Iraq may face deadlock over government formation, experts say

Sunni parliamentary speaker's re-election could be the first step in a wrangle over top positions

Iraq's re-elected parliament Speaker Mohammed Al Halbousi with the newly elected MPs in Baghdad on January 9.  Reuters
Powered by automated translation

Iraq faces a long government formation process despite the re-election of a parliamentary speaker, experts say.

Competing political blocs claimed to hold a parliamentary majority during the first session of parliament since the October 10 elections.

On Sunday, acting parliamentary speaker Mahmoud Al Mashahadani was surrounded by shouting members of cleric Moqtada Al Sadr's political bloc. Mr Al Mashahadani, who was trying to certify the votes of MPs, was caught in the melee and suddenly fell ill. He was taken to hospital, forcing the session to be briefly adjourned.

But proceedings resumed and Mohammed Al Halbousi was elected for a second term as speaker. He won with 200 votes from 228 MPs.

“The vote yesterday doesn’t necessarily signal a cohesive government formation moving forward yet,” said Renad Mansour, director of the Iraq Initiative at London’s Chatham House.

“Deadlock is still very much there and won't be very obvious as to who will become prime minister,” he told The National.

Mr Mansour said the process of selecting a president and prime minister would not be as “smooth” as Mr Al Halbousi’s re-election.

On paper, Iraq’s governing system is outlined in the post-Saddam Hussein constitution, adopted in 2005. But informally, post-2003 has seen an agreement where the prime minister is a member of the Shiite majority, the speaker is a Sunni and the largely ceremonial role of president is held by a Kurd.

Other positions in government are expected to be divided based on the ruling political parties' sectarian and ethnic background.

The current president, Barham Salih, a well respected Kurdish official is expected to end his time in office.

Iran-backed groups abstained from voting for Mr Al Halbousi in the session because “they saw this as part of Moqtada Al Sadr’s step to gain a majority government. So now the conversation becomes which group is the largest bloc”, Mr Mansour said.

Iraq's constitution says the largest bloc in the Council of Representatives is responsible for "the formation of the Council of Ministers," or cabinet, having huge influence on which parties control key portfolios.

Iran-backed groups pledged to approach the Supreme Court to contest the legality of the appointments.

"What happened today inside the parliament is illegal and will have dire consequences on the state level," said Fatah legislator Humam Al Tamimi.

Parliament now has 30 days from the first session to elect the country's new president, who will then ask the largest bloc to form a government within 15 days.

There were heated debates and shouting among MPs over which party had the most number of seats.

Mr Al Halbousi’s win signifies that the Sadrist movement is the largest bloc in parliament, especially as he got a huge number of endorsements from the bloc. However, in Iraqi politics “no-one understands who the largest bloc is”, Mr Mansour said.

In previous elections, rival blocs have clashed over whether MPs can change blocs once election results are ratified, leading to confusion as to how the largest bloc is designated.

Much could come down to compromise and backroom deals, rather than constitutional process.

An agreement was reached between the Sadrists, who won the majority of seats in parliament, the Kurdish Democratic Party and the Sunni blocs, to re-elect Mr Al Halbousi.

For Lahib Higel, a senior Iraq analyst at the Belgium-based International Crisis Group, the same constellation may not hold to appoint the president or the prime minister.

“Sadr’s victorious speech has not abated since results of the October 10 elections were released. His rivals have sought to delegitimise the elections, form their own majority and today, dismiss the procedure of the opening session,” she said.

"The opposite side will not only try to overthrow the government with legal and political tools but will escalate violently.”

Iraq, she said, could witness another wave of political assassinations “among Shia parties and armed groups have already occurred and may become more frequent and high-profile."

Updated: January 11, 2022, 6:29 AM