Slim chances of mould-breaking cabinet for Iraqi prime minister

No plan towards curtailing corruption has been unveiled.
Sunday 16/02/2020
An Iraqi holds a placard during an anti-government protest in Basra, February 11. (AFP)
Strong perseverance. An Iraqi holds a placard during an anti-government protest in Basra, February 11. (AFP)

An independent cabinet as promised by Iraqi Prime Minister Mohammed Allawi will test the limits of a political order, surviving by the skin of its teeth.

The constitutional deadline of March 2 grants Allawi a limited window to build consensus among rival parties and gain the trust of a population that flatly rejected him.

Railing against the old guard would transcend modes of appointment that guided previous administrations. Those it has kept comfortably seated in power are unlikely to agree with methods that upset the existing hierarchy.

Cabinet overhaul can succeed if endorsed by parliament but chances of Allawi siding with those who approved his nomination are greater than waging a one-man revolt against the sectarian apportionment system.

Allawi’s proposed independent cabinet may mark a new political showdown, between jostling Shia factions.

The prime minister, a two-time communications minister, derives strength not from the street but from the parliamentary blocs that endorsed his name as a peace offering, owing to his Dawa party credentials despite his rivalry with former Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki, who stood alone in rejecting Allawi’s succession to Adel Abdul-Mahdi.

To keep the government functioning is to work collaboratively. While the United States’ democratic experiment in Iraq has fallen into disarray, erasure of the formulas that govern it is a fanciful proposal.

Negotiations are under way after Allawi recently met with Abdul-Mahdi. Similar meetings have taken place between Allawi and other counterparts. Foreign Minister Mohamed al-Hakim and Kurdish Regional Government President Nechirvan Barzani also had talks on the political process.

A new style of governance that allows independent and honest politicians to rule is a tall order that, if motioned, would strip ruling parties of their post-2003-made gains. The grip that certain actors have over ministries — health for the Sadrists and interior for Badr and more — can be unfastened if real and implementable measures are adopted.

Other matters, such as the United States’ withdrawal from Iraq, are more pressing concerns for those who dominate local politics. “Allawi’s government will set a new time frame for the withdrawal of foreign forces,” said Mohamed al Baldawi, deputy of al-Sadiquon parliamentary bloc.

Competition will centre not on the logic that keeps the wheels of government moving but rather on the distribution of prized portfolios.

Painting the competition as a rivalry between Muqtada al-Sadr’s camp and the Popular Mobilisation Units is a mischaracterisation.

This best explains why Sadrist members of parliament walked out of a parliamentary session last year in opposition to Abdul-Mahdi’s nomination of Falih Alfayyadh, head of the pro-Iran parliamentary Popular Mobilisation Forces (PMF). That deprived Fatah, the PMF-aligned parliamentary bloc, of a bigger slice of the cabinet pie.

In the wider policy-making landscape, the two sides are likely to lobby for Iranian interests. The political components that Abdul-Mahdi sought to balance are passing judgment over the interim government’s security strategy before it has been formed.

Allawi has not uttered any words in favour or in opposition to the hastened departure of foreign forces or whether future legislation covers the status of Iranian commanders and militia fighters.

Before Allawi can satisfy his promise of a government free from factional quotas, the consensus candidate must please the sides that delivered him to power.

Representatives of the protest movement met with Allawi but the gesture may not calm the Iraqi streets whose relentless protests have roiled the country for months. Another expected move to placate the masses is the formation of a committee to persecute those responsible for the death of protesters.

Protesters are not calling for improved governance but rather a new model that guides cabinet appointments away from undue sectarian and political considerations.

No plan towards curtailing corruption has been unveiled and the process of forming a government remains conditional on an agreement between parties. Disagreement will prolong the process that under previous administrations has been recurrent.

The domino cascade this would cause will most certainly delay the 2020 budget and the attempt to have early elections.

Allawi’s cabinet shakedown may not deliver the independent state protesters’ demand if ministries are allotted to members of the known pool of candidates.

Iran is not willing to stand aside after years of swaying cabinet choices to its advantage.

Smaller actors who fared well in recent elections, such as al-Sadr’s camp, will seize the opportunity shuffle forward but whether bigger blocs stand down is yet to be seen. However, Allawi’s choices will deliver no mould-breaking cabinet in the next interim government for Iraq.