Last month, two developments ended the paralysis that has gripped Iraqi politics since the general elections in October 2021. One, the divide between the Kurds ended with the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) reluctantly withdrawing its insistence on nominating the country’s President and accepting the claim of its rival, the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), to put forward its own candidate, Abdul Latif Rashid.
Once Mr. Rashid was approved as President with majority support in Parliament on October 13, he nominated Mohammed Shia al-Sudani as Prime Minister. On October 27, Mr. al-Sudani obtained parliamentary approval for himself and his cabinet. Thus, after three years of care-taker administrations, there is finally an elected government in Baghdad, though few believe there will be peace in the country.
Deadly political rivalry
At the heart of Iraq’s political malaise is the muhasasa (apportionment) system, bequeathed to the country during the occupation of the country by the United States from 2003. It provides that, after elections, Iraq’s political order will function on a “spoils” basis, with offices (and attendant perks) being distributed among Shia, Sunni and Kurdish political groups.
This system has ensured that effective power has remained with a tight coalition of Shia parties, with residual influence being shared with Sunni and Kurd groups. This arrangement has also made Iran the central presence in Iraq’s politics as the sponsor of most Shia parties and the militants that support them. The latter have been brought together under the umbrella of the Popular Mobilization Units (PMU), which remain a formidable fighting force outside the control of the national armed forces.
Popular uprisings against this system began in October 2019, when thousands of young people protested across the country about the absence of effective governance and their country’s subservience to external influences — both Iranian and American. State violence unleashed upon the demonstrators, in which 600 people were killed and 20,000 injured, brought about the fall of the elected government, and ushered in a series of caretaker administrations charged with bringing in a reformed political system in the country.
The last caretaker Prime Minister, Mustafa al-Kadhimi, in position from May 2020, effected electoral reforms and organised free and fair elections in October last year.
Hopes for reform dashed
However, the elections led to a fierce fratricidal conflict among the various Shia groups: one side, led by the cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, promoted a “majority national government”, i.e., a government made up of different sects and ethnic groups and independent of foreign influence, while the other, the Coordination Framework, an assemblage of pro-Iran Shia parties and militia, insisted on government-formation on the basis of Shia unity that would maintain Shia domination in the political order.
Over several months, Muqtada al-Sadr made a valiant effort to build a majority in Parliament. His efforts were thwarted by two factors: one, the Coordination Framework remained intact and refused to back his agenda, fearing the dilution of Shia and Iranian influence. And, two, a surprise divide among the Kurds, with the KDP denying the PUK its two-decade old right to nominate the President. This meant that, in the absence of a President, a Prime Minister could not be invited to form a government.
This period of political impasse led the frustrated Muqtada al-Sadr to indulge in brinkmanship: in a show of force, he encouraged his followers to briefly occupy the parliamentary premises, set up tents in the protected “Green Zone” to signal long-term occupation, and then abruptly, on June 12, instructed the members of his coalition to resign their parliamentary seats.
If he thought this would force fresh elections, he was wrong: under Iraqi law, a resigning member would be replaced by the candidate who was placed second in the election. Thus, overnight, al-Sadr’s parliamentary strength withered away, and the Coordination Framework, with several of its own and other allied candidates replacing al-Sadr’s supporters, obtained a parliamentary majority. It put forward a former Minister, Mr. Mohammed al-Sudani, as its prime ministerial candidate.
On August 27, al-Sadr announced his “retirement” from politics and resorted to bluster and violence. But the parliamentary system moved forward. The Kurds agreed on a president from the PUK, who then invited Mr. al-Sudani to form the government.
Outlook for Iraq
Mr. al-Sudani’s cabinet affirms that Iraq’s muhasasa system remains intact: his 23-member cabinet has its principal Ministers from various Shia factions that were part of the Coordination Framework, with Sunni and Kurdish Ministers from diverse parties making up the balance. Only Muqtada al-Sadr’s coalition has no representation in the cabinet. To appease him, Mr. al-Sudani has promised elections in a year’s time.
The new Prime Minister has set out his agenda that prioritises combating corruption, economic development and delivery of services to his beleaguered people. But hardly anyone believes this will happen as an effective anti-corruption drive will adversely impact too many people in the Prime Minister’s own inner circle. And, while oil revenues of $60 billion obtained in just six months of this year can provide the needed resources for economic recovery and delivery of services, these revenues have in the past hardly made any difference in the lives of the Iraqi people.
Muqtada al-Sadr, though now out of power, remains a serious concern. Fired by frustration, he is expected to play the populist card, even unleashing his cohorts onto the streets to pressurise the government, where they will confront militants from the PMU.
In coming months, violence could continue to define Iraqi politics.
Talmiz Ahmad is a former Indian diplomat