The appointment of Prime Minister designate Adel Abdul Mahdi has ended a decade long Dawa Party dominance over the position, with observers hopeful his nomination may indicate a shift from sectarian governance towards more technocratic rule.
Newly elected President Barham Salih appointed Mr Abdul Mahdi to form a government on Tuesday after months of political wrangling following the May 12 general election. Mr Abdul Mahdi now has a month to nominate a cabinet that can bring together sharply divided political fractions.
"It's symbolically a big change that the next prime minister of Iraq is not from the Dawa party," Renad Mansour, senior researcher at London's Chatham House, told The National.
After the US invasion in 2003, the Shiite Dawa Party – long-banned under Saddam Hussein – emerged as a dominant force in Iraq. From Iraq’s first post-Saddam election in 2005 until now, Iraq’s prime minister has been a Dawa Party member. First Ibrahim Al Jaafari, then Nouri Al Maliki and lately Haider Al Abadi.
But internal divisions and widespread dissatisfaction with the political status quo has gradually eroded the party’s support.
Mr Al Maliki’s tenure was criticised for sectarianism and undermining power-sharing in Iraq, with both Sunnis and Kurds complained of being excluded from key positions. When the government lost control of a third of the country to ISIS in 2014, Mr Al Maliki was replaced by Mr Al Abadi.
Rivalry between the two party members meant that the Dawa Party fielded candidates on two different lists in the May election. “It’s very clear the party is in a huge mess," Mr Mansour said.
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During the protracted negotiations that followed the vote, both politicians claimed to have secured enough seats to form a new government; Mr Al Abadi by forming an alliance with populist cleric Moqtada Al Sadr, Mr Al Maliki by aligning himself with the Shiite militia Badr Organisation leader Hadi Al Ameri.
Yet it was Mr Al Sadr who had won a plurality, by appealing to working class poor who had grown frustrated with the widespread corruption of an entrenched elite. His railing against corruption, opposition to both Iranian and American policies in Iraq, and promise to pursue non-sectarian politics contrasted with growing dissatisfaction with the Dawa party.
Mr Al Sadr did not stand for the premiership himself but ended up as king-maker, with Mr Abdul Mahdi being seen as a suitable candidate. He doesn’t belong to the Dawa party, is perceived as a technocrat and has a relatively good track record in government.
Mr Abdul Mahdi says he is not allied with either of the main Shiite blocs. He was previously a member of the Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council, a large Shiite group with close ties to Iran.
His selection for the role has encouraged some observers. “The good news is that both President Barham Salih and Prime Minister designate Abdul Mahdi have been established as respected leaders who have records of a commitment to governance, a willingness to listen and compromise, and who seek unity over division," said Andrew Parasiliti, director of the RAND Corporation’s Global Risk and Security Centre.
But although Dawa now finds itself on the outside looking in, Mr Parasiliti warned against discounting the party entirely. “There could be some accommodations for posts with a new government, we have to wait and see.”
Last month, the party urged for unity among its members, emphasising the importance of setting aside differences to present a united front.
The Dawa Party, which translates as The Call, was formed in 1957 as an Islamist party to challenge the secular Arab nationalism then dominant in Iraq. Suppressed by the Baath Party in the 1970s and later outlawed in the 1980s, most of the party’s leadership lived in exile in Iran until after the US invasion.