In the years since 2003, Iraq’s political system came under several challenges, including a Sunni political boycott, the threat of Kurdish secessionism, and two sectarian wars. The post-Saddam state survived these existential threats, but it now faces new instability as leading Shia political figures fight for domination among themselves. Shia infighting has prevented the formation of a government following the October 2021 parliamentary election and risks triggering popular protests among the Iraqi public, which is already frustrated with poor services and corruption. In their dealings with Iraq, European policymakers should understand that, as sectarian political fighting has diminished, intra-sect battles have taken centre-stage.
In October’s election, the Sadrist Movement, a populist Shia party, won 73 seats, the largest secured by any party. Iraq operates a system of proportional representation designed to reflect the ethno-sectarian make-up of the country. As a result, no one party has been able to secure a majority since 2005. The last eight months have seen the country stuck in political limbo.
Since Iraqis went to the polls, the Sadrist Movement’s leader, Muqtada al-Sadr, has been seeking to assert his own dominance – and relegate his long-standing Shia rival, former prime minister Nouri al-Maliki, to the political margins. He has attempted to translate his seat share into a bid to consolidate the Shia share of power, allying himself with the Kurdistan Democratic Party and the Sunni Siyada (Sovereignty) Alliance. Sadr has rejected the traditional consensus model that incorporates all political parties, and instead wants to force other Shia parties into opposition. But this tripartite coalition lacks the two-thirds majority required to elect the president of the republic, who then designates the prime minister.
Having failed to form a majority government, Sadr has tried to persuade some of the Shia groups to join his coalition – but to no avail. They are adamant on joining forces as one Shia bloc to prevent any single Shia party monopolising the political scene. Just as in the past when smaller parties worked with Sadr against Maliki to prevent the latter from forming a government alone, so today some of these same groups have switched sides to balance against Sadr.
In a bid to break the impasse Sadr has now directed his parliamentarians to resign. This move allows him to deflect blame for the delay in government formation. It also allows him to express his frustration with all political parties, including his allies, who he does not believe are committed enough to a majority government. However, because parliament is in recess, the new MPs have not been sworn in. As a result, Sadr is positioned to benefit from this move, as it forces his rivals to present more concessions – such as offering lucrative ministries and his choice of prime minister – to keep him in the system. Outside it, he poses a threat to the state, whether through delegitimisation of the political system, the mobilisation of protests, or the spectre of violence.
By having his MPs resign during the parliamentary recess, Sadr is also protecting himself from any backlash from summer protests, as his move attempts to demonstrate his own dissatisfaction with the political elite. In fact, he is in a position to co-opt potential protests and use them as a tool to pressure his political rivals. Even before the October poll, Sadr threatened not to support any government formed without him. Having invested in, and benefited from, the political system for years, Sadr will only leave it if he has concluded that the best route to political dominance is through mass mobilisation.
This is a battle for Shia dominance. While some in the West will be tempted to view these events as a struggle between pro-Western and pro-Iranian camps, the reality is that the competing parties overlap in their ideological leanings. Both Sadr and Maliki have longstanding – albeit at times prickly – relations with Tehran. For this reason, other Shia political figures (such as former prime minister Haider al-Abadi and Ammar al-Hakim), who are considered more Western-leaning, are opposing Sadr and siding with other Shia groups. These include groups such as the Fatah Alliance, which have more antagonistic views towards the West. Shia parties are invested in preserving the political equilibrium in order to maintain their share of the political spoils.
In fleeting moments of stability, Shia parties have challenged one another for power. After the 2008 civil war, Maliki attempted to establish himself as the dominant Shia leader and launched the Charge of the Knights military campaign, taking on Sadr’s Mahdi Army. But in times of Shia internal conflict, the clerical establishment in Najaf normally intervenes to prevent instability in Iraq generally and among the Shia in particular. And, even though its ability to impose discipline on paramilitary groups in Iraq has weakened since the assassination of Qassem Soleimani, Iran’s role as a potential mediator between Shia political parties should not be underestimated.
This political uncertainty is hindering urgently needed governance reforms. In the past, supporters and allies of Shia leaders excused the neglect these leaders had shown to their communities because of the more pressing concerns of fighting terrorism and pushing back against secessionist Kurdish lobbying. Today, such threats are less immediate, and the Iraqi population is more focused on improvements in governance and services. This pressure has manifested itself through mass protests, which reached their zenith in the October protest movement in 2019, with hundreds of people killed in associated violence. Those protests effectively caused the collapse of the previous government and led to the most recent election. The wider Shia public could again turn to popular protest in response to the political impasse.
In examining the political situation in Iraq, European policymakers need to grasp that an important shift has occurred. Although the Iraqi political system no longer faces existential crises, the political infighting among the Shia risks creating a new form of crisis. In this struggle, Sadr may be considering moving the fight from parliament to the street.
High summer temperatures tend to expose the state’s inability to provide basic services, as rising demand for water and electricity goes unmet and creates cause for protest. In this environment of simmering public dissatisfaction, Shia political parties need to quickly recalibrate their role towards their Shia voter base and Iraqis as a whole. Iraq’s political system may have withstood numerous challenges to it since 2003, but current public dissatisfaction, if manifested through revolution-orientated (rather than reformist) protest, could create a new existential crisis.
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