On May 12, 2018, general parliamentary elections were held in Iraq for the first time since Prime Minister Haider Al-Abadi announced the defeat of ISIS in December 2017. On one hand, the discourse on social media reflected the joy and pride of many Iraqis who exercised their right to vote, but on the other hand it included the voice of citizens who have lost their faith in the political establishment and boycotted the elections. The victory of the Shi’i cleric and former militia leader Muqtada al-Sadr, who declared his support for a non-sectarian, civil discourse and a strong and united Iraq, turned out to be the great surprise of the elections.
Iraqi parliamentary elections were held in the shadow of threats by ISIS that they would attack voters and candidates. In a recent speech published in late April, the organization’s spokesman, Abu al-Hasan al-Muhajir, warned “the Sunnis in Iraq” that the country’s Shi’is would rise in power, and declared that ISIS would consider anyone participating in the election a heretic. “Polling centers and those inside are a target for our swords,, so stay away from them,” he proclaimed. A few days before Election Day, the organization made good on its threats and assassinated Faruq Zarzur Al Jubouri, a Sunni candidate running under the National Alliance list, headed by the veteran Shi’i politician Ayad Allawi. On election day, armed men, apparently from ISIS, attacked several roadblocks near the city of Kirkuk in northern Iraq, killing six Iraqi security personnel.
Despite the threats and attacks from ISIS, many Iraqis published photos of themselves on election day, voting at polling stations and proudly displaying a finger stained with ink as proof. In Kirkuk, an elderly couple of Kurdish origin was photographed declaring that they had voted because “it’s an important moment for the Kurds right now in Kirkuk.” A young Iraqi woman tweeted her pride in “fulfilling her duty as an Iraqi citizen.” In another tweet, an Iraqi user documented his 89-year-old grandfather, “who is barely able to walk,” as he puts it, with the hashtag “#Iraqi_pride. Similar proud posts were disseminated by Iraqis living outside the country. For example, Ismael Alsodani, a brigadier general in the Iraqi army reserves who currently livies in the United States, tweeted a picture of himself showing his ink-stained finger, with the caption “for [an] intact, strong, prosperous Iraq.”
On the day after the elections, the Iraqi government distributed on Twitter a video clip of citizens who went to vote throughout Iraq in what was described as a “safe and peaceful election environment.” Holding the elections fulfilled al-Abadi’s promise last January, despite the ongoing security challenges and ethnic tensions in Iraq that cast a shadow on them. Al-Abadi even used his Twitter account to publish pictures of himself being checked by an Iraqi policeman at the entrance to a polling station in Baghdad on his way to vote, thereby maintaining his public image as one of the people, connected to the concerns and hardships of the common man.
Despite the smiling images of voters voting at the polling stations that flooded social media, voter turnout was relatively low at 44.5%. According to Ranj Alaaldin, a research fellow at the Brookings Institution, this was the lowest voter turnout since the US invasion of Iraq in 2003, and an embarrassment for the political establishment. The possible reasons for the low turnout include a boycott by many Iraqis who felt that none of the candidates represented them. Before the elections, hundreds of Iraqi Facebook users changed their profile picture to “I will not vote,” while others explained that voting is pointless, as one user wrote: “There is no real chance of change and we are trapped in a black hole excavated by the political elites.”
The results of the elections brought about a surprising, dramatic change in the Iraqi political map, contrary to the assessments of many commentators who assumed that al-Abadi’s party would win the elections. In fact, it was the party of Shi’i cleric Muqtada al-Sadr that received the most votes, winning 54 of the 328 seats in parliament. Thus, al-Sadr became largely responsible for forming the next government. A decade ago, he was known as the militant leader of a violent Shi’i militia that fought American forces in Iraq and was responsible for the deaths of thousands of Sunnis in Baghdad between 2006 and 2007. In contrast to the militancy that characterized him in the past, al-Sadr ran in these elections on a platform calling for economic reform. After the elections, al-Sadr declared his desire for a “broad Iraqi alliance” and in a viral message he distributed via his Twitter account on May 21 he defined his identity as: “I am Muqtada, Shi’i in my honor, Sunni in my echo, Christian in my fragrance, Saebean [a small religious minority in Iraq] in my dreams, Yazidi in my loyalty, Islamic in my essence, a citizen in my perception, Arab in my property, Kurdish in my glory, Assyrian in my worlds, Turkmen in my wishes, Chaldean [a small minority in Iraq] in my fate, Shabaki in my zenith. I am Iraqi!” Al-Sadr signed the message with the hashtag #Iraqi in my love. This message of ethnic inclusiveness and Iraqi nationalism quickly became popular on social media; it was retweeted more than 3,400 times and received over 13,600 “likes.” In another message published two days later, Al-Sadr announced that he had completed “the final touches” to form a government that would be “neither Sunni nor Shi’i, nor Kurdish, nor national or ethnic, but rather an authentic Iraqi government.”
In addition to his strong opposition to American involvement in Iraq, al-Sadr is well-known for his fervent antagonism to Iran’s involvement in the country, even though he was once close to Iran and accepted its financial support for the Shi’i militia he led. This position was apparent in the anti-Iranian slogans his supporters chanted on the streets of Baghdad when the results of the elections were announced: “Iran out, Iraq is free” and “Qasem Soleimani, Sadr is my master,” referring to the commander of the Revolutionary Guards’ Qods Force who is responsible for managing Iranian involvement in Iraq. These slogans are a direct message for Iran from the people of Iraq, whose country is often considered to be fully under Iranian patronage and part of the Iranian sphere of influence in the Middle East, rather than as a sovereign state with its own interests and national identity. It is now clear that al-Sadr and his supporters want to emphasize Iraqi nationalism, alongside the need to fight corruption and implement economic reforms for the benefit of all Iraqi citizens; they are no longer interested in external involvement.
Despite the low voter turnout and ISIS’s threats of carrying out terrorist attacks, the discourse on Iraqi social media reflects the pride of many Iraqis who voted on election day and who were happy to take part in the democratic process in their country. In a country that still faces challenges remaining from the period of ISIS' regime of terror, the very existence of democratic elections is an important step towards reconstruction. The election promises of the current prime minister, al-Abadi, combined with the statements by the main winner in the elections, al-Sadr, regarding his commitment to Iraqi nationalism and the promotion of a non-sectarian civil discourse, give hope for a better reality in the divided country. It remains to be seen how the two will deal with Iranian pressures regarding the formation of the next government, the economic challenges, and the reforms that began under the leadership of al-Abadi’s current government.
 "اغتيال مرشح في الانتخابات العراقية يسلّط الضوء على التحديات الأمنية عشية الاقتراع" Asharq a-Awsat, May 8, 2018.