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Bid to form Iraq’s government collapses

Iraq’s political crisis worsens as PM-designate abandons efforts to form a government

Salah Nasrawi , Wednesday 4 Mar 2020
Bid to form Iraq’s government collapses
Protesters carry symbolic Iraqi flag-draped coffins of people who have been killed in anti-government protests, during a rally in Baghdad, Iraq (photo: AP)
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Iraq was thrown into political turmoil on Sunday evening, as prime minister-designate Mohamed Tawfik Allawi quitted bid to form a new government after blaming the country’s ruling factions for hampering much-needed political reforms.

Allawi’s attempt at forming a new government broke down after Iraq’s parliament failed to meet twice to endorse him for the post of prime minister despite a looming constitutional deadline and a deepening political crisis.

Allawi’s move could exacerbate Iraq’s political limbo and make the country’s political future even more uncertain amid unprecedented demonstrations that have left hundreds of protesters killed and thousands more injured.

In a televised speech, Allawi accused unnamed political parties that “are sunk deep in corruption and confessionalism” of blocking his efforts to form a new government. 

“I have tried by all possible means to save our country from slipping into the unknown and to end the current crisis, but I have encountered issues that are unrelated to the interests of the homeland,” the prime minister in-waiting said.

“Unfortunately, some parties have been negotiating only to secure their own narrow interests and in disregard of the blood of the martyrs who have fallen in the squares in demonstrations for change,” he said.

Allawi said he had refused to give into demands for concessions and pressure from certain political groups “which are looking only at their vested interests.” He urged the protesters to “continue with the demonstrations so that your sacrifices will not be in vain.”

Iraqi President Barham Salih began Monday consultations with the parliament’s political blocs and parties in order to choose a new candidate for the prime minister’s post.

Salih nominated Allawi to replace former prime minister Adel Abdul-Mahdi, who resigned in November after pressure from the street and from Ayatollah Ali Sistani, the Iraqi Shias’ highest religious authority.

As Allawi’s remarks were broadcast on television, two rockets landed inside the Green Zone in Baghdad close to the United States Embassy, a sign of the precarious situation prevailing in Iraq.

Salih nominated Allawi as a compromise candidate for the post of prime minister after the country’s ruling factions had failed to find a candidate for two months, leaving the country largely leaderless amid mass street protests and at a time of increasing instability.

Iraq has been rocked by widespread anti-government protests for nearly six months, with violence and anger steadily escalating against corruption, nepotism and government mismanagement.

What started in October as protests for jobs, better public services and security ended as a political storm over the country’s flawed political system and the catastrophic ineptitude of its leaders.

The mass street protests in Baghdad and across the Shia-dominated south of Iraq have continued despite a violent crackdown by the security forces and their allied Shia militias. They have grown into a broader national anti-establishment uprising challenging the country’s entrenched Shia political elite.

The nomination of the political outsider Allawi as the new prime minister was an attempt by the Shia ruling factions to outmanoeuvre one of the key demands of the protesters for a prime minister and a government made up of independents who had not served in previous cabinets.

Upon his nomination, Allawi vowed to begin a new era in Iraq’s political order and to re-establish trust between the public and the government, lost by the failures of the country’s entrenched political elite.

Allawi expressed his support for the protesters’ demands and pledged to form a cabinet of independents, cracking down on corruption and reforming the government he was set to lead.

Yet, the protesters, who have been calling for sweeping reforms and a non-partisan government, immediately rejected Allawi’s nomination and accused the country’s ruling class of trying to maintain the status quo.

Allawi’s proposed government came apart after mutinous power play by Iraq’s opposing political factions and the leaders of the country’s religious communities and ethnicities, underlining the dysfunctional political system established after the US-led invasion of the country in 2003.

Under this system, Iraq’s multiple sects and ethnicities share power. Political groups representing the Shia majority were given the key executive post of prime minister, while the Sunni Arab parties hold the post of speaker of the parliament, and the Kurds hold the presidency.

All the country’s communities also have the right to nominate their own representatives to become ministers and senior officials in the federal government, diplomatic corps, judiciary and the security forces on a quota-based system.

The current government crisis has worsened Iraq’s three-way demographic divide and created a situation of deep political, sectarian and ethnic polarisation and more sub-divisions within the communal split.

While the main Shia groups that traditionally nominate the prime minister threw their weight behind Allawi, other Shia factions refused to endorse Allawi for the post.

Their dissent was evident in parliament when nearly one third of the Shia members failed to attend the special session to vote on Allawi’s government on Sunday. Their absence denied the parliament a quorum and the Shia blocs their majority vote.

It was not clear what had triggered the dissent, but various internecine power struggles seem to have motivated some Shia parties and politicians to stay away from the parliamentary session.

Many Shia groups had feared that the appointment of Allawi, who was backed by powerful cleric Muqtada Al-Sadr’s Saaroun bloc and pro-Iran factions in the parliament, would help the two groups to rise further in Iraq’s political system.

However, whatever the reason, the mass defection from voting or abstention demonstrated a sharp divide within the Shia ranks and the effects of political heterogeneity in individual MPs’ voting behaviour.

The country’s Sunni and Kurdish political groups, which are imbued with enormous powers during a government crisis, also have their motivations for blocking the formation of a new government due to certain interests and concerns.

Political leaders from both communities have claimed that a lack of consultation with them over Allawi’s nomination and his plans to have non-partisan ministers in the cabinet was the main reason for their rejection of his endorsement.

But a hidden policy agenda, a perennial feature of public policymaking in Iraq, could be spotted in the Kurdish and Sunni leaders’ endeavours to stall Allawi’s nomination.

The Kurdish political leadership had put its weight behind Abdul-Mahdi and had stood against the protesters’ demands for political reforms, including rewriting Iraq’s constitution.

In addition, the Kurdish leadership wants to maximise the political gains the Iraqi Kurds have made since the downfall of former Iraqi president Saddam Hussein and exploit the country’s political turmoil to push their independence agenda forward.

For the Iraqi Sunnis, who have long complained about exclusion and marginalisation by the country’s Shia-led government, the current crisis could provide a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for the community to be more pro-active in the decision-making process.

In a country beset by political turmoil and security challenges, outmanoeuvring opponents to achieve political gains by playing zero-sum games is very dangerous and could be a recipe for disaster.

Without an elected government or a functional parliament and with missed deadlines and the manipulation of the constitution, Iraq has entered a power vacuum that risks driving the country into an abyss.

On Monday, Abdul-Mahdi, Iraq’s caretaker prime minister, said he would begin a period of “voluntary absence” and would no longer carry out most of his official duties after the parliament failed to approve Allawi.

The move is highly controversial because it will leave the country without a constitutionally elected government and deepen the political crisis in a country that is religiously and ethnically divided and overwhelmed by non-state armed groups and unruly militias.

After months of street protests and political bickering, Iraq’s government crisis will now most likely undermine its political system. The collapse of this already fragile political system could also plunge the country into a renewed period of chaos and uncertainty.

*A version of this article appears in print in the 5 March, 2020 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly

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