Driving across northern Iraq last week it was impossible not to have noticed that an election was imminent. Flanking every main road were seemingly endless billboards showing photographs of various candidates and extolling their respective qualities.
Occasionally one would pass the odd poster or billboard that had been defaced, presumably by rival supporters, something not unheard of even here at home.
The region through which I was passing of course was Iraqi Kurdistan. Here the dynamics of Saturday’s national poll took on its own peculiar regional traits among Kurds who last September voted overwhelmingly in favour of independence, only to have the result effectively nullified by the central Iraqi government in Baghdad.
Many Iraqi Kurds I know have since then been mightily disillusioned by some of their major political parties, notably the ruling Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) whose failed independence bid they felt left the semi-autonomous region at the mercy of the government in Baghdad led by Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi.
There is no doubt that Mr al-Abadi made the Kurds pay dearly, closing for months the airport in Erbil the de-facto capital of Iraqi Kurdistan and retaking military and administrative control of the oil rich city of Kirkuk which many Iraqi Kurds long for as the eventual capital of their own state.
But if the KDP had been uneasy before the election that voters might turn on them over the independence debacle, the result of Saturday’s election proved their fears were unfounded with results suggesting the party retained its majority position in Iraqi Kurdistan.
This though does not mean that all is well in the Kurdish region. No sooner had polls closed in Iraq’s Kurdish city of Sulaimaniya than anger at an unexpected sweep for the city’s maligned dominant party the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) boiled over. Gunfire between rival militias quickly erupted.
During the clashes, PUK militiamen fired at the headquarters of another local and smaller rival party the Movement for Change (known as Gorran) and Gorran gunmen fired back.
In this climate many still fear that Iraq’s northern Kurdish-majority areas might turn into a factional battleground, despite the KDP’s overall win.
But if things were tense in Iraqi Kurdistan then it was elsewhere in Iraq that the real upset of the election took place.
Few would have thought that Mr al-Abadi, favourite to regain leadership of the country would end up trailing behind two Shia rivals who have made enormous gains at his expense.
As it stands the powerful nationalist cleric Moqtada al-Sadr has made a dramatic comeback. This is quite a political turn around for a Shi’ite leader who had been sidelined by Iran-backed rivals including the bloc headed by Shia militia chief Hadi al-Amiri, whose second place running helped push Mr al-Abadi towards third place.
What then does this all mean for Iraq and its immediate political future?
Well, to begin with, Mr al-Sadr is no friend of either the US or Iran. His victory will not go down well in Tehran, which was hoping to extend its influence across its predominately Shia neighbour. This not least too given that Mr al-Sadr’s win was in part accomplished in alliance with the Iraqi Communist Party and other leftist and secular allies.
Seen from a US perspective meanwhile, the Americans will no doubt be glad that Iran’s main proxy Shia militia chief Hadi al-Amiri did not gain an outright win.
The current bad blood between Washington and Tehran over the Trump administration’s scrapping of the Iran nuclear deal, means the last thing the Americans want to see right now is Iran extending its influence even further in the Middle East. Nevertheless Mr al-Sadr’s renewed and powerful influence will still have alarm bells ringing in Washington.
Let’s not forget that it was Moqtada al-Sadr that led two uprisings against US forces in Iraq. I well remember during the US occupation visiting his Shia stronghold, Sadr City a northeastern suburb of Baghdad. It was a bastion of support then and the place where Mr al Sadr still has a zealous following among the young, poor and dispossessed.
Yet for all his dramatic comeback of the past few days, Mr al-Sadr will still not become prime minister, as he didn’t run in the election. The political surge of his bloc however puts him in a prime position to pick someone for the job.
The way the Iraq electoral system works, means that whoever wins the most seats must negotiate a coalition government that is expected to be formed within 90 days of the official results. To that end Mr al-Amiri and Mr al-Abadi will still have a substantial say in the political shape of things to come. Whatever way all this plays out, it’s a fair bet it will be pretty fractious and bitter.
Back in Iraq’s 2010 election Vice President Ayad Allawi’s group won the largest number of seats, albeit with a narrow margin, but he was blocked from becoming prime minister for which he blamed Tehran.
The same fate could befall Mr al Sadr, given that Iran has publicly stated it would not allow his bloc to govern.
All of this political animosity is of course that last thing ordinary Iraqis want. This was the first election since the ousting of the jihadists of the Islamic State group (IS) from Iraq’s second largest city Mosul, and many election watchers expected Iraqis to express their hopes and aspirations for the future through the ballot.
But with a turnout of only 44.5 %, the lowest in 15 years, it says much about the disillusionment that exists among an electorate fed up with corruption and who see little hope of real political change.
To that end the electoral endorsement of Mr Sadr, a leader with a reputation for making things happen, is a reflection of the desire among ordinary Iraqis for something new and who refuse to be beholden to outside influences and manipulation.
For so long now Iraq has struggled with war and instability. The threat from IS might have diminished and security improved across the country, but this remains a country very divided along sectarian lines. The coming few months of political power brokering will be well worth watching as a bellwether for what the future holds for Iraq.