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Iraq held parliamentary elections in October 2021, and yet there is no sign a new government will be formed anytime soon. An incremental, prolonged government formation process has become a pattern of Iraqi politics – it took six months for the last Iraqi government, in 2018, to be formed. Seven months have now passed since the parliamentary elections, and there has still yet to be an election for president, whose constitutional duty is to task the future prime minister with forming the new government. Constitutionally, the president should be elected within 30 days of the election of the speaker of parliament, which happened in February. Therefore, having a newly elected speaker without a president is both a violation of the constitution and a new phenomenon. But the Iraqi ruling elite has never shown hesitation to twist the constitution for political expediency.
Iraq’s current political coalitions are generally divided into two key camps led by powerful Shia forces. The National Salvation Coalition, with 190 members of parliament, is led by Muqtada al-Sadr and includes the Sadrist movement, Kurdistan Democratic Party, and Sunni Sovereignty bloc. The Coordination Framework, with 130 members of parliament, is led by former Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki and includes the State of Law Coalition, the Iran-backed Fatah Alliance, and, unofficially, the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan and other Kurdish parties that have refused to back the rival Kurdistan Democratic Party. The Coordination Framework has formed a “blocking third,” thus far thwarting three efforts to convene the Parliament, the precursor for electing the president. Convening requires 220 members to meet quorum. Despite its repeated efforts, the National Salvation Coalition has not been able to convince 30 other members of parliament to join the meeting to elect the president, and so the political deadlock persists.
An informal but fiercely upheld power-sharing agreement dating back to 2003 dictated that Shias take the powerful role of the prime minister, Kurds the president, and Sunnis the speaker of parliament. The cohesiveness of the political parties under the banner of their respective ethnic and sectarian groups in the past made negotiations to form the government easier, thereby making government formation less drawn out. But with each election, the intra-group cohesion of Kurds, Shias, and Sunnis has weakened as the interests of traditionally sectarian- or ethnic-based political parties have come under strain. The current political standstill is the result of the fragmentation of the traditional powers that have governed Iraq since 2003 and their faltering attempts to uncomfortably realign themselves with ideologically and ethnically based political centers.
Many observers have hailed the parliamentary elections and coalition formation process as a departure from the previously ethno-sectarian nature of Iraqi politics. However, such cross ethno-sectarian alliances have not come primarily from the conviction of the political elite to work together to form a competent government that will be responsive to the demands of the Iraqi people. While broader political and electoral shifts have delivered political results that make the previous compromises and divisions of spoils more difficult, the new cross ethno-sectarian alliances are also the result of serious internal divisions, frustrations, and personal feuds aimed at weakening and breaking rivals of the same group to enlarge one’s own share of the pie through a new power-sharing mechanism. Nevertheless, such political maneuvering and shifting of alliances could set a precedent for future organic coalition formation among the various ethno-sectarian lists for the betterment of the country and solidifying an Iraqi national identity. But that would require that Iraqi leaders set their loyalty on the Iraqi people and focus on the interests of the country rather than worrying about short-term, small-bore political advantage or blowback from regional countries. This is a generational struggle and politics, even in a system more focused on the interests of citizens, will still bear the hallmarks of maneuver and jockeying for power and advantage, but the large number of independent members of parliament and representatives from the street protests elected are positive signs of a move in this direction.
Over recent months, there has been fierce competition between the Kurdistan Democratic Party and Patriotic Union of Kurdistan over the presidency. This competition has been exacerbated by the disconnect between incumbent President and presidential candidate Barham Salih’s outsized political persona and capabilities and the electoral weakness of his party, the PUK, in the Kurdistan region. On the surface, the intra-Kurdish struggle over the presidency seems emblematic of the breakdown of the political process in Iraq. But underneath, there is a deeper intra-Shia conflict responsible for the gridlock. Should the two main Shia camps led by Sadr and Maliki find a mechanism to work together to form the government or at least to meet a quorum to convene the Parliament to elect the president, it’s unlikely that the KDP and the PUK would be able to withstand the political pressure from the Shia parties to settle on a figure for the presidency, because such an agreement would grant the Shias a strong mandate to hold the Parliament meeting, particularly as public pressure is rising. Then, such pressure could compel the KDP and PUK to agree on a candidate to become the president or they might try their luck by fielding their respective candidates in the Parliament for the election of the president as has happened in the past. The latter is the more likely scenario, as there is no indication that the Kurdish parties would agree on a unified candidate. Nevertheless, the intra-Kurdish conflict over the presidency has added another layer of intensity to the government formation process. The divisions of the main Kurdish parties have been fed by the two opposed Shia camps and in turn exacerbated intra-Shia fissures, making an already challenging intra-Shia agreement more difficult. As long as there is a balance of power remaining between the two Shia camps, progress is unlikely to happen.
Meanwhile, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, Iraq’s most prominent Shia cleric, has remained largely silent regarding the recent political stalemate in Iraq. In the past, Sistani made indirect soft interventions to break political deadlocks to expedite government formation, urging the appointment of competent and expert technocrats to run the government. However, Sistani’s pleas seemed to fall on deaf ears as Iraqi leaders and the public did not heed his advice. Such disregard in the recent past has discouraged Sistani from speaking up. In 2018, Sistani’s intervention had little impact on expediting the government formation. Furthermore, Sistani’s call urging Iraqis to take part in the 2021 parliamentary elections seemed to yield little impact as turnout was only 41% compared to 44.5% in 2018. Sistani’s representative, Ahmed al-Safi, said that there was no need to give advice when it has been ignored. The statement suggests Sistani’s deep disappointment with Shia leaders and his dwindling influence over Iraqi politics. Amid the political and constitutional crisis, Sistani’s representatives also have not resumed Friday sermons in Najaf, through which Sistani used to give general guidance, since the coronavirus pandemic started in 2020.
At the end of March, Sadr offered to step back and give the Coordination Framework a 40-day window to form the government. But the offer seemed to be a political gambit to corner his rivals. The initiative came during the holy month of Ramadan, which is usually reserved for religious activities. Sadr knew that it was unlikely that the Coordination Framework could cobble together a government without him. Shia political leaders are usually more preoccupied with attending prayers, religious ceremonies, and appearing on TV shows to connect with their constituents. With little or no publicly acceptable time for political activities and negotiations, there could be public backlash should political activities be overemphasized at the expense of religious ones. In this way, Sadr later could claim that his rivals couldn’t form the government despite being given a chance to do so, allowing him to brand them as obstacles to his would-be reformist majoritarian government and giving him more space and time to convince potential independent members of parliament to help him meet quorum to elect the president after Ramadan. Sadr’s strategy, for now, appears to be working. But his success will depend on defections from the Coordination Framework or independent members of parliament joining his cause, his ability to retain his coalition with the KDP and Sunnis, and managing the rising public pressure apparent through increasing protests. So far, Sadr has stuck to his guns demanding to form a government on his terms. However, public discontent and the possibility of his coalition breaking up could force him instead to make concessions to the Coordination Framework to form a government that wouldn’t be much different from previous ones.
But the KDP-Sadr alliance largely banks on the ability of the coalition to deliver the presidency to the KDP. In this regard, Sadr faces a serious challenge to convince the members of his coalition and independent members of parliament to vote for the KDP presidential candidate, Rebar Ahmed, whose qualifications, competence, and popularity in Iraq are no match for the PUK candidate, and current incumbent, Salih. Should Sadr back the KDP candidate, as he likely will if he wants to preserve his alliance, it will come at a cost, raising questions about his efforts to brand himself as a reformist and nationalist who promised to deliver a competent government. Cognizant of this problem, despite his alliance with the KDP, when the Parliament sought to convene to elect the president in February, Sadr called on his allied members of parliament to avoid voting for the KDP candidate, Hoshyar Zebari, after corruption allegations brought his eligibility for the presidency under question. The Iraqi Supreme Court later declared Zebari ineligible to become president because he lacked “a good reputation and integrity,” which is a constitutional requirement for serving as president.
The Iraqi political class will face serious public pressure after Ramadan to form the government. With the scorching summer approaching, the Shia leaders might have no choice but to make concessions and leave out their maximalist demands to agree on forming a government that will seek to deliver for the people, at least in principle. Should the standstill continue, the conflict has the potential to become violent. The signs of such a destructive outcome have already appeared through assassinations and street protests across Shia areas of Iraq. If widespread violence breaks out, everyone will be a loser.
is a visiting scholar at the Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington. He is a TEDx speaker and former lecturer at the University of Kurdistan Hewler. He received his PhD from the Carter School for Peace and Conflict Resolution at George Mason University.
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