Conflicting approaches delay government formation in Iraq 

Muqtada al-Sadr, who won the maximum number of seats in the October elections, is determined to go against the general practice of a consensus government and wants to form a government based on political majority, claiming that it will establish accountability

March 22, 2022 by Abdul Rahman
Iraq government formation delays
Muqtada al-Sadr. (Photo: Karar Essa/Anadolu Agency)

It has been almost six months since the parliamentary elections in Iraq, but the political formations in the country have failed to come to a consensus on forming a government. While such delays are nothing new, this time it is being attributed to disagreements over whether Iraq needs a political majority government or a government based on consensus as has been the practice so far.   

Muqtada al-Sadr, whose Sadrist movement has the largest number of seats in the Iraqi parliament, has called for a government based on political majority as a way to fix accountability for those in power. While he has managed to win the support of parties both inside and outside the parliament, this has not proved enough. He has been challenged by the coalition led by former prime minister Nouri al-Maliki who wants to continue with the consensus-based government despite its apparent unpopularity. 

The delay has led to further suffering of the people, who were on the streets for more than a year demanding a change in government. It has also led to growing speculation of international interference in the country’s political sphere. 

Sadr’s way to address concerns over Muhasasa  

The people of Iraq have gradually lost faith in the political system created under the US-led occupation in 2005. Every election since 2005 has seen a declining voting percentage and a growing number of protests against the government of the day. Iraq witnessed its largest and longest protests – for over a year – in 2019-2020. The main complaint raised by the protesters has been widespread corruption and inefficiency, which they claim is rooted in the country’s muhasasa system.   

Muhasasa is a system of distributing the major political posts among the main sects in Iraq. It was introduced under US pressure as an attempt to resolve the armed conflict in the country on sectarian lines post the US invasion. However it has now expanded into a broad political quota system applicable to most of the posts, big or small. This bargaining takes place before any government is formed in the country. Observers note that this system allows all political parties to appropriate whatever public funds they can without any fear, and no one is held accountable for inefficiency.    

Soon after the October election results, sensing the popular sentiment, Sadr announced his intention to change the way of government formation in the country. “I believe that the first thing that should be done in the future for the homeland is [forming] a national majority government, so that we will have in parliament two parties: loyalists and opposition,” he said. He linked the consensus government to “corruption, terrorism, occupation, normalization and disintegration.” 

The Iraqi Communist Party, which participated in the popular protests and boycotted last year’s election over the issue, has come out in open support of this proposition. Noting that the political majority government may not undo the system completely, the Iraqi Communist Party argues that it will still make the system much more accountable as people will know whom to blame.   

The alliance of Sunni parties called Al-Siyada (Taqadum and al-Azim), with 51 seats, and the Kurdish Democratic Party (KDP), with 31 seats, have already formed a tripartite alliance with the Sadrist movement. The alliance was able to win the seat of the speaker of the parliament for Taqadum’s Mohammad al-Halbousi on January 9. 

Some of the independent MPs (six members belonging to the Independent Iraq Alliance) have also extended support to Sadr’s initiatives. This will make achieving a majority of 165 seats in the 329-seat parliament easier. However, there are some major hurdles remaining. 

Strong opposition to government based on majority 

According to the Iraqi constitution, a new president has to be elected within 30 days of the first session of the parliament. However, all attempts to elect a new president have failed so far. The February 8 vote for the post of president did not take place due to lack of the required two-third quorum as members of the Sadr-led block stayed away. 

On February 13, Iraq’s supreme court ruled out the candidacy of Hoshyar Zebari citing corruption charges. A new session has been called on Saturday to elect the president. However, even if the parliament is successful in electing the president, it will also have to finalize the name of the new prime minister within 30 days. Failure to this would lead to dissolution of the current parliament and fresh elections.  

Maliki, who leads the consensus block, has opposed efforts to form a majority government. He has been able to form a Coordination Framework with smaller Sunni and Kurdish parties. His State of the Law coalition has 33 seats and has been able to mobilize smaller Shia and Sunni parties, including the Fatah alliance affiliated to the Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF) militias. It has also won the support of smaller Kurdish groups.     

Even if Sadr is able to form a majority with the support of independents, his partner groups, particularly the KDP and the Sunni parties, will be hesitant to be part of the government due to fear of possible instability caused by groups such as Fatah. Though Fatah lost the majority of its seats this time, winning just 17, it is considered to have a strong popular base and the backing of Iran.  

Sadr, who was once a staunch US opponent, has emerged as a nationalist face in the last elections and has tried to balance his position between the US and Iranian positions on issues like the presence of US forces in the country as well as the alleged presence of Israeli agents. He has also opposed the functioning of the PMF. This makes a government led by Sadr a potential target for powers seeking instability in the country.  

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