Neutral journalism in Iraq is stifled by political parties that own media outlets and by armed elements using violence to silence scrutiny and criticism.
On January 31, Iraq’s Parliament approved 25 candidates, who had been vetted by the judiciary, to run for president. Although the list is long, the race will eventually be a showdown between the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan candidate, incumbent President Barham Salih, and the Kurdistan Democratic Party candidate, Hoshyar Zebari. Parliament is set to vote to elect the next president February 7.
The election of the president by the new Parliament is one of several features of the Iraqi political system that echo Lebanon’s confessional system designed to balance the interests and power of different ethnic and religious communities. Ethno-sectarian identities became foundational to the division and structure of political power in Iraq following the 2003 U.S. invasion, and the system was developed as a method of cooperation and peacemaking. The system functions as a centripetal force to ensure the territorial integrity of the country and manage conflicts between the center and peripheries.
Although this arrangement is not explicitly codified in law, as in Lebanon, the consensus on this issue is firm and clear – and generally understood to reflect the fundamental balance of power in the country’s federal system between these presumed constituencies – and has become normative. Through it, Shia Arabs are virtually guaranteed the prime minister’s office, the seat with the most executive political power in the country, while Sunni Arabs are effectively granted the post of parliament speaker and Kurds the presidency of the republic. The argument is about which person from these groups will get the jobs, which is a negotiation both among and within these constituencies.
Which Kurd Will Be President?
Who is selected to hold the Iraqi presidency is a major factor in internal politics within the Kurdistan Regional Government, reflecting a number of important calculations. The post used to be exclusively allocated to a member of the PUK as part of an intra-Kurdish arrangement that lasted until 2018. However, the weakening of the PUK and its endless internal leadership crises produced massive electoral losses. That emboldened the KDP, bolstered by a surge of election victories, to try to seize control of the position and add it to a cluster of high-profile ministerial positions it usually obtains when new governments are formed in Baghdad.
The first notable endeavor came after the 2018 elections, when the KDP candidate, current Iraqi Foreign Minister Fuad Hussein, challenged the PUK’s candidate, Salih. However, Salih’s dynamic relationship and political skills with Shia and Sunni parties helped him secure the post with an overwhelming 219 votes. Ever since, the KDP has been seeking to settle scores with the PUK, and especially Salih, who is considered “too Iraqi” for the KDP’s taste. So, the intra-Kurdish battle for the Iraqi presidency continues. But now the KDP is more powerful, and alliances have shifted. Parliamentary coalitions and alliances have become more fragmented along political and ideological lines, and the PUK’s traditional allies have been weakened in the Parliament.
All this works in the KDP’s favor. The KDP has developed a working relationship with powerful Shia cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, whose supporters hold 73 out of the Parliament’s 329 seats, and also the newly formed Sunni Sovereign coalition, which is led by Parliament Speaker Mohammed Halbousi and businessman Khamis al-Khanjar and controls 67 seats. Added to the KDP’s 31 seats, such a coalition could secure at least 171 votes. However, this informal alliance could not convene Parliament – to proceed with the vote on the presidency – without cooperation from other parties since a quorum of over two-thirds (220) of the members of parliament is needed. At Salih’s request, Iraq’s Supreme Court reconfirmed this quorum requirement on February 3.
Political calculations and personal animosities are always relevant, particularly now given the central political position of Sadr. Sadr is likely to support Zebari, a former finance minister, ousted over suspicions of corruption in 2016, and also a long-serving foreign minister. This could come off as a contradiction since Sadr ran on an anti-corruption platform in the October 2021 parliamentary elections. However, this move would be in line with Sadr’s ruthless pragmatism, unpredictability, and willingness to maneuver in efforts to dominate the Iraqi political scene. If – as seems unlikely – his supporters, after years of accepting his alternately wily and inexplicable zigs and zags in positions, hold him to the letter of his anti-corruption platform, this could undermine his brand as a reformist.
Zebari’s political baggage in Baghdad has made him unpopular with much of the Iraqi public. Besides corruption allegations, he is widely viewed as a secessionist, even accused of trying to break up Iraq in 2017, allegations that do not sit well with a position that is supposed to guarantee the fundamental unity and territorial integrity of the Iraqi state. Yet, in fragmented and polarized Iraq, where the system is hostage to deep partisanship, none of that is necessarily disqualifying. And among political elites, it is widely recognized that Zebari was merely following the political line laid down by the KDP’s leader, Masoud Barzani, a recognition that further deflects the secessionist charge against Zebari. If the KDP’s fragile alliance with Sadr and the Sunni bloc holds, Zebari could still win the presidency.
The PUK, which holds just 17 seats in Parliament, has refused to cede the presidency to the KDP, but it has also failed to resolve its own internal disputes. Even though Salih is the official candidate of the party, Latif Rashid, a former minister of water resources, is also vying for the position. While it does not appear that he can win, he can certainly damage Salih’s chances. If the KDP thinks Zebari has no chance of winning, it could throw its support to Rashid, as it has categorically rejected Salih’s candidacy and has insisted the PUK replace Salih. Although there might be some time and room for negotiation between the KDP and PUK, the stakeholders have entrenched themselves in what look like zero-sum postures that will make it difficult and politically costly to compromise. KDP resentment against Salih, for upending its designs on the presidency in the previous election, will likely translate into adamant opposition to any scenario that would allow Salih to stay in place.
The PUK has better relations than Sadr with another Shia camp, the Coordination Council. Led by former Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki and Popular Mobilization Forces commander Hadi Amiri, the Coordination Council was formed as a counterweight to Sadr. But this bloc plus the PUK cannot muster even 100 votes, which is not formidable. The two Shia camps – skirmishing over who gets the decisive first opportunity at government formation – have asked the Supreme Court to adjudicate which constitutes the biggest bloc in Parliament. In 2010, it ruled that the right to try to form a government following elections falls to whomever assembles the largest coalition, not to the party that won the most seats. This has made post-election politicking far more complex and contentious. But this time around the court passed the buck. On February 3, it ruled that the issue would be decided by the new Parliament following the election of the president. This sets up such bitter political volatility that could even result in violence between the Shia camps, although the court may have been hoping to buy time for a compromise between the parties.
If Parliament does meet on February 7 to elect the president, it is unlikely any of the 25 candidates will be able to secure enough votes to win outright. That would require at least two rounds of voting, but while a two-thirds majority is required for victory in the first round, a second-round win can be secured by a simple majority. Yet this process to elect a president – in addition to being subject to fierce Kurdish maneuvering – will be overshadowed by the intra-Shia bitterness over which camp qualifies as the largest post-election bloc and can therefore nominate a prime minister, the far more powerful office.
The Shia groups are deeply fragmented over political and ideological differences. Sadr, the big winner in the October 2021 parliamentary elections, has further strengthened his political position through his alliances with the KDP and some Sunni groups. But he’s facing considerable upcoming challenges, especially the question of Maliki’s potential participation in the government, which Sadr opposes despite pressure from Iran. The Coordination Council says it will refuse to take part in the government without Maliki and has threatened to become an obstructionist opposition in Parliament. And given the paramilitary power of the Popular Mobilization Forces groups that back the Coordination Council, such opposition may not be purely political and could have the power to paralyze the next government.
Hence, there are powerful reasons why all major parties in Iraq might want to find a broad agreement on the next government rather than one based on a relatively narrow majority facing severe constraints and significant opposition. The election of the president will be an important early sign of how much cooperation or confrontation is characterizing these processes.
Implications for the United States and Gulf Arab Countries
Zebari has the best chance of becoming the next Iraqi president. But his election, in some scenarios, could signal the emergence of a narrow majority government in Iraq, which could damage the delicate balance of power within Iraq, and even in the Kurdistan Regional Government, possibly leading to a dramatic increase in tensions across the board. The PUK, struggling to recover from the 2017 death of its long-serving leader Jalal Talabani, appears to be consolidating around the new leadership of his sons Bafel and Qubad. They appear more pragmatic and less confrontational toward the KDP. Yet the PUK continues to cherish the presidency, and if the KDP insists on using its strength to grab the post from an electorally weakened PUK, that could lead to a major resurgence in intra-Kurd tensions. In this scenario, a compromise by the KDP over the Iraqi presidency could set the stage for better working relations within the Kurdistan Regional Government and strengthen Kurdish interests throughout Iraq.
The best that Washington and the Gulf Arab states can hope for is a government that at least continues the path of the current Cabinet of strengthening independent Iraqi decision making, distancing Baghdad from Iranian hegemony, and slowly reintegrating Iraq into the Arab regional fold. External stakeholders should redouble all efforts to support these trends, while recognizing that Iraq’s fortunes in the short term are hostage to its drawn-out government formation process and the fierce political jockeying and personal rivalries that infuse that process.
is a research associate at the Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington and a political analyst who researches and writes on security, political, and energy issues in the Middle East, focusing on Iraq, Turkey, Iran, the Gulf, and the Levant. He received his PhD from the Carter School for Peace and Conflict Resolution at George Mason University.
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