Hurdles remain on path to Iraqi government formation

Hurdles remain on path to Iraqi government formation

Iraq’s Supreme Court recently ratified the results of May’s parliamentary elections, following a manual recount triggered by allegations of fraud. With the Sairoon Alliance, backed by populist Shiite preacher Muqtada Al-Sadr, confirmed as the leading bloc with the same 54 seats it won in May, Iraq’s constitutional stalemate could be on the verge of a much-needed breakthrough. 
 
There are, however, potential hurdles on the way. From the necessary legal steps for the confirmation of the new Cabinet and the ongoing competition between the different blocs, to the mounting effects of US-Iran tensions in Iraq, this process could still prove anything but smooth. Crucially, the present context leaves very little room for further slippages.
 
For a new Cabinet to be in place, Iraqi members of parliament first need to convene within 30 days to elect a new speaker and new president. Then the president will officially request the leader of the largest political bloc to form a government. The prime minister designate has another 30 days to indicate the names of the ministers that will form the new Cabinet, which need to be approved by an absolute majority in parliament. All of these steps have to happen within 90 days from the ratification of the election results. According to a decree issued on Monday by President Fuad Masum, the parliament’s first session is now scheduled for Sep. 3.
 
The procedural details should be the least of all worries. Rather, the political establishment in Baghdad often fails to grant priority or full attention to the most critical challenges of the moment. The way Daesh took control of key cities and huge swathes of territory under the apathetic watch of former Prime Minister Nouri Al-Maliki is a stark reminder of that.
 
The premiership of Al-Maliki’s successor, Haider Abadi, now in caretaker capacity, represented a step forward in some important respects, such as the effort to prioritize a national unity discourse over Al-Maliki’s sectarian approach. What it did not do, however, was resolve the most pressing governance issues and vices that have spread throughout state institutions. Unsurprisingly, July and August were marked by some of the most significant protests the country has witnessed in years, with people rallying against corruption, unemployment and poor governance, including an energy and water crisis in the south.
 
Attempts to form a government in Iraq in race against time amidst competition between the various alliances and the effects of US sanctions on Iran.
Manuel Almeida
 
In late July, Grand Ayatollah Ali Al-Sistani, who had refrained from intervening in the coalition-building efforts, issued, during a Friday sermon that was delivered in Karbala by one of his representatives, a damning verdict of the political establishment for its inability to put personal and party priorities over national ones. The harsh but pertinent sermon also called on the current government to meet the demands and concerns of protesters and urged the swift formation of a governing coalition, whose members should be selected on the basis of competence and expertise. 
 
On Aug. 19, the Nasr coalition led by Abadi and Al-Sadr’s Sairoon bloc announced an alliance with Al-Hikma and Al-Wataniyah with the goal of forming a government. But, as it stands, this alliance is still 28 seats short of a majority. 
 
The rivalry between the Shiite nationalist Abadi-Al-Sadr alliance and the staunchly pro-Iranian camp, represented by the State of Law Coalition led by Al-Maliki and the Fatah Alliance of Hadi Al-Amiri, is at full steam. This has shifted the coalition-building efforts to the Kurdish parties and Sunni blocs. 
 
Al-Sadr’s representatives visited Irbil and reportedly offered Kurdish militias a return to Kirkuk in exchange for an alliance. Taken together, Kurdish parties account for 55 parliamentary seats. Feeling the opportunity to be kingmakers, the two main Kurdish parties — the Kurdistan Democratic Party and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan — are aligning their demands on complex issues such as relations between Baghdad and Irbil, the future of disputed territories, oil, budget allocations and more.

The controversial Popular Mobilization Units have also featured in the competition between the two main Shiite blocs. Reportedly, the Al-Maliki-Al-Amiri alliance orchestrated a decision to withdraw the militias from city centers across Iraq as a means to lure the Sunnis into their alliance. 

Yet another factor that could complicate matters is the growing US-Iran tensions. Iraq is a leading destination for Iranian exports and, with US sanctions on Tehran again in place, Iraqi compliance would mean more trouble for an Iranian government already under pressure economically. It would also spell trouble for Baghdad, which would face a spike in prices on various imports and would need to look elsewhere to replace them. 

Abadi’s hint that Iraq would broadly comply with US sanctions generated a strong reaction from Tehran and could lead to a determined Iranian move to sideline the current PM. There are no easy choices for the present caretaker government on this. Non-compliance would most likely place the Iraqi government at odds with the US administration and risk an essential line of support. 

Al-Sadr’s unpredictability and populist leanings could pose some challenges too. During July’s protests, he threatened to stay away from government and opt for a “patriotic opposition.” The leader of the Sadrist Movement has also set the condition that the next prime minister needs to be an independent, which would, in principle, exclude Abadi.

 

  • Manuel Almeida, PhD, is a visiting fellow at the Middle East Centre of the London School of Economics and Political Science, where his research focuses on social contract in the Arab state and its impact on governance and sustainable development. He is also partner at Firma, covering emerging markets and geopolitical risk. Twitter: @_ManuelAlmeida
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