Sunday,17 February, 2019
Current issue | Issue 1408, (6 - 12 September 2018)
Sunday,17 February, 2019
Issue 1408, (6 - 12 September 2018)

Ahram Weekly

Political chaos in Iraq as parliament stumbles

Iraq at last has a new parliament, but a new government has yet to take shape amid further political turmoil and foreign meddling, writes Salah Nasrawi


Political chaos in Iraq as parliament stumbles
Political chaos in Iraq as parliament stumbles

Iraq’s new parliament met this week for its first session since the 12 May elections to choose a speaker and begin the process of forming a new government even as the country remains gridlocked in political and ethno-sectarian conflicts.  

The brief inaugural session of the 329-seat chamber was marred by disputes over the right to form a coalition that would form the government and the failure to choose the chamber’s presidency.

The wrangling came after two rival groupings claimed to hold the most seats in the parliament and therefore have the right to name a new prime minister and form a government after nearly four months of political uncertainty.

Monday’s session was chaired by its oldest member, Mohamed Ali Zaini, an 81-year-old British-educated oil economist. The session was held in camera, apparently to avoid any embarrassment caused by the expected bickering and walkouts.  

The meeting of the parliament was delayed by allegations of fraud that had earlier prompted Iraq’s Federal Supreme Court to order a partial manual recount of the votes cast in the elections.

Under Iraq’s complex system, the parliament should first choose a speaker, a post traditionally handed to a member of Iraq’s Sunni Muslim community. It should also elect two deputy speakers and a rapporteur.

Lawmakers have 30 days to elect a new president for the country, a position that under a consensual understanding goes to a member of the Kurdish community with at least two-thirds of the vote.

The president then asks the political coalition that has the largest number of seats in the parliament to nominate a prime minister who in turn presents a list of ministers for ratification by the assembly.

Traditionally, Shia groups that have won enough seats in parliament on their own form a coalition and are asked to nominate a prime minister before the daunting task of forging a political consensus with the country’s Kurds and Sunnis to form an ethno-sectarian power-sharing cabinet begins.

However, this time round the Iraqi Shia alliance has been badly fractured due to political disputes, leadership rivalries and dwindling popular support because of rampant corruption in the country and government inefficiency.

The divisions within the Shia leadership camp emphasised the need in the 2018 elections to move beyond purely ethno-sectarian alignments and seek a cross-communal parliamentary coalition.

Since the May poll, two rival Shia political blocs have been competing to draw up a majority bloc in the assembly and have sought to form the next government.

On Monday, a coalition including the Saaroon List led by prominent Shia cleric Muqtada Al-Sadr and the Victory List led by Prime Minister Haidar Al-Abadi claimed that it had collected enough lawmakers’ signatures to be declared the majority coalition.  

A rival alliance including the State of Law Coalition led by Vice-President Nouri Al-Maliki and the Fatah Alliance led by Hadi Al-Amiri also claimed to be in a position to represent the majority.

Also in contention are multiple Kurdish factions that are even more divided than usual following the Iraqi Kurdistan Regional Government’s (KRG) failed breakaway referendum last year.

The two main Kurdish parties, the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) which won most seats in Iraqi Kurdistan, have unveiled conditions for supporting the largest bloc in parliament in order to form the new government.

Among the many demands they have made to join the prospective government is an agreed-on mechanism to share power and wealth. However, most importantly, they are demanding the return of the oil-rich province of Kirkuk and other territories they lost to the Iraqi security forces after the botched referendum poll last year.

Yet, Kurdish internal divisions have weakened the ability of the Kurdish parties to press their demands. As things stood on Monday they had been unable to agree on a Kurdish candidate for the presidential post or to secure enough support for their demands from Baghdad.

Meanwhile, Iraq’s Sunnis remain in disarray, and though their political groups have never been united, they now appear more divided than ever and their leaders find themselves in crisis.

Bickering among Iraq’s Sunni groups over their demands for partnership and greater autonomy has intensified since the dust began to settle on the battle to drive Islamic State (IS) militants out of territories they seized in Iraq in 2014.

The Sunni leaders’ differences were highlighted during the elections when they were split into many blocs, with some aligning themselves with the Shia lists. On Monday, Sunni lawmakers proposed six candidates for the post of parliamentary speaker, displaying deep schisms as they try to find a way forward for their community.

One of the more alarming features of Iraq’s 2018 elections was foreign meddling by pressure, support or simple cash. Iran and the United States have now both reportedly stepped up their interference in efforts to form a new government in Iraq, apparently to swing their favourites into senior posts.

Both countries have had a history of electoral interference in Iraq after the US-led invasion of the country in 2003 by supporting candidates embracing Tehran’s and Washington’s interests in Iraq.

US Special Presidential Envoy in Iraq Brett McGurk and US Ambassador Douglas Silliman have been shuttling between the offices of Iraqi groups, hoping to enlist support for Al-Abadi to counter efforts by Iran’s point man in Iraq, Al-Quds Force commander Qassem Suleimani and Iranian Ambassador in Baghdad Iraj Masjedi to deny Al-Abadi a second term.

Other countries are also believed to have poured millions of dollars into Iraq in efforts to swing lawmakers behind their favourite politicians and revealing the extent of foreign interference in the country.

The long arms of Tehran, Washington and others are unsettling, and most Iraqis are understandably shocked by what they view as unprecedented attacks on their political system.

Iraq’s political crisis also comes at a time of growing unrest in the southern cities over poor public services and neglect. Locals disgruntled by shortages of electricity, food and other supplies, unemployment and pervasive graft have been trying to shut down the region’s oil fields and close trade routes with Iran. 

Iraqi police used tear gas and live ammunition on Sunday and Monday to disperse protesters at Basra local-government offices in southern Iraq, as well as at crossing points with Iran and entrances to the southern oilfields.

IS militants have also reappeared in central Iraq, and they have been carrying out attacks reminiscent of the kind that characterised the group’s insurgency in the years before 2014.

Post-2003 Iraqi politics have been notoriously unstable. Since the fall of the regime of former dictator Saddam Hussein’s dictatorship, all Iraqi governments have plunged the country into months of crisis before a compromise has been reached.

On Monday, Interim Speaker of the Parliament Mohamed Ali Zaini asked the country’s Federal Supreme Court to try to determine which coalition should be allowed to form the new government. Meanwhile, more carrots and sticks are in play to try to swing the process to either side.

However, it is unlikely that a court ruling will put an end to the political crisis in Iraq. With the political drama in the country expected to become ever more bizarre, Iraq’s descending into further instability seems more and more likely.

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