Deadlocked and loaded: Iraq’s political inertia

Iraqi leaders’ inability to form a government or deal with national challenges is destroying the legitimacy of the state. They need to appoint a new type of prime minister.

A view of the Iraqi parliament building in Baghdad, Iraq, 30 March 2022. The Iraqi parliament failed to elect a new president of Iraq for the second time in a week, because of the Shiite political blocs boycotting the Iraqi parliament session, which was attended by about 170 MPs only amid a political crisis between the Iraqi political blocks. Photo: picture alliance/EPA/AHMED JALIL
A view of the Iraqi parliament building in Baghdad, Iraq, 30 March 2022
Image by picture alliance / EPA | AHMED JALIL

Iraq has been in political limbo since its parliamentary election in October 2021. Iraqi MPs have yet to form a government. While Iraq is no stranger to such dynamics, this prolonged paralysis has left a power vacuum that continues to destabilise the country. It is difficult to predict when someone will break the deadlock. And, even if a new government does emerge in the coming months, a key issue for European policymakers will be the type of prime minister who leads it.

The impasse in Baghdad will persist until MPs elect a new president – who will nominate a prime minister to form a government. The prime minister will then have 30 days to gain parliamentary approval for the new cabinet and programme for government. The informal political agreement in Iraq allocates the presidency to a Kurd, but Kurdish political parties have yet to agree on a candidate. If Shia parties decide on a candidate for prime minister before the Kurds nominate a president, this might force Kurdish parties to allow parliamentarians to freely choose from the pool of candidates – rather than give their seal of approval to a pre-selected candidate.

Meanwhile, public dissatisfaction is simmering due to Turkish airstrikes on Iraqi civilians, as well as political elites’ inability to address economic challenges or climate change. All this makes it increasingly likely that there will be further unrest. Indeed, the Sadrist Movement – a populist Shia party that has left the government – seems to be preparing for a street fight. Therefore, European countries that seek to work with Iraq on shared concerns, especially security issues, now need to deal with not only an incapacitated government but also an Iraqi state whose legitimacy is draining away.

Any new Iraqi government will have the urgent task of stabilising state institutions and restoring public faith in them

In this increasingly tense situation, any new Iraqi government will have the urgent task of stabilising state institutions and restoring public faith in them. In Iraqi elections, numerous political parties vie for just 329 parliamentary seats, with the result that none of them has ever won a majority under this system. In turn, the country has been led by a series of fragile consensus governments. This is partly because candidates for prime minister do not need to run in an election to be eligible for the job. The current prime minister and his predecessor have both been unelected – and, ultimately, weak – compromise candidates who have no party affiliation.

Some Western countries are betting that the incumbent, Mustafa al-Kadhimi, will stay on. And he hopes to do so. But many different rumours about Kadhimi’s fate have circulated widely in recent months – reflecting the uncertainty that pervades the political environment. Furthermore, Kadhimi’s prospects took a major hit in June 2022, when his biggest political backer, Sadrist Movement leader Muqtada al-Sadr, ordered the 73 MPs in his party to resign from parliament. Sadr made this tactical move out of frustration with his inability to form a majority government or to push his rivals into the role of the opposition. His campaign to form a majority government contributed to the political paralysis; it is one of the reasons why this is now the longest government formation process in Iraq’s post-2003 history. In the meantime, Kadhimi has continued to style himself as a mediator in the Middle East and to lobby Western governments to endorse his plans to stay in office.

The withdrawal of the Sadrist Movement has hurt Kadhimi’s chances of serving another term. However, it has done little to spur the formation of a new government. Members of Iraq’s Coordination Framework – a coalition of the main Shia political parties, excluding the Sadrist Movement – would jump at the opportunity to become prime minister.

The Coordination Framework, which comprises around 120 MPs, could provide two different types of premier: party leaders or less powerful members of second-tier parties. Potential candidates in the former group include Nouri al-Maliki of the State of Law coalition and Haider al-Abadi of the Victory Alliance (both of whom are former prime ministers), as well Hadi al-Ameri of the Badr Organization. The latter group includes Mohammed al-Sudani and Falih al-Fayyadh, who have the support of the Coordination Framework. Sudani is a former minister and a former member of the State of Law coalition. Fayyadh is the current chairman of the Popular Mobilisation Committee and a former national security adviser. The United States has sanctioned him for human rights violations under the Global Magnitsky Act.

If members of the coalition are adamant about choosing one of their own, Kadhimi has no chance of another term. This would also mean that the next prime minister would have the backing of a large political bloc. Accordingly, the new premier would be stronger than the last two – who had no legislative presence and whose cabinet members were accountable to the parties that nominated them rather than the nominal leader of the government.

For this reason, the type of prime minister who takes power is more important than the individual in question. If someone from the Coordination Framework emerges as the candidate, they should find it easier to pass legislation and even implement reforms than Kadhimi ever did.

However, there is also the question of political will. That is, a leader from an entrenched political party will have incentives to create policies that preserve the status quo. Given the current state of the political system, this would involve prioritising short-term popularity over the long-term needs of the country. Furthermore, many Iraqis have had enough of the corruption and poor governance in entrenched political parties – so, they would likely be sceptical of a prime minister from that background.

This public disquiet is increasing pressure on the process of government formation. And it may represent Kadhimi’s best chance of staying in office. If members of the Coordination Framework decide that a prime minister from their ranks would do more harm than good to their popularity – by generating public anger or unrest – Kadhimi may provide them with a desirable way out. To survive, however, he would have to make concessions to the main political parties that preserved the status quo while giving voters just enough hope of change to prevent protests. This would not be an easy balance to maintain.

Ultimately, European states would find it relatively difficult to work with a prime minister such as Maliki, Ameri, or Fayyadh due to their ties to Iran and hardline ideological leanings. But a premier in this mould would likely command a government strong enough to implement domestic policy effectively. Kadhimi’s past two years in office have laid bare his inability to address the significant challenges Iraq is facing. For example, Kadhimi has frequently railed against non-state armed actors, only to then acquiesce to their demands.

Europeans are understandably keen to see friendly faces in the next Iraqi government. But this would do no good if it merely maintained the status quo while slowly eroding the legitimacy and sovereignty of the state.

Therefore, someone such as Sudani – who has less political baggage than his more established rivals – could prove to be the most suitable candidate. A middle-ground prime minister would have the best chance of implementing domestic and foreign policy effectively.

Ten months after Iraq’s election, it is clear that the country needs urgent political action. It remains to be seen whether Iraqi political elites understand this.

The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of their individual authors.


Subscribe to our weekly newsletter

We will store your email address and gather analytics on how you interact with our mailings. You can unsubscribe or opt-out at any time. Find out more in our privacy notice.