The political landscape in Iraq was set to shift dramatically on Monday evening with the vast majority of votes counted in more than 95 per cent of voting districts, giving a bloc led by Shiite cleric Moqtada Al Sadr a clear lead in the national poll.
But the result was challenged on Tuesday by Hadi Al Amiri, head of the now defeated Fatah Alliance, which by one count secured just 14 seats in the 329-member assembly, a huge drop from its 2018 performance, when it secured 48 seats.
Fatah's poor performance is being seen as a resounding rejection of overbearing Iranian influence in Iraqi affairs. Several small parties are likely to join the Fatah bloc, which could slightly raise their seat count, but not significantly.
Around 26 seats were still up for the taking by Tuesday afternoon, according to a count by Iraq analyst Sajad Jiyad. But these will likely be spread among a large number of parties.
“We will not accept these fabricated results, whatever the cost,” said Mr Al Amiri, speaking to the pro-Iranian Al Aahd TV channel.
By the highest count, the Sadrist bloc was leading with 73 seats in the 329-member assembly, putting it in pole position to nominate the prime minister and take the lion's share of cabinet positions.
Two other parties also rejected the results, including the party of former Prime Minister Haider Al Abadi, the National State Forces, who also co-signed a letter rejecting the vote as fraudulent.
Harakat Huqooq, the newly formed political party of Iran-backed militia Kataib Hezbollah, which stands accused of conducting numerous attacks on Coalition forces and Iraqi protesters, also rejected the results as a "scam."
In addition to his role at the head of Fatah, Mr Al Amiri heads the Badr Organisation — a paramilitary group turned political party formed in Iran during the Iran-Iraq war. The Islamist group has long been one of the foremost power brokers in post-2003 Iraq, rising to prominence in the aftermath of the US-led invasion.
With backing from Iran, it secured its position in the political scene by refraining from openly attacking US forces, despite keeping some ties to insurgent groups and filling the ranks of the police with loyalists, who have been accused of numerous human rights abuses.
But the fortunes of the Fatah Alliance have sunk dramatically following a national protest movement against corruption and poor public services, which began in October 2019.
Political factions in the Fatah Alliance linked to militias, including Qais Al Khazali's Asaib Ahl Al Haq, were accused of killing about 600 protesters.
This led to growing public outrage across Iraq, overshadowing a claim by Popular Mobilisation Forces (PMF) within Fatah to have saved the country from ISIS. The PMF is a collection of mainly Iran-backed, Shiite militias formed in 2014 to fight ISIS.
Most of the parties in the Fatah Alliance are long-term rivals of Mr Al Sadr, the hardline nationalist cleric who has promised to keep Iraq free from foreign influence. Gunmen from both sides fought bloody street battles in the holy city of Karbala in 2007. Fifty died before calm was restored.
Mr Al Sadr rejects the Iranian system of government espoused by Fatah loyalists. Both Fatah and the Sadrists frequently accuse each other's political leaders of corruption.
Mr Al Amiri's remarks could set the stage for intra-Shiite Islamist tensions in the weeks to come as government formation begins.
Competing for ministries
But there have been several other surprise developments that complicate the picture, notably the return of former prime minister Nouri Al Maliki, whose State of Law Coalition secured at least 37 seats, 12 more than in 2018.
While this allocation is not game changing for the former PM, it could complicate alliance building to form the largest bloc, which will have the biggest say in government formation.
Sunni parliament speaker Mohammed Al Halbousi's Taqaddum coalition won at least 38 seats, Iraq's state news agency reported, making it the second largest in parliament.
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, which has historically had good relations with Iran-linked parties.
Reformers face uphill struggle
A number of outlying parties, including the Kurdish New Generation Party, the reformist Imtidad Movement and a host of independent candidates — just some of the 3,249 candidates competing for parliament — will further complicate government formation as new blocs emerge to challenge the Sadrist bloc.
Notably, a number of candidates inspired by the October 2019 protests picked up seats, including Alaa Al Rikabi, who founded Imtidad in January 2020, despite an attempt on his life by Iran-linked paramilitaries. Imtidad secured at least 10 seats, with other independents securing 30.
Any influence they have is likely dependent upon working with established parties.
"The protest movement has yet to find a way to engage with the political system in a manner that could effect change, cautions Nicholas Krohley, author of The Death of the Mehdi Army, which charts the history of Mr Al Sadr's movement.
"As things stand, 'the system' seems poised to survive, with a shuffling of chairs in parliament."
Joel Wing, a California-based analyst and author of the Musings on Iraq website warns that the largest parties will bargain with each other over government positions, to the exclusion of reformists.
"All the major parties know politics is about gaining access to the state to exploit it," he says.
"None want to start the precedent of excluding another because that opens the door to them being shut out in the future."