Shia cleric Muqtada al-Sadr’s party swept an Iraqi election on Monday, coming first and increasing the number of seats he holds in parliament, according to initial results, officials and a spokesperson for the Sadrist Movement.

A count based on initial results from several provinces plus the capital Baghdad, verified by local government officials, suggested Sadr had won more than 70 seats, which if confirmed could give him considerable influence in forming a government.

However, Sadr’s group is just one of several that will have to enter negotiations to form a coalition capable of dominating parliament and forming an administration, a period of jockeying for position that may take weeks or longer.

Sadr broadcast a live speech on state TV claiming victory and promising a nationalist government free of foreign interference.

“We welcome all embassies that do not interfere in Iraq’s internal affairs,” he said, adding that celebrations would take place in the streets “without weapons.”

Shia groups have dominated since U.S. invasion

Iraq’s Shia groups have dominated governments and government formation since the U.S.-led invasion of 2003 that toppled Sunni dictator Saddam Hussein and catapulted the Shia majority and the Kurds to power.

An official at Iraq’s electoral commission said Sadr had come first but could not immediately confirm how many seats his party had won.

The official turnout figure of just 41 per cent, a record low, suggested the early vote — held under new rules billed by Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi as loosening the grip of political parties — had failed to capture the imagination of the public, especially younger Iraqis who demonstrated in huge crowds two years ago.

WATCH | Iraqis celebrate preliminary election results:

Supporters of Iraq’s Sadr rejoice in streets after preliminary vote win

Iraqis celebrated in Baghdad’s Tahrir Square after Shia cleric and Sadrist movement leader Muqtada al-Sadr appeared poised to win the national election. 0:42

Nothing for youth, abstaining voter says

“I did not vote, to be honest. It is not worth it,” Hussein Sabah, 20, told Reuters in Iraq’s southern port of Basra. “There is nothing that would benefit me or others. I see youth that have degrees with no jobs. Before the elections, [politicians] all came to them. After the elections, who knows?”

Kadhimi’s predecessor resigned in 2019 after the authorities killed about 600 protesters in a crackdown on demonstrations. The new prime minister called the vote months early to show that the government was responding to demands for more accountability.

The protesters had demanded the overhaul of rules they said concentrated much power in the hands of sectarian parties. Kadhimi enacted a new voting law billed as assisting independent and local candidates.

Voting districts were made smaller, and the practice of awarding seats to lists of candidates sponsored by parties was abandoned.

Iraqi supporters of Sadr’s movement celebrate after preliminary results of Iraq’s parliamentary elections were announced in Najaf on Monday. (Alaa Al-Marjani/Reuters)

The initial results also showed that pro-reform candidates who emerged from the 2019 protests had gained several eats in the 329-member parliament.

Iran-backed parties with links to militia groups accused of killing some of the people who died in the protests took a blow, winning fewer seats than in the last election in 2018, according to the initial results and local officials.

Kurdish parties won 61 seats, the results showed — including 32 for the Kurdistan Democratic Party, which dominates the government of the autonomous Kurdish region of Iraq, and 15 for its rival, the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan party.

Sunni parliament speaker Mohammed al-Halbousi’s Taqaddum coalition won 38 seats, Iraq’s state news agency reported, making it the second largest in parliament. Former prime minister Nouri al-Maliki’s State of Law coalition came third overall with 37.

Sadr has increased his power over the Iraqi state since coming first in the 2018 election, when his coalition won 54 seats.

The unpredictable populist cleric has been a dominant figure and often kingmaker in Iraqi politics since the U.S. invasion.

He opposes all foreign interference in Iraq, whether by the United States, against which he fought an insurgency after 2003, or by neighbouring Iran, which he has criticized for its close involvement in Iraqi politics.

Sadr, however, is regularly in Iran, according to officials close to him, and has called for the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq, where Washington maintains a force of about 2,500 in a continuing fight against Islamic State militants.

Sadr, right, displays his ink-stained finger that shows he voted, at a polling centre during the parliamentary elections in Najaf, Iraq, on Sunday. (Anmar Khalil/The Associated Press)

Elections in Iraq since 2003 have been followed by protracted negotiations that can last months and serve to distribute government posts among the dominant parties.

The result on Monday is not expected to dramatically alter the balance of power in Iraq or in the wider region.

Iraq has held five parliamentary elections, all won by coalitions dominated by the Shia majority, since the fall of Saddam Hussein.

Rampant sectarian violence unleashed during the U.S. occupation has abated, and Islamic State fighters who seized a third of the country in 2014 were defeated in 2017. But many Iraqis say their lives have yet to improve. Infrastructure lies in disrepair, and health care, education and electricity are inadequate.

Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi casts his vote in Baghdad during parliamentary elections on Sunday. (Khalid Mohammed/The Associated Press)

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