Analysis: Iraq’s endless political whirl

Salah Nasrawi , Tuesday 29 Mar 2022

Iraq’s parliament failure to elect new president and prime minister is plunging the country into further political chaos.

Iraq s endless political whirl
Supporters of Iraqi Shia cleric Muqtada Al-Sadr gather inside the Iraqi parliament ahead of the country s presidential election (photos: AFP)

For nearly two decades Iraq has been ruled by a political system that allows its multiple ethnic groups to share power and wealth. But this system, which cobbles together a rickety coalition of sectarian groups and oligarchs, has gripped the country in a permanent political paralysis.

Iraq’s “consensual” political structure, forged following the US invasion of the country that toppled the Sunni-dominated regime of Saddam Hussein in 2003, has allowed a Shia-majority alliance to lead government coalitions that have also included Kurdish parties and Sunni representatives.

However, more than five months after general elections were held in Iraq last October, the political chaos created by this system of sectarian and ethnic patronage is continuing to grind on, vividly showing that Iraq is threatened to become a stateless nation.

Iraq’s parliament failed again this week to elect a new president for the country due to the lack of a quorum, plunging the battered nation into further uncertainty that bodes ill for efforts to form a new government that can tackle Iraq’s multiple political, social, economic and security problems as well as foreign interference.

Only 202 MPs out of 329 were reportedly present at Saturday’s session, less than the two-thirds quorum needed to choose a new president. According to parliamentary statements, 40 candidates have put themselves forward for this largely ceremonial post, which is reserved by convention for a member of Iraq’s Kurdish ethnicity.

The contest this time pitted incumbent President Barham Saleh against Kurdish rival Rebar Ahmed. Saleh, a member of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), is backed by an alliance of his party, the Shia Coordination Framework (CF), and several Sunnis MPs, while Ahmed of the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) is supported by a coalition of his party with Shia cleric Muqtada Al-Sadr and a Sunni bloc.

Some 126 lawmakers, most of them from the CF bloc or independents, boycotted the Saturday session, depriving it of a quorum and forcing the postponement of the election for the second time since February and throwing Iraqi politics into further turmoil.

The first vote on 7 February failed to materialise after a boycott and wrangle over the PUK’s nomination of former foreign and finance minister Hoshyar Zebari, barred by Iraq’s Supreme Court over corruption and mismanagement allegations after a parliamentary no-confidence vote.

The election of a new president is an important step towards forming a new government in Iraq following last October’s parliamentary elections. The two constitutional steps usually require enormous political horse-trading.

In each of its five national elections since Saddam’s ouster, Iraq has witnessed chaotic scenes over the formation of governments, and Iraqis usually greet the periodic political crises with cynical resignation.

But Saturday’s failed parliamentary session underlined the sharp divide in Iraqi politics between Al-Sadr, whose bloc, the Sadrist Movement, emerged as the big winner in the October elections, and the powerful CF, an umbrella alliance of mostly Iran-backed Shia groups.

Iraq held early elections on 10 October 2021 in response to mass protests in the country beginning in October 2019 that were triggered by widespread dissatisfaction with political corruption and the lack of basic services.

Following the elections, Al-Sadr proposed sweeping changes to the way the country has been run since the US-led invasion, including forming a “national majority government” that would imply the dissolution of the sectarian and ethnic power-sharing quotas that have framed successive post-Saddam governments.

Al-Sadr has also promised that a new government led by his faction would follow a non-aligned line in foreign policy, signalling his intention to stifle Iran’s influence in Iraq and enhancing national sovereignty.

In order to achieve his goals, Al-Sadr broke away from the main Shia parties and allied himself with a major Sunni bloc led by Parliamentary Speaker Mohamed Al-Halbousi and a Kurdish bloc headed by KDP leader Massoud Barzani.

The “Save the Homeland” Coalition, as it is known, has so far failed to patch together a majority able to agree on Al-Sadr’s cousin Jaafar Al-Sadr as the new prime minister to succeed Mustafa Al-Kadhimi, however.

With the failure to elect a new president and choose a new prime minister, Iraq entered a period of political instability on Saturday after the elections in October that were themselves seen as an existential vote to end Iraq’s chronic stalemate.

The key issue in the elections was whether they would bring about a drastic change in Iraq’s politics and sound the death knell of the forces entrenched in government that have overseen instability, endemic dysfunction, and deeply entrenched corruption.

Many Iraqis had hoped that Al-Sadr would seize the moment and make the outcome a turning point for Iraq’s increasingly dysfunctional and fragmented system that stokes sectarian politics.

Al-Sadr’s victory in the elections also reinforced hopes among the international and regional powers that he would stand up to Iran and help to counter the influence of its proxies in Iraq and across the region.

US policymakers showed a clear preference for Al-Sadr and his movement and resorted to the traditional spin of the US media in their efforts to portray him as a strong nationalist leader and Iraq’s saviour from Iran.

The US may have even gone beyond mustering this rhetoric by building on the narrative that Al-Sadr is preventing Iraq from tilting further into Iran’s axis and getting ready to do business with its old foe.   

In October, the Saudi-owned Independent Arabia media outlet reported that Al-Sadr’s cousin and nominee for the prime ministerial post Jaafar Al-Sadr, Iraq’s ambassador to the UK, had made a secret visit to Washington to discuss post-election arrangements in Iraq.

But Al-Sadr’s claim of boosted popularity and of his being an instrument of “creative destruction” in Iraq seems to have failed this week, when he showed that his biggest difficulty is the precarious nature of his parliamentary majority.

The election victory in October gave Al-Sadr a new-found self-assurance that many analysts believed turned him from a kingmaker to Iraqi Shias’ most-prominent strongmen.

For nearly two decades, Al-Sadr has outmanoeuvred his rivals by upending the country’s Shia political parties and seeking to place himself in a position of power within the community.

Yet, his attempts to isolate his rivals, enforced by his being the largest vote-winner in the new Iraqi parliament, have split the Shia community and stirred fears of Al-Sadr’s dream of being fully in charge of the country.

During the latest crisis, Al-Sadr sidestepped the independent MPs and small blocs that had emerged from the October 2019 protest movement and were voted into parliament in the hope that they would make changes to the way Iraq is governed.

Many of these lawmakers, who viewed the response to Al-Sadr’s unilateral move as unacceptable capitulation, have reportedly faced bullying and blackmail by members of the Sadrist Movement, who tried to force them to attend Saturday’s session in order to achieve the quorum for the election of the president and prime minister.

Al-Sadr’s nomination of his cousin, little known to the public, to the powerful post of prime minister has triggered concerns that Al-Sadr intends to build a ruling clan, a move that would cement the grip of the influential Al-Sadr family on the country.

The postponement of the election of the president has now exacerbated Iraq’s political problems, with some suggesting dissolving the parliament and forming an emergency government if the lawmakers pass a 7 April deadline announced by the Supreme Court.

Given the new deadlock, many Iraqis now fear that the crisis may go beyond the boundaries of the parliament into the streets and determine not only the government of the country, but also whether it has a viable future as a state.

*A version of this article appears in print in the 31 March, 2022 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly

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