Political factions in Iraq have failed to form a government seven months after elections amid deadlocked parliamentary politics. Here are the major issues complicating Iraq’s painful post-election period.
Iraq conducted its first parliamentary elections in May 2018, five months after the defeat of Daesh, electing a new prime minister, president and parliamentary speaker. It's been seven months now and factional rivalries continue to paralyse efforts to form a government.
The Sunni-Shia sectarian conflict in the country has now taken a new turn with many prominent Shia leaders, who are split between several camps, competing over key ministerial portfolios in Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mahdi's cabinet.
In order to gain more power in the Iraqi cabinet, some Shia leaders are even willing to sideline Muhassasa, an ethno-sectarian quota system that allows leaders of different ethnic backgrounds to take various roles in the government, including some key ministries.
A tacit alliance formed between one group led by populist cleric Muqtada al Sadr, and another group by Iranian-backed militia leader Hadi al Amiri, in October picked a president and approved 14 out of 22 cabinet ministers.
But Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mahdi is still facing problems filling the posts of eight cabinet ministers, delaying the formation of a new government.
Here are some crucial points that define today's Iraqi politics:
Abdul Mahdi’s role
The prime minister’s plan, “according to his inner circle, is to pursue gradual change from within, fighting against the so-called deep state symbolised most visibly by the 'muhassasa' system,” said Renad Mansour, a Research Fellow in the Middle East and North Africa Programme at London think-tank Chatham House.
But Mansour added that in reality, Abdul Mahdi represents “another weak prime minister” with little influence in government formation.
Fragmented political groups
Iraq’s presidency — a largely ceremonial role — is held by a Kurd, while the prime minister is Shia and the parliament speaker is Sunni, under an unofficial agreement dating back to the 2003 US-led invasion.
According to the election results, Sadr retained his lead of 54 seats while Amiri’s bloc remained second with 48 seats. Haider al Abadi’s bloc remained third with 42. Nuri al Maliki’s bloc trailed behind in the fifth spot with 25 seats.
Harith Hasan, a nonresident senior fellow at the Carnegie Middle East Center, said Prime Minister Abdul Mahdi is facing a testing time with his two main allies, the Sadrists and Fatah, unable to reach a consensus over finalising the cabinet.
"Sadr has already warned that he might withdraw his support for Abdul Mahdi if the latter fails to make substantial changes," Hasan writes in TK. "It is likely that Sadr will continue using his ability to mobilise the crowds to exert pressure on the political elite, perhaps threatening to join any future wave of protests, which could end up paralysing or even toppling the government."
I have just spent a week in Baghdad during the current crisis over cabinet formation. This quote sums up my thoughts: 'The crisis consists precisely in the fact that the old is dying and the new cannot be born; in this interregnum a great variety of morbid symptoms appear.'— Toby Dodge (@ProfTobyDodge) December 9, 2018
Filling the vacant ministries in Abdul Mahdi’s cabinet is another sticking point, especially the interior and defence posts.
The empty interior ministry portfolio has been dominated for years by allies of Amiri. Now Sadr, whose alliance won the most parliamentary seats, says no one with a political affiliation should get the post.
“It’s not up to him and it’s not up to the parliamentarians - neither the executive nor the legislative branches of government have a say in forming the next cabinet,” said Renad Mansour, a research fellow at Chatham House.
“There’s no leader yet who’s able to sit the two sides together and get to the bottom of who will be interior (minister) ... it’s become a matter of principle.”
Abadi: Several regional & international actors interfered in the formation of the gov’t. There is an internal conflict in Iran that is being reflected in Iraq over certain positions. I don’t believe this is in the interest of Iran itself. Iraq’s sovereignty must be respected.— Hayder al-Khoei (@Hayder_alKhoei) December 11, 2018
Tehran’s influence has increased ever since the death of Saddam Hussein but the political divisions among the Shia population could undermine Iran’s role in the country.
In that case, Iran would prefer to see Amiri and his fellow militia leaders in a strong position.
“Abdul Mahdi also cannot afford to antagonise the Iranians, especially as they are trying to employ their formal and informal connections in Iraq to mitigate the effects of the new US sanctions imposed on Iran,” Hasan said.