Why is it So Hard for Iraq to Form A Government?

Mustafa al-Kadhimi has emerged as the compromise prime minister designate, but his potential appointment is built on shaky foundations.

Expert comment Published 25 April 2020 3 minute READ
A member of Iraqi security forces stands guard behind a yellow line after the government declared curfew due to coronavirus. Photo by Fariq Faraj Mahmood/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images.

A member of Iraqi security forces stands guard behind a yellow line after the government declared curfew due to coronavirus. Photo by Fariq Faraj Mahmood/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images.

On April 9, Iraqi President Barham Salih gathered the Shia, Kurdish and Sunni political blocs at the presidential palace to task head of intelligence Mustafa al-Kadhimi with forming a government.

Kadhimi is the third prime minister-designate assigned since Prime Minister Adil abd al-Mehdi resigned in November, in the wake of mass protests against government corruption and the country’s ethno-sectarian based political system.

Kadhimi’s two predecessors, Muhammad Tawfiq Allawi and Adnan al-Zurfi, both failed to form a government. This third attempt came as Iraq struggles with repeated crises since October 2019, when the government began responding with deadly force to large-scale mass protests, killing more than 600 and injuring tens of thousands.

In January, the assassination of Qasem Soleimani escalated tensions between the United States and Iran, with Iraq stuck in the middle and becoming the home for regular tit-for-tat attacks. The Islamic State — never completely defeated — took advantage of these crises and increased its attacks in disputed territories.

The outbreak of COVID-19 challenges the country’s fragile public health sector, while the decline in the price of oil will make it harder for leaders to pay the public salaries that keep the system (and patronage) moving.

What does the delay in forming a government amid multiple crises mean for the post-2003 Iraqi political system?

Iraq’s post-2003 political system is designed to withstand crisis. Over the years, political parties reflecting the country’s ethnic and sectarian divides have had a tacit understanding that crises represent a risk to their collective interests. These elite stakeholders have together weathered civil war, insurgency and multiple protests — despite deep conflicts with one another.

For instance, in September 2018 protesters attacked most major political party headquarters and the Iranian consulate in Basra, and authorities killed some 20 protesters.

Since the May election of that year, the fragmented Shia elite had been unable to even declare which side has the largest parliamentary bloc, let alone decide on a government.

But after the September crisis, the previously gridlocked parties swiftly came together to form an “understanding” that pushed through the impasse leading to the Mehdi government. In 2020, however, Iraq’s political parties were slower to come back together despite the multiple crises — far greater than 2018. The system is less able to swiftly fix itself, based primarily on the fragmentation of the elite — and their determination to prevent any challenge to their rule.

Why did the two prior attempts fail?

The two previous prime minister-designates each fell short for different reasons. When I met Allawi in February at the prime minister’s guesthouse in Baghdad, he was very clearly convinced that his mandate was to sideline the parties.

He hoped that simply choosing technocratic ministers outside the elite pact, with the support of Moqtada al-Sadr behind him, would garner support from protesters and the disillusioned public. He failed, however, because his cabinet had to go through parliament and the parties rejected what they saw a threat to the elite pact and the system.

Zurfi similarly failed after being directly appointed in March by Salih after the Shia parties failed to come up with a candidate. From the beginning, then, Zurfi faced challenges because parties were not in agreement. He attempted to directly confront his opposition, and spoke out against Iranian influence in Iraq. As a result, Zurfi was unable to even get to parliament with his proposed cabinet, as the Shia parties got back together to bring him down.

The failure of both strategies — Allawi attempting to work outside the elite party system and Zurfi trying to target certain parties — reveals tensions in Iraq’s political system. This fragmentation strains the parties’ ability to swiftly unite, and the system’s ability to withstand crises.

The endemic problems are a consequence of fragmentation, including the failure following the 2018 elections to declare governing parliamentary bloc. Moreover, after that election, newcomers into the political system (two-thirds of the MPs are serving their first term) are increasingly making their own demands and less willing to blindly toe party lines.

Can Kadhimi overcome the impasse?

Kadhimi’s appointment as prime minister-designate nonetheless is on shaky foundations. His appointment had previously faced a veto from Iran and its allied groups which make up the Fateh bloc. Kataeb Hezbollah, an armed group close to Iran and linked to the Popular Mobilization Units, issued a statement accusing Kadhimi with blood on his hands for the deaths of Soleimani and Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis.

Many Fateh bloc members had for months vetoed Kadhimi’s name due to this allegation. Immediately before Kadhimi addressed the nation for the first time, Iraqi state television broadcast a prerecorded statement by PMU (and Fateh) leader Qais al-Khazali, who had also previously accused Kadhimi of spying for the Americans and being complicit in the two killings.

Khazali, who commands the second-largest party within Fateh, accepted the party line to back Kadhimi but came out with his own conditions on television. However, the concerns about the COVID-19 crisis and the collapse of the price of oil finally brought all sides to compromise — a design of the political system.

Kadhimi has signalled he will play by the old rules with these stakeholders. Because of the magnitude of these simultaneous crises, Iraqi politics is moving back to the post-2003 norm. The ethno-sectarian based political system is geared to weather such existential crises more than it is to handling day-to-day governance. Despite the notion of “post-sectarianism” in Iraq, this system is based on ethno-sectarian political party compromise.

In his television address, Khazali, who had previously attempted to move away from sectarian language, explained that the process of selecting a prime minister is reserved to the Shia, who have the right as the majority, and not to Salih, a Kurd.

Over the years Kadhimi has expressed an admiration of the bravery of the protesters and of the importance of civil society. Many Iraqi civil society activists owe their lives to the work of the former intelligence chief. However, he has also been part of the same system that has violently suppressed protesters.

As the compromise prime minister-designate, he will find it difficult to transform his country as long as he plays by the rules of post-2003 Iraq — an irony not lost on the protesters who immediately rejected the candidacy of a man whom until recently many protesters had supported.

This article was originally published in The Washington Post