ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:
Now to Iraq, where people this weekend voted in the country's first election since ISIS was defeated. It was a parliamentary election. And the results have been a surprise. Many expected prime minister Haider al-Abadi to win the most votes. Instead, he has come in third. The big winner is Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, whose militia fought U.S. troops after the invasion of Iraq. NPR's Jane Arraf joins us now from Baghdad. And Jane, how did this happen?
JANE ARRAF, BYLINE: Well, Ari, I guess for one thing, these actually were real elections with a wide variety of candidates, and people had a choice. So Sadr has a huge following. We have to remember that. He can command millions of followers because he comes from a revered Shia family. And then there were new parties. For the first time, there were militia candidates, which had the second-biggest showing. But the really big surprise wasn't even so much that Sadr did so well with his coalition. It was that Abadi, Prime Minister Abadi, did so poorly. And that's partly because there's a split in his party and partly because people were really fed up with politicians, particularly the old politicians.
SHAPIRO: What does this mean for American interests in Iraq?
ARRAF: Yeah. That's a great question. They are scrambling to figure that out, along with all of the other Western countries here, because for the first time, now what we're looking at is somebody who can form a government. And we have to remember that Muqtada al-Sadr, who fought U.S. troops in 2003 with his Mahdi Army, he didn't run as a candidate. So he's not going to be prime minister, but he will have a determining role because his party has gotten the most votes. So he could very well form a coalition.
And they could, if they wanted to, decide that they want to go in a different direction with the U.S., with the U.S. military presence here, for instance. There's also a lot of economic issues here because the alliance that Sadr formed, he formed it with communists. So there's going to be a big emphasis on state-run programs, possibly even a return in some respects to a state-run economy. And then the U.S. is also worried about the relation with Iran, what kind of relationship a new government will have with Iran.
SHAPIRO: Yeah. So you have this religious cleric forming an alliance with communists, perhaps with a different relationship with Iran. What would this government actually look like once it forms?
ARRAF: So that's one of the really fascinating things about Iraqi elections because it's a parliamentary system, so the votes are still coming in. We just had a press conference just a few minutes ago, and it indicates that Sadr is still in the lead with that coalition. But after all the votes are counted and all the allegations of fraud are dealt with, then they're going to have to sit down all of these leaders and try to come up with a coalition that will govern.
So there's a lot of bargaining, a lot of horse-trading. There's a big split between a lot of the parties. Now, Sadr is one of the ones who is not the closest to Iran. In fact, he's had an uneasy relationship with that country. But there are other groups, like the former militias, that are Iranian-backed. So that's going to be one of the big factors in how this all comes together. But what we do know is it won't come together quickly.
SHAPIRO: So the U.S. has been pushing for democracy in Iraq. And as democracy happened, it might have produced an outcome the U.S. may not have wished for.
ARRAF: Absolutely. This was a little bit unexpected, but it is definitely democracy.
SHAPIRO: NPR's Jane Arraf in Baghdad. Thanks, Jane.
ARRAF: Thanks, Ari.
(SOUNDBITE OF JAN KPAYE'S "FINGER SMITH")
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