Power struggle delays formation of new Iraqi government

In this highly charged atmosphere, the exclusion of powerful actors from the government could cause more instability.
Sunday 09/09/2018
High stakes. Iraqi Vice-President Nuri al-Maliki (3rd-L) attends a parliament meeting in Baghdad, on September 3. 		          (AFP)
High stakes. Iraqi Vice-President Nuri al-Maliki (3rd-L) attends a parliament meeting in Baghdad, on September 3. (AFP)

LONDON - The Iraqi parliament convened for the first time since the May elections, the first step in forming a new government. However, it failed to elect a speaker amid competing claims about who had pulled together the largest electoral bloc.

The question of the largest bloc was referred to the federal court and the provisional speaker (who by default is the oldest MP) decided to postpone the next regular session until September 15.

A flurry of political manoeuvring preceded the first parliamentary session with two competing blocs announcing they had enough MPs to form a government.

The first claim was from an alliance led by Muqtada al-Sadr and caretaker Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi. Al-Sadr’s Sairoon bloc won 54 seats in the 329-member parliament, the most of any party. Abadi’s Nasr list was third with 42 seats.

A bloc led by militia leader Hadi al-Amiri and former Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki said it had persuaded lawmakers from the Sadr-Abadi camp to defect and was now the largest bloc in parliament.

Both camps include leaders from Iraq’s Shia and Sunni communities, Turkmen and others. Abadi and Maliki hail from the Shia Dawa Party but had competed on different electoral platforms. Abadi is seen as the favourite by the United States; Maliki is viewed to be closer to Iran.

“The stalemates that exist right now, over the ‘largest bloc’ to nominate the prime minister and over the election of a Sunni speaker, have been building for months and are not surprising,” said Kirk H. Sowell, publisher of the Inside Iraqi Politics newsletter. “All the parties are built around personalities rather than policy programmes and thus there is a multiplicity of parties and no genuinely broad coalition with a coherent policy programme.”

The stakes are high for the next government. In December, the government announced the defeat of the Islamic State (ISIS), the militant group that at one point controlled nearly one-third of Iraqi territory. While ISIS has lost control of all major population centres, it has carried out deadly attacks in various parts of the country. The reconstruction of destroyed cities, towns and villages is estimated to cost billions of dollars.

The hot Iraqi summer brought a wave of protests against corruption, unemployment and a lack of services. Demonstrations were particularly intense in the oil-rich city of Basra and other areas in the south. At least ten demonstrators died in Basra in clashes with security forces and set fire to local government buildings and those of political parties. Locals have long complained of neglect by the government despite the fact that the region produces the vast majority of Iraq’s oil output.

An emergency parliamentary session on the situation in Basra took place on September 8.

Officially, the two main blocs are waiting for the federal court to determine which bloc has the largest number of MPs and would be constitutionally mandated to form the next Iraqi government.

That is not the full story, however, said Muhanad Seloom, an Iraq expert at the University of Exeter. “All sides will actually work behind closed doors on a compromise to share power,” he said.

In this highly charged atmosphere, the exclusion of powerful actors from the government could cause more instability. “I don’t think the next government will be formed without Sairoon or Fatah [led by Amiri] in it,” said Seloom. “If any of them are in the opposition, they could paralyse the next government.”

Al-Sadr has been able to mobilise hundreds of thousands of people for protests against the government and corruption. As the leader of the Iran-aligned Badr Brigade, Amiri is part of a powerful network of Shia militias in Iraq and beyond.

“The next two weeks will be crucial in the government formation process,” said Seloom.

Seloom also said there is a crucial role for the Kurds, who were not included in the two major blocs. He said he expects the next government to reach an agreement to share power with the Kurds, whom, he said, would likely be able to extract concessions from Baghdad in return for their support for the largest bloc.

Issues on the agenda would include the percentage of the national budget going to the Kurdistan Regional Government, payments to the Kurdish peshmerga security forces, the status of disputed territories and power-sharing in Kirkuk province.

However, Sowell noted that demands by the Kurdistan Democratic Party were “so vastly over what any Shia leader would be willing to give that it just doesn’t work. They’ll have to lower the ceiling on their demands and be satisfied with the status quo.”

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