The long road to Iraq’s government formation

With the election results finally out, Iraq enters a new uncertain phase

An Iraqi woman and her daughter outside a polling station in Basra, on October 10, during the country's parliamentary elections. The results were confirmed on Monday. AFP
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Nearly three months after Iraq’s parliamentary elections, the results are now confirmed. Iraq’s highest court, the Federal Supreme Court, ratified the election results after considering objections from an Iranian-backed alliance of Shiite Islamist parties that saw their influence wane in the country. Shortly after the court’s decision was announced on Monday, the detractors declared their begrudging acceptance of the results. Iraqi political parties now enter a new phase of negotiations to decide on the make up of the country’s next government.

As negotiations go into full swing, Iraq wraps up another difficult year with more uncertainty about the direction of the country. In theory, Islamist Shiite cleric, Moqtada Al Sadr, with his Sadrist bloc’s 73 seats, should be the one forming the next government as he is the winner of the elections. But without a majority and given the shifting alliances, it is unclear whether Mr Al Sadr can pull together a majority in parliament to name the next prime minister, who will be tasked with forming the future government. The second largest bloc is held by parliamentary speaker Mohammed Al Halbousi, whose Taqadum party won 37 out of the 329 seats in parliament, Mr Al Halbousi is biding his time to announce an alliance with the strongest bloc to participate in government formation.

Judge Jassim Mohammed Aboud (Centre) head of the Iraqi Federal Supreme Court and other judges attend a session in Baghdad, December 27. EPA

And while several of the Iranian-backed militant Islamist groupings, like Hadi Al Ameri’s Fatah bloc, lost out in the elections, it is former prime minister Nouri Al Maliki who is eying a strong comeback to the political stage. With 33 seats, Mr Al Maliki’s State of Law bloc, is angling for a stronger role in the next government based on post-electoral alliances. In reality, Mr Al Maliki should not be given the chance. He represents just 10 per cent of the seats. The Iraqi electorate has rejected him for his politics of corruption and Iranian-meddling. However, the delay in declaring the final results of the elections has undoubtedly benefited the losers. In the weeks since the results were announced, losing parties have been courting others like the Kurdish bloc and seeking to strike deals through which they can ensure they have a share of the proverbial government pie.

The delay in declaring the final results of the elections has undoubtedly benefited the losers

Qais Al Khazali, founder and leader of Asaib Ahl Al Haq, one of the more extreme militias in Iraq, declared that he will accept that court’s ruling, but in the same statement, said he believes there was widespread fraud and would work through “political and other means” to change the political process. The euphemism is not lost on Iraqis – “other means” refers to the use of force that Al Khazali is known for. Reuters reported last week that Iran had pushed the militias to accept the result. Its report, based on unnamed sources, alludes to Iran once more playing the long game in Iraq and wanting to influence it without direct confrontation.

Iraqi supporters of Sadr's movement celebrate after Iraq's Supreme Court ratified the results of parliamentary election, in Najaf, on December 27. Reuters

Yet these extremists should not be allowed to force their agenda back to the fore. Iraqi voters cast their ballots in support of those who called for nationalist – not sectarian – leadership, anti-corruption and an end to Iranian meddling. There are a number of developments as a result of the elections: the clear political fracturing of Islamist Shiite alliances, the emergence of a strong independent bloc and the losses endured by political parties more closely allied with Iran.

Alliances between different groupings are changing, not based on ideology but on narrow political interests. The focus at the moment is who will become the next prime minister – and whether the incumbent Mustafa Al Kadhimi is able to maintain his position. Mr Al Kadhimi still represents Iraq's best chance at stability. Since becoming Prime Minister in May 2020, he began to address a number of Iraq’s most endemic problems, including corruption, economic weakness and the infiltration of militias in the state. However, he has not yet achieved success in tackling any of these ills completely. Mr Al Kadhimi’s strength lies in the fact that he is not beholden to a political party and is largely seen as a nationalist, not swayed by ethnic or sectarian beliefs.

Militants, though, are trying to taint him as an American puppet. The US and Iraq have agreed that 31 December 2021 will see the end of a “combat role” for American troops in the country. The announcement is more political than practical as the US ended its combat role years ago, and similar announcements have been made in the past. But both Mr Al Kadhimi and US President Joe Biden need to claim significant milestones.

Next week, on January 3, Iraq will be braced for the commemoration of the killing of the IRGC commander, Qassem Suleimani, and the leader of Iraqi militia groups, Abu Mahdi Al Muhandis. The Iranian leadership and their Iraqi allies have been signalling for weeks their intention to mark, with much bravado, the second anniversary of the American killing of these two commanders. Having lost significant ground during the elections, Iranian-allied militias are keen to show they can still influence the Iraqi street.

Early in the new year, President Barham Salih will have to convene the new parliament, which must name its new speaker and endorse a new government within 90 days. Mr Salih himself is vying to maintain his position as president. He has been effective in bringing different sides together and was instrumental in naming Mr Al Kadhimi as prime minister last year, an appointment that filled a vacuum created by the resignation of former prime minister Adel Abdul Mahdi, after national protests swept the country towards the end of 2019. It is unclear whether Mr Salih will be able to play the same role again.

Since 2003, Iraq has gone from one transition to the next and the ultimate goal of stability and prosperity for the country have remained elusive. While politicians, pundits and analysts are poring over the election results and their political ramifications, there is little hope that Iraq's current political system is capable of delivering that ultimate goal.

Published: December 28, 2021, 1:30 PM