Iraq,” Ali Akbar Velayati, the senior adviser on foreign affairs to Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, is quoted to have said in February, referring to the alliance al-Sadr forged for elections.
Al-Sadr is equally unpopular with Washington, as he was first to form a Shiite militia that fought against U.S. troops and led two uprisings against the American military presence.
No doubt al-Sadr will have to strike a delicate balance between Tehran and Washington. It is at that stage that Turkey may be able to find a role to play behind the scenes.