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An emerging populism is sweeping the Middle East

- July 11, 2018
Supporters of Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr celebrate their electoral success in Baghdad in May 2018. (Hadi Mizban/AP)

This year featured key parliamentary elections in Iraq and Lebanon. In both countries, formerly controversial populist figures performed far better than expected and are playing central roles in the scramble to form governments. In Iraq, the Saeroon coalition led by Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, the notorious former leader of the Mahdi Army militia, won the plurality of seats. In Lebanon, the Samir Geagea-led Lebanese Forces, a former militia traditionally seen as a right-wing Christian party, doubled its number of seats in parliament.

At first glance, the two outliers, Sadr and Geagea, may appear to be diametrical opposites, but their surprising victories reveal an emerging form of populism sweeping the Middle East. And while Iraq and Lebanon are often compared for their ethnic and sectarian power-sharing agreements, these elections also show that ideology is the wrong lens through which to understand political nuance.

Discontent with the status quo and elite politics

Low voter turnouts in both elections illustrated citizen disillusionment with the political process. Compared with previous elections, voter turnout was down from 60 percent to 44.5 percent in Iraq and from 54 percent to 49.2 percent in Lebanon. In Iraq, although expectations were high after the territorial defeat of the Islamic State militant group, many citizens expressed doubt that the same political parties and lists that had benefited from the system since 2003 were willing or able to change it. Similarly, in Lebanon, voters were cynical about participating in an election widely perceived to reinforce the elite.

Sadr and Geagea were not affected by the turnout, which served as an indictment of the political process. Each convinced their supporters that they were committed and able to bring back power to the people. Their campaigns reveal an emerging trajectory of populist movements in the region. What are its features?

Despite belonging in various capacities to this club of elites, both leaders have publicly criticized it for the past several years. Geagea has spoken against Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri’s accommodation of Hezbollah’s interests after its involvement in the Syrian conflict, criticized Hezbollah’s insistence on retaining weapons and, despite endorsing Michel Aoun for the presidency, indirectly critiqued Aoun’s alliance with the group.

Since coming back from exile in 2011, Sadr has also actively worked against the establishment elite. In 2012, he led a no-confidence motion that came close to ousting then-Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki. In 2015, he took over a protest movement that eventually invaded Baghdad’s Green Zone in 2016, forcing Haider al-Abadi to change several of his cabinet ministers.

As such, both Sadr and Geagea appealed to the people and against their establishment colleagues, serving as markers of the emerging populism in the region.

Populist leaders proving themselves by reforming their own movements

Another feature of these populist movements is their attempt at internal reform. Both leaders have made anti-corruption changes to their own movements or to state offices that their party members have held. For the 2018 elections, Sadr decided to run with a slate of new candidates, telling many of his seasoned political colleagues to step aside. He has also come down hard against members in his movement accused of corruption, including former deputy prime minister Baha Araji.

Similarly, the Lebanese Forces called for reform within the ministries in which its members serve. In the Ministry of Social Affairs, internal reform was led by a Lebanese Forces-affiliated minister to prevent the common practice of siphoning international aid to private pockets. These efforts helped prove to many voters that both Sadr and Geagea were more committed to systemic reform than their electoral rivals.

Populism succeeds where grass-roots movements have failed

In Lebanon, the protests led by independent civil society activists in 2015, sparked by a crisis about garbage collection, failed to cause governmental change as many protesters had hoped. Although a large number of independents ran in the 2018 election, only one independent candidate won.

Iraq’s protest movement similarly failed to bring about systemic change. Only when the Sadrists joined did it offer glimpses of dramatic change. As a result, several prominent civil society activists decided to join forces with the Sadrist movement for the elections. As one prominent activist said, “We knew that without Sadr, we would not have any chance of gaining power in parliament and pursuing our reform agenda.” The success of the Lebanese Forces and the Sadrists alike can be partly attributed to the failure of independents to instigate change on the street or instill public faith in the political process.

As a result, unlike the other elite who suffered from the turnout, Sadr’s party of newcomer candidates maintained its electoral base and Geagea’s party managed to snatch votes formerly given to the establishment Free Patriotic Movement. Their populist combination of elitism with a reform agenda appears to have given voters more confidence in the ability of Sadr and Geagea to implement reform than in the prospect of independent voices to change the system.

Prospects for populist leaders after electoral success

Whether these leaders’ ambitious visions can be transformed from populist opportunism to a genuine and realistic program for reform remains to be seen. The struggles both are facing as they strive to influence cabinet formation in the aftermath of the elections illustrate how electoral success in the Middle East does not automatically translate into political agenda-setting.

Both are facing significant pushback from their political rivals as they try to influence the formation of the cabinets in Iraq and Lebanon. Sadr has been forced to negotiate a government with elites such as leader of the Fatah (Conquest) Alliance Hadi al-Amiri, Abadi and others. Geagea had to endorse Hariri, who has been confirmed as prime minister once more with Hezbollah’s blessing, despite his Lebanese Forces publicly complaining of Hezbollah efforts to exclude it from prominent positions in parliament and the cabinet. The prevailing strength of the status quo challenges populist leaders’ chance to transform their electoral success into the kind of political influence that can deliver on their promises.

Renad Mansour is a research fellow at the Middle East and North Africa Program at Chatham House, where he leads work on Iraq. Follow him @renadmansour

Lina Khatib is the head of the Middle East and North Africa Program at Chatham House. Follow her @LinaKhatibUK