The Iraqi Parliament was finally able to meet quorum October 13, and it elected Abdul Latif Rashid as Iraq’s new president, ending a yearlong political and legal gridlock over the presidency and the new government. Reflecting the consensual, post-2003 ethno-sectarian division of key offices, Rashid is a Kurd. The election of the president met an important constitutional requirement, allowing for formal government formation to begin. The new president immediately tasked the Coordination Framework’s designated prime minister, Mohammed al-Sudani, to form the next Iraqi government. The constitution gives Sudani 30 days to cobble together his Cabinet. Negotiations among Iraq’s political parties on the new Cabinet, and dividing up power and the spoils of the new government, could take some time. Yet the prime minister is not required to submit a full list of his cabinet members for confirmation. This gives Sudani the flexibility to have an incomplete Cabinet while negotiations continue among the parties on other government positions.
The October 2021 parliamentary elections scattered seats across multiple political parties with irreconcilable ideological and political orientations, with no party strong enough to form a coalition and the government. However, Shia cleric Muqtada al-Sadr emerged as the winner of the elections, with his supporters taking 73 seats, making Sadr the top contender to form the next government. Sadr had a radical idea for such a government. He wanted to uproot the post-2003 political structure and replace it with a new system under his command. To do this, he sought to sideline some of his Shia rivals, such as former Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki, to form a majoritarian national government. In addition, Sadr formed the National Salvation Coalition, including the Kurdistan Democratic Party (led by Masoud Barzani) and Sunni Sovereignty bloc (led by Speaker of the Parliament Mohammed Halbousi and businessman Khamis al-Khanjar). At the same time, Sadr’s rivals formed the Coordination Framework, which enjoyed close ties with Tehran. Unlike Sadr’s alliance with the KDP and the Sunnis, which proved short lived, the Coordination Framework was resilient despite internal frictions.
Sadr tried to form the government twice, but he was unable to get enough members of parliament assembled to meet quorum to elect the president. Sadr’s coalition had only around 171 seats out of 329. According to a ruling by the Iraqi Supreme Court, two-thirds (220) of the members of parliament are needed for quorum. But Sadr failed to bring on board other members of parliament, even the independents and reformist groups, like Emtidad, whose visions for the new government were closer to Sadr’s than the Coordination Framework’s. Frustrated over his inability to form a government, Sadr called on his 73 allied members of parliament to resign in mass on June 12. The Coordination Framework took advantage of what seemed to be a major miscalculation by Sadr and replaced 64 of those members of parliament on June 23. In retaliation, Sadr ordered his supporters to storm and occupy the Iraqi Parliament in July to prevent the Coordination Framework from kickstarting the government formation after it selected Sudani as the prime minister designate.
The protracted standoff between Sadr supporters on one hand and the Iraqi security forces and Popular Mobilization Forces on the other put Iraq on the verge of an intra-Shia civil war. The limited violent conflict, which was largely confined to Baghdad and Basra, cost the lives of dozens of people, mostly among Sadr’s supporters, and wounded more than 200. Sadr deployed his militia group, the Peace Brigades, to protect them, but he underestimated the resolution of the Popular Mobilization Forces to brutally use force to disperse his supporters. Under internal and external pressure, Sadr was forced to withdraw from the Parliament and Green Zone area, exhausting his strategies to prevent the Coordination Framework from government formation and making clear the full scale of his political miscalculations.
Cognizant of Sadr’s loss of political clout, his former allies, the KDP and the Sunni Sovereignty bloc, started negotiating with the Coordination Framework. In September, long before there was any consensus on a new president, they joined the new, broad-based State Administration Coalition with the Coordination Framework, Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, and Babylon Christian bloc. Although there were sporadic, uncoordinated, small protests by Sadr supporters, they were not enough to derail the political process.
Intra-Kurdish Fight Over the Presidency
As political coalitions were consolidating in Baghdad, the KDP and the PUK continued to be at loggerheads over the presidency of Iraq. They both insisted on their candidates – the incumbent president, Barham Salih, for the PUK and Kurdistan Regional Government Interior Minister Rebar Ahmed for the KDP. The KDP and the PUK failed to agree on a compromise candidate despite several rounds of talks. The KDP was adamant that Salih not serve a second term. The KDP’s insistence on replacing Salih led to a deep personalization of an already embittered rivalry between the KDP and the PUK. As part of the KDP’s deal with the Coordination Framework, the KDP made sure that most of the Shia members of parliament would not vote for Salih. Among those who voted against Salih were also members of Nuri al-Maliki’s State of Law Coalition. Maliki seeks to become Iraq’s vice president, but he also did not want to take the position with Salih, a formidable politician and public figure, as his boss. Thus, Maliki wanted Salih replaced with a new president to pave his way for taking on the role of a likely significantly empowered vice president. The KDP also withdrew its candidate for the presidency and threw support behind another PUK candidate, Rashid, a powerful indication the KDP animus against Salih was largely personal rather than strictly party based. In the first round of the election, neither Salih nor Latif secured the constitutionally required two-thirds of the votes. Rashid got 156 votes, while Salih received 99. However, in the second round, the winning candidate only needs a plurality. Rashid won the presidency by taking 162 votes, while Salih still only had 99.
Rashid is a former minister of water resources and the brother-in-law of the late Iraqi President Jalal Talabani. Some analysts believe that the PUK leadership, which has come under tightened control of the Talabani family, preferred Rashid over Salih for the presidency, despite Salih being the party’s official candidate. The election of Rashid served to benefit the PUK in two key ways. It could improve the strained relationship with the KDP by offering a compromise candidate for the presidency. It also gave the Talabani house an opportunity to hold a grip on one of the centers of political, diplomatic, and economic powers in Iraq.
But the election of Rashid as president was in fact more of a win for the KDP than the PUK. The KDP was able to use frictions within the PUK to its advantage by ensuring the election of a more comprising, flexible president who is more amenable to the KDP’s demands. These include financial benefits due to the generous budget of the president’s office and other posts at the Iraqi presidency. But more important, the election of Rashid, who comes from an integral part of the Talabani family, is a reaffirmation and consolidation of the KDP’s political brand in which family has been at the forefront of political power and governance. The gradual reorientation of the PUK’s ideology, which used to take pride in its rejection of power inheritance (despite the decadeslong control of the party by PUK-chieftain Talabani), could eventually provide some political stability within the party and the PUK’s controlled areas. But a duopoly familial rule with dominant political and economic powers, without checks and balances, could pave the way for serious setbacks for freedom of expression and governance in the Kurdistan region.
Also, the fierce competition of the two Kurdish parties over the presidency has had a negative impact on the role of the Kurds in Baghdad. The Kurds, who used to be kingmakers of the government formation in Baghdad, allowed the yearslong intra-Kurd acrimony over Salih assuming the presidency, and then seeking a second term, to lead them into becoming one of the key obstacles in the government formation process. At best, the KDP and the PUK could not present a unified Kurdish national discourse and vision in Baghdad. Instead of seeking to ensure the enforcement of the constitution, securing the political and economic rights of the Kurdistan region, they were fixated on petty personalized politics in a way that each viewed the defeat of the other in Baghdad as the ultimate goal. This personal animosity among Kurdish leaders not only weakened the Kurdish position in Baghdad, but it also served as a reminder of a corrosive feature that has historically haunted Kurdish politics – that egos and positional bargaining of Kurdish decision makers remain superior to the public interest.
Now intense horse trading will take place within and among the political parties from Iraq’s ethno-sectarian groups that want to become part of the new government. But the new Cabinet could be formed sooner than in the past due to domestic and international pressure and to the political exhaustion the long, sometimes violent impasse in Baghdad has prompted. The Iraqi political elites recognize that they have squandered their time and that political and security stability are hanging in a delicate balance. Therefore, the negotiating parties could make compromises and reach deals regarding posts for vice presidents and deputy prime ministers as well as ministerial portfolios. They have a deep interest in showing Iraqis and the international community that they can deliver. Thus, a quick government formation could give them something tangible to present to people – enabling the government to function with legitimacy, and get the budget approved – while in the background allowing time for the parties to engage in lengthy negotiations over other senior positions.
Traditionally, there has been less arm twisting regarding the “sovereign ministries,” including the ministries of Finance, Foreign Affairs, Interior, Defense, and Oil. It has become a norm for the Shias to take the ministries of Interior, Oil, and Foreign Affairs or Finance, the Kurds to take either Foreign Affairs or Finance, and the Sunnis to take Defense. But the rest of the ministerial portfolios and hundreds of senior positions are also central for the political parties to sustain their patronage system. As a result, they are likely to be subject to extensive and intense negotiations. But these might move more quickly than in the past, as there has been a tremendous transformation in how the government is formed. In the past, the easiest part of the process was to elect a president. This time, that certainly was not the case. While most of the negotiations to form the government used to fall after the election of the president, this time the process could witness minimal talks because the political parties understand that at this juncture, they don’t have the luxury of time. It’s also possible the interminable pre-government-formation facilitated some deal making and horse trading on positions that will expedite the next phase of government formation. The country has been in political and constitutional paralysis for over a year, and they need to see a government formed as quickly as possible to start working for the Iraqi people.