Bitter row over next Iraqi President points to dangerous political deadlock

President Barham Salih, running for second term, will stay in position until further notice

Iraq's President Barham Salih shows his inked finger at a polling station in Baghdad, in the parliamentary election in October 2021. Reuters
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Iraq’s political negotiations and backroom deals will determine who becomes the next president as government formation continues, months after October's general election was held, experts have told The National.

The country’s current President Barham Salih will remain in office until further notice, after a ruling by the Federal Supreme Court late on Sunday. He has been nominated for a second term by the Kurdish Patriotic Union (PUK) party.

Twenty-five candidates, who have been approved by the Iraqi Parliament, are running for the role, including Mr Salih.

However, Members of Parliament failed to vote for the country's next president last week due to a lack of quorum, after many MPs said they would boycott the vote amid competing demands over presidential candidates.

While the role of the president in Iraq is largely ceremonial, the constitution requires the position to be filled before the official designation of the largest post-election political bloc can be made. The largest faction then goes on to form the government.

“The law is very flexible in this government but the delay does not mean that Mr Salih will take a second term,” Renad Mansour, the head of the Iraq Initiative at London’s Chatham House, told The National.

“Generally what we’ve seen in this government formation process, the use of law is heavily politicised and is used to delay the government formation as much as possible,” he said.

Backroom negotiations are continuing after the blocking of Hoshyar Zebari, who was nominated by the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP).

Mr Zebari, 68, who served as foreign minister for a decade after the 2003 US-led invasion that toppled dictator Saddam Hussein, was "suspended" from the race on February 6, on the eve of the scheduled date for a presidential vote in Parliament.

Various complaints were made against Mr Zebari on the grounds that his running would have been "unconstitutional" due to outstanding corruption charges against him.

Mr Zebari's nomination had caused tension between the Kurdistan region's main ruling parties, the KDP and PUK.

The parties have a long-standing agreement whereby the PUK nominates the Iraqi president of its choice and the KDP gets the presidency of the semi-autonomous Kurdish region of Iraq.

However, the KDP is seeking to gain more power after securing 31 seats in the 329-seat Parliament in October's election, while the Kurdistan Alliance — led by the PUK — won only 17.

"The KDP want to change Barham and they made it clear, they want to see if there’s a chance they can take over the position themselves, and the PUK has faced its own problems in recent years," Mr Mansour said.

Constitutionally, electing the president is the second step in forming a new government.

Other possible candidates recently named include Iraq's Foreign Minister Fuad Hussein and PUK veteran politician Latif Rashid, but the next steps in the selection process will be difficult to predict.

Who is Barham Salih?

A former political prisoner during the Saddam Hussein regime, Mr Salih rose through the ranks of the opposition PUK before fleeing to the UK in the 1980s, where he studied computer science at the University of Liverpool.

He returned to Iraqi politics, rejoining the opposition when the Kurdish region was an enclave of resistance against the Iraqi Baath party after the First Gulf War.

In October 2018, Mr Salih became the ninth president of Iraq when Parliament elected him with an overwhelming majority.

He has held several high-ranking positions in Baghdad's central government, serving as the deputy prime minister for economic affairs and the head of the parliamentary economic committee from 2005 to 2009.

Mr Salih was also the planning minister in the Iraqi transitional government and in 2004 held the role of deputy prime minister in Iraq’s interim government, before the country's first official elections in 2005, after the end of the Baath regime.

He later became the prime minister of the Kurdistan regional government from 2009 to 2011.

Updated: February 15, 2022, 12:37 PM