A little more than a year after the country’s last elections, Iraq has finally broken its political deadlock. On Thursday, the parliament elected a new president, and instructed its nominee for prime minister to form a government. As was widely predicted, the major parties brokered a consensus that will see another coalition government formed, the seventh national government since 2003.
But as Iraq celebrates the resolution to this chapter of its political crisis, the question remains: can a new prime minister, saddled with the same old politics, stop the country’s slide into further instability and start to work on badly needed reforms?
The sage bet, unfortunately, is to expect little from the next Iraqi government. Nothing suggests that any of the major factions have a genuine interest in actual governance. In fact, Iraq’s political factions appear to oppose any serious investment in state capacity and institutions, fearing that if the state can govern effectively, then those factions will lose their ability to operate corruption rackets and militias with impunity.
The sage bet, unfortunately, is to expect little from the next Iraqi government. Nothing suggests that any of the major factions have a genuine interest in actual governance.
Mohammed Shia al-Sudani, the prime minister-designate, will be the first leader of Iraq since 2003 not to have politically come of age in exile. But any hope for change should be tempered by a cold-blooded look at Iraq’s political system, which remains dominated by the same figures and factions—all of whom share a greater interest in preserving their individual fiefdoms than in bringing about the structural and institutional reforms that Iraq so gravely needs.
Breaking the Deadlock
A year of political stalemate came to an end on Thursday, in a parliamentary session that convened after several last-minute deals were reached in secret meetings. Iraqi observers, and even some politicians, didn’t know how things would turn out until the second round of the secret ballot for president—a sign of just how dynamic and uncertain Iraq’s political negotiations have been. The entire process of government formation was stalled by infighting among Kurdish factions over who would fill the largely ceremonial position of president of the republic. Iraq’s entire state ground to halt, unable to draft a budget and new laws or capitalize on the bonanza of suddenly high oil prices, because of what is effectively a grudge match over a symbolic government position.
In the October 13 session, Iraq’s parliament, the Council of Representatives, elected a new president of the republic, a position that since 2005 has been reserved for a Kurd. But the two main Kurdish parties, the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) and the weaker Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), were unable, until this week, to agree on a presidential candidate.
These two Kurdish factions have been engaged in a bitter rivalry for more than six decades, at times descending into violence, but have shared power and positions in both Iraqi Kurdistan and federal Iraq. The PUK has held the presidency of Iraq since 2005, though since 2018 the KDP has sought to claim the position, owing to its stronger electoral performances. The outgoing president, Barham Salih, had defeated the KDP’s Fuad Hussain in 2018, and this time around was up against Rebar Ahmed, the current interior minister in the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG). Since February, the two parties had failed to reach a deal on a single candidate, a symptom of the clan rivalries that dominate Kurdish politics. This rivalry saw the KDP join with Takadum and the Sadrists, who had come out on top in the October 2021 elections, to try to form a majority government and squeeze out their rivals. Meanwhile, the PUK held firm with its Shia alliance partners, the Coordination Framework, and its Sunni Arab partner, Azm, to insist on being included in a coalition government. After months of deadlock the Sadrists resigned from parliament in frustration at the influence and spoiler power of their opponents. Their resignation opened up an opportunity to break the deadlock by forcing a return to consociational politics and a grand governing coalition led by the Coordination Framework.
The biggest hurdle for government formation was electing a president, which requires a two-thirds quorum in parliament. That extremely high bar meant that all major parties needed to show up for the presidential vote—which was impossible as long as the Sadrists boycotted. Since nominating Sudani for prime minister in July, the Coordination Framework had tried to broker a compromise between the KDP and the PUK, because it wanted to keep its coalition partner, the PUK, happy. But the Coordination Framework also acknowledged it needed the KDP in a coalition government. Both the KDP and PUK refused to drop their candidates, so the Coordination Framework called for the October 13 vote in parliament to force a resolution.
With the October 13 session looming, and the Kurds, like the rest of Iraq, suffering the consequences of government limbo, the KDP finally agreed to withdraw its candidate, Ahmed—but it would only support a PUK candidate who wasn’t the incumbent president, Salih. The KDP’s conditions weren’t only a result of personal animosity toward Salih. The party also just wanted to make sure that the PUK didn’t completely get its way.
Officially, the PUK rejected this approach, especially when Salih insisted on standing for reelection. But behind closed doors, reports suggest that PUK leader Bafel Talabani accepted Abdul Latif Rashid as a compromise choice. Rashid is a veteran of the PUK, brother-in-law of former President Jalal Talabani (Rashid and Talabani had married sisters), a former water resources minister in the federal government, and a passive politician who would not threaten the KDP’s interests. When the vote came about, the KDP announced it was formally withdrawing its candidate, Rebar Ahmed, and would back Rashid, with Takadum and Nouri al-Maliki’s State of Law also voting for Rashid, giving him nearly 100 votes. Since the vote was conducted by secret ballot, members of parliament were able if they wanted to defy their official party instructions and vote for Rashid. The result saw Rashid end up with 162 votes in the second-round runoff versus 99 for Salih.
Immediately after being sworn in as president on Thursday, Rashid asked the nominee of the largest bloc to form a government, as per the constitutional process. The Coordination Framework had formed the largest bloc of 138 members of parliament, and had already chosen Sudani, a current member of parliament, as its nominee for the premiership. This formal designation by the president of the prime minister-select started the final clock on government formation, giving Sudani until November 12 to present a cabinet and government program for a vote in parliament. Sudani will need 165 votes to win confidence and become the prime minister.
It seems that the major hurdles have been passed and a new government will be in place next month. But can it perform any better than the previous ones and restore some faith in the political system?
Three significant questions now face the Iraqi state: First, will the new prime minister have actual power? Second, will the parties that back him approve any reforms? And third, will the Sadrists—who remain the top vote-getters even though they no longer have seats in parliament—allow their rivals a full term in office?
The answer to the first question depends somewhat on whether Sudani is capable of running an effective government. While he does have significant experience as a provincial governor, several ministerial positions, and as a member of parliament, the premiership is still a big step up for him. He owes a large part of his career to Maliki, the former prime minister. And while Sudani now runs his own party, it will be hard for him to escape Maliki’s shadow, especially since Maliki played the most important role in securing the premiership for Sudani.
Sudani will be Iraq’s first post-2003 prime minister who was not formerly in exile, and thus comes with less baggage than his predecessors.
On the other hand, while Sudani does not have a track record as a reformer, he also does not have significant accusations of corruption against him. His tenures as minister were seen as stable if not overly successful and he does maintain good political relations across the board. He will be Iraq’s first post-2003 prime minister who was not formerly in exile, and thus comes with less baggage than his predecessors, who had spent much of their careers in countries such as the United Kingdom, Syria, and Iran.
But Sudani will need to choose his cabinet from a small pool of candidates presented to him by the coalition of parties backing him, and then manage the ministers and their party interests. It might be the most difficult job in the world, and Sudani will struggle.
The second question is whether the coalition of parties that will make up the government are willing to push through reforms. Iraq faces a long list of massive challenges ranging from corruption, to poor infrastructure, to a fragile economy, to climate change, and others. Tackling these challenges requires serious and deep reforms that will affect the political and economic interests of these parties. Are they willing to accept the cost of staying in power? Or will they continue to block essential reforms, and so march Iraq closer to a violent and sudden collapse?
The final question revolves around what the Sadrists will do until the next elections in 2025. It is unlikely that they will accept being frozen out of government despite having won the most number of seats in the elections. Nor will they be inclined to risk allowing Sudani—and the Sadrist rivals who back him—to win public support over the next three years. Instead, the Sadrists are likely to seize on government weakness and failings to amplify support for protests and early elections. The Sadrists are unlikely, for now, to return to violence or storm of the Green Zone, as they did this summer. But the Sadrists always have the trump card of turning to street power, whether through demonstrations or through takeovers of parliament and other government buildings. And they will already have their eye on preparing for the next elections and regaining their position at the top of the political order.
The election of October 2021 and its yearlong aftermath exposed the deep political rifts within and between the political parties, and though the status quo of consensual power sharing has prevailed, the divisions are serious enough to question whether a repeat crisis is possible. The Coordination Framework managed to regain the premiership, but its constituent parties are competing with each other and in a fight for survival with the Sadrists. The PUK and KDP will continue their rivalry within Iraqi Kurdistan ahead of the next local elections, as well as in Baghdad. Halbusi’s Takadum has the upper hand over Azm—for now—but this will not stop Habulsi’s rivals from seeking to weaken him.
The political system is resilient, however: so far, it has accommodated all these rivalries and even closed ranks against external threats such as the Tishreen protest movement. Power is diffuse and decentralized in Iraq, making revolution an impossible task, especially when the political elite is heavily armed and resourced. Sustained and steady pressure for reform is the only conceivable way forward under current conditions. But Iraq’s status quo factions and political parties are happy enough for things to continue as they are; in fact, some of them view any alteration to the flawed system as an assault on their livelihoods and power bases. Given the forces arrayed against reform and in favor of the existing dysfunctional system, it would be unrealistic to expect much headway from the Sudani government. Perhaps the best outcome for which Iraqis can hope is that Sudani somehow manages to keep the country’s perilous situation from getting any worse.
Cover Photo: Iraqi prime minister-designate Mohammed Shia al-Sudani (left) embraces the newly elected president Abdul Latif Rashid while speaker of parliament, Mohamed al-Halbousi, looks on (right). Source: Screen grab, Iraqi television.