Seven months have passed since Iraq’s last national elections, in October, but there is no end in sight for the drawn-out process of forming a government. The country’s political system remains impaired by the ruling system that has existed in Iraq since the invasion of 2003. This system was meant to ensure that no real majority government could be formed, and that politics would be conducted along confessional lines. Under this system, power and resources have been divided among political parties in a quota system. But since 2019 (the year that the latest wave of Iraqi protests erupted), the post-2003 system has become increasingly difficult to implement, as alliances and voting patterns have changed. 

During the last fifteen years, Shia alliances formed to negotiate with Sunni and Kurdish alliances to form a government. Now, however, there are Shia, Sunni, and Kurdish parties on one side competing with rivals from the same ethno-confessional groups on the other side. That sect and ethnicity no longer determine political outcomes may seem like a positive development, insofar as politics is moving away from blind sectarianism. But so far at least, in the absence of a strong opposition, the fragmenting of confessionalism in Iraqi politics has simply made the ruling system even more precarious, and the competition for power and resources even more cutthroat. 

The current stalemate is a case in point—the result of intra-sectarian rivalries and the lack of a clear majority for any one alliance in parliament. The Iraqi president is chosen by the 329-member Council of Representatives; the presence of a two-thirds majority—a quorum—is required for appointment. The president then asks the nominee of the largest bloc to form a government, with parliament approving it with a simple majority. As no single party or alliance is realistically able to achieve the two-thirds majority, the only practical option for forming a government is building coalitions. 

But since October, such a coalition has failed to form. The cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, whose party picked up the most seats in the election, leads the Save the Homeland Alliance, which also includes the speaker of parliament, Mohammed al-Halbusi, and the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP). This three-party alliance has tried to ally with other members of parliament to reach the two-thirds threshold, but has come up short: at best, it has persuaded just over 200 members to attend parliament, short of the 220 required for quorum to elect a president. Sadr wants to form a majority government without his rivals, as do his Sunni and Kurdish partners. His opponents in the Coordination Framework (CF), made up of Shia Islamist parties led by former prime minister Nouri al-Maliki and their Sunni and Kurdish allies, holds veto power: the approximately 120 members of parliament in the CF are enough to prevent the quorum needed to elect a president. Maliki and his allies want Sadr to form a coalition government that includes all the major parties—which has been the method for government-forming in the past. So far, Sadr has refused. 

Learn More About Century International

Sadr’s Failed Ploy

Twice in late March, Sadr’s alliance tried and failed to corral members of parliament from smaller parties and independents to join it to reach the supermajority required to elect a president. Sadr then released a statement saying that the members of parliament who continued to boycott the presidential vote would have until early May to try to form a government without the Sadrists, and that the Sadrists would, at that point, still show up to vote on a president. The move was designed to apply pressure on the CF, and to set a clever trap: If the CF tried to form a government, the Sadrists would show up to vote for a president first. This attendance would push parliament past the 220-member threshold for quorum. But the CF would still have too few members present to elect a prime minister, and Sadr would win. This trap would allow the Sadrists to bypass the veto on government formation, and nominate the prime minister. The CF saw through the Sadrists’ ploy, and declared that they would not form a government without the Sadrists. And so the deadlock continues.

At the heart of the stalemate are three key battles between parties within each of the major ethnic-confessional groups (Shia Arabs, Sunni Arabs, and Kurds) vying for dominance of their constituencies and attempting to politically crush their opponents. 

The first battle is between Sadr and the CF—both are trying to take leadership of the Shia vote. Sadr frames his rivals as Iranian-backed stooges who operate militias that undermine the Iraqi state. The CF counters that they have more seats and so more legitimately represent the Shia majority; they also point out that Sadr—who once led a powerful militia, the Mahdi Army—is no stranger to fighting the state. Sadr has tried to coax part of the CF to join him to form a majority government; this attempt has so far been rebuffed. 

The second battle pits the KDP against the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK). The PUK has held the presidency since 2005, but the KDP has picked up the lion’s share of parliamentary seats among the Kurdish parties—and the KDP is adamant that the presidency should go to its candidate. 

Compromise resolves short-term needs but exacerbates Iraq’s grand crisis—a weakened state that is unable to deliver even minimal security and governance.

The third battle, between Sunni Arab parties, pits the incumbent Halbusi and his Sovereignty Alliance against the Azm Alliance, which comprises Islamists and other veteran Sunni politicians. Azm’s politicians despise being upended by the younger Halbusi, and they resent the continued dominance of Anbar governorate (where Halbusi was once governor). For his part, Halbusi boasts broader popularity and holds many more seats in parliament. 

Intractable Deadlock

The result of all of these battles is intractable deadlock. None has been won decisively—and there is no imminent resolution for any of them, either. The slow evolution of politics from inter-sectarian bargaining to intra-sectarian bargaining has not made the process any better. As a result, any deal to form a government seems to rely completely on what Sadr wants. 

The stalemate itself has winners and losers. For example, it makes it less likely that the KDP candidate for president will be chosen. In any new negotiations, the PUK will push its allies in the CF to work out a deal that ensures either a compromise candidate is put forward or the incumbent, Barham Salih (who is a PUK member), remains in his position. 

Halbusi has also begun to be weakened by the stalemate. In recent weeks, two influential opponents of the speaker—the Anbari politicians Rafi al-Issawi and Ali Hatem al-Suleiman—returned from exile after being cleared of terrorism charges in separate, sudden court decisions. There is speculation among Iraqi political analysts that the CF has sponsored the return of the exiled politicians to try to break up the Save the Homeland Alliance, by weakening the KDP and Halbusi. With Halbusi weakened, the CF might be able to convince Sadr to join the CF. This would, in turn, allow the CF to nominate the next prime minister, thereby returning to the kind of inclusive coalition government that the country had before 2019—and reestablishing a sectarian-driven political process, in which each ethno-sectarian grouping has to sort out its political disputes internally, and not through alliances outside the sect.

The failure so far of Sadr’s efforts to break off and absorb part of the CF into the Save the Homeland Alliance leaves him with three options. One, he can stick to his position and extend the deadlock while attempting to govern by stealth, and dominate parliament. Two, he could accept a compromise with the CF. Or three, he could call for early elections. This last scenario is dreaded by all sides and is not a quick solution. It would require a new elections law to be passed in parliament, budget allocations for the Independent High Electoral Commission (the body that organizes elections), technical preparations for voter registration and the voting process, and a decision by parliament to dissolve itself. These preparations would take at least a year, and Sadr is probably willing to use the threat of this delay to pressure the CF. 

Taking into account Sadr’s pivotal role and his three options, compromise is the most likely outcome of the current political crisis—as it has been after previous elections. And the likely compromise is the extension of the status quo in Iraqi politics—debilitating intra-sectarian rivalries over the spoils of the political system. Compromise resolves the short-term needs of all the factions but exacerbates Iraq’s grand crisis—a weakened state that is unable to deliver even minimal security and governance.

The next few weeks will see a resumption of intense political maneuvering after the Ramadan slowdown. But the current prime minister, Mustafa al-Kadhimi (who is aligned with Sadr and is loathed by the CF), would be happy to see the deadlock continue for some time, as it keeps him in his post and increases the chances he could remain as a compromise prime minister in any new government. The deadline Sadr gave the CF to form a government has expired, so it is expected he will try a new tactic to gain the upper hand. The CF will continue to pressure the KDP and Halbusi, as the Maliki-aligned bloc believes it can force Sadr into a compromise. Sadr frequently raises the prospect of going into opposition, but his dominance of parliament and ability to mobilise protests would make it unlikely for the CF to agree to a minority government. 

The fates of the KDP and Halbusi are now tied to Sadr, and they will work hard to avoid the breakup of their tripartite alliance, while gently pushing Sadr to accept a coalition government. Thus, the immediate outlook is continued deadlock while pressure on the KDP and Halbusi builds, and Sadr utilises public support to push back against the CF. 

The current crisis is a harbinger of two terrible and likely permanent scenarios: weak governments that do not tackle urgent crises and increasingly bitter rivalries that resort to violence for coercive political power. The resulting dysfunction, though not enough for the state to collapse in the short term, means that Iraq will limp on toward the edge of the cliff, postponing reform until the last possible moment.

header image: A woman waves an Iraqi flag after riot police rushed toward protesters on May 25, 2021, in Baghdad, Iraq. Protesters from across the country had gathered in Baghdad demanding government accountability. The country has bounced from one political crisis to another for more than two years. Source: Taha Hussein Ali/Getty Images