Uncertainty looms for leaderless Iraq

Protesters, civil society, student unions and school children are forming their own alliance against the kakistocracy governing Iraq.
Sunday 08/03/2020
An anti-government protester uses a slingshot to fire a stone at security forces during clashes in Baghdad, March 2. (AP)
Aiming high. An anti-government protester uses a slingshot to fire a stone at security forces during clashes in Baghdad, March 2. (AP)

A ring of uncertainty closes in on Iraq, one of the world’s wealthiest oil nations, days after Prime Minister-designate Mohammed Allawi withdrew his candidacy.

The move reshuffles the political deck, reinstating caretaker Prime Minister Adel Abdul-Mahdi as head of government three months after he left his mantle over the unlawful death of 400 protesters. As the protest movement raises the stakes, can Iraqi President Barham Salih appoint a successor within the closing 15-day window, in accordance with constitutional law?

As the opening narrows, the political vacuum widens. Despite maintaining his position as caretaker prime minister, Abdul-Mahdi placed his responsibilities on hold, invoking "voluntary absence."

That means responsibilities administered by the prime minister, from leading meetings to talks with dignitaries, will be delegated to deputies. While Oil Minister Thamer al-Ghadban led the first session after Abdul-Mahdi excused himself beneath a leave of absence, experts said that only Salih is qualified to stand in place of the prime minister.

Political seats remain occupied but the Iraqi government is effectively leaderless, as quarrels over shares of the ministerial pie between political factions persist. “I express deep regret over our brother Mohammed Allawi’s failure to form the new government," read a statement in which Abdul-Mahdi addressed all branches of government.

The statement read as a list of instructions informed by what the constitution prescribes but Iraq appears to be moving in circles, after months of protest confounded authorities.

The state of impotence was welcomed by dissenting factions of the ruling elite, including Kurdistan Democratic Party President Masoud Barzani. He congratulated Kurdish and Iraqi parties, largely Sunni but also some Shia actors, for boycotting the cabinet lineup, achieving what Barzani called “a historic achievement.”

Attempts by opposing Kurdish and Sunni blocs were cited by Allawi as reasons he failed in his mandate.

Iraq’s 17-year road to recovery has hit countless speed bumps but the most stubborn are the partisan and private interests of political parties. Many will protect their booty no matter the cost, desperate to cling to power.

The latest items on Abdul-Mahdi’s agenda are not new. He has called for an emergency session to determine final provisions of a new electoral law and a set date for elections. He proposed early December but no date can be ratified while the government remains legless.

The court of Iraqi public opinion will reject both should the government revert to its reliance on sectarian quotas that delivered and stripped Allawi of his powers in the space of a month. The Iraqi street never endorsed him.

Hope for the rentier state exists, said UN Special Representative Jeanine Hennis-Plasschaert. During a UN Security Council briefing in late February she said that hope is contingent on whether politicians and communities “step up to the plate” and put the interest of the country first.

Despite the ensuing stalemate, Hennis-Plasschaert called for an immediate end to human rights abuses against the backdrop of the country’s uprising.

The death of an estimated 700 protesters since anger erupted across Baghdad and southern provinces last October ranks low in leaderless Iraq but will weigh heavily on future policy designs, protesters contend.

In his search for an alternative candidate, Salih has met with leaders of Shia parties who at some stage in the past 15 years have governed the country: the National Wisdom Movement’s Ammar al-Hakim, Dawa Party’s Nuri al-Maliki, Fatah Alliance leader Hadi al-Amiri and head of the Victory Alliance former Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi.

Some have likened Salih’s role to a delicate balancing act, to win over ruling Shia parties while extracting concessions to help the country overcome the political deadlock.

Putting aside the hypothesis of progress, uncertainty clouds the horizon but protesters, civil society, student unions and school children are forming their own alliance against the kakistocracy governing Iraq. Unlike the dithering elite, protesters have taken decisive steps to call corruption to account while the government in Baghdad stalls.

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