LONDON – The Shia Dawa Party has been the dominating force in Iraqi politics since the toppling of Saddam Hussein. Parliamentary elections in May, however, reversed the party’s fortunes.
After the appointment of Adel Abdul-Mahdi as prime minister-designate, for the first time since 2005 the Dawa Party is set to lose the most important political post in the country.
The elections May 12, which delivered a blow to outgoing Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi, were followed by months of political manoeuvring. “Iraqi politics is usually governed by backroom deals,” said Renad Mansour, a research fellow at the Chatham House think-tank.
From mid-September on, the new leadership took shape, starting with the election of Mohammed al-Halbousi, the governor of Anbar province, as speaker of parliament. On October 2, parliament chose veteran Kurdish politician Barham Salih as president. Within two hours, Salih named Abdul-Mahdi prime minister-designate.
Adhering to the power-sharing formula that has dominated Iraqi politics since the US-led invasion in 2003, Halbousi is of Sunni origin, Salih is Kurdish and Abdul-Mahdi Shia.
In debates among the largest political parties about the next prime minister, Abdul-Mahdi emerged as “the least offensive candidate”, Mansour said. The Sadrists first pushed for Abdul-Mahdi but, given his reputation and religious credentials, “no one had anything against him.” Abdul-Mahdi is no stranger to Iraqi politics, previously having served as vice-president and oil minister.
Similar to previous elections, foreign powers such as Iran and the United States tried to influence the selection process for top political posts. In this context some saw the election of Halbousi as a victory for Iran. The situation, however, is more complicated, said Kirk H. Sowell, publisher of the Inside Iraqi Politics newsletter.
Halbousi was elected through a deal with the pro-Iranian camp but he is not in any way ideologically pro-Iranian,” Sowell said. Observers see Salih and Abdul-Mahdi as respected by Iran and the United States.
Abdul-Mahdi is trying to form a governing coalition before a constitutional November 1 deadline. In an unprecedented move, he started a website through which candidates could apply for a ministerial role online. As part of the application, candidates must provide a statement on their vision for the chosen department and detail “practical solutions.”
Offline, Abdul-Mahdi will have to balance the various demands of the powerful political players who put him in power. Muqtada al-Sadr, whose electoral list won the most seats in parliament, has demanded that key security portfolios should be given to independent candidates. This could provoke a clash with other political parties’ traditional efforts to secure key governmental posts to wield influence and distribute resources.
“Abdul-Mahdi’s position is not yet secure and it must be remembered that he lacks a political base and does not yet head a solid parliamentary alliance,” said Fanar Haddad, a senior research fellow at the Middle East Institute of the National University of Singapore. “In other words, there is a real risk of Abdul-Mahdi being an unusually weak prime minister.”
For Salih and Abdul-Mahdi it will be “a question of capability, not desire” whether they can implement meaningful reforms, Mansour said, adding that the political parties, not the voters, put Salih and Abdul-Mahdi in their positions, meaning they will be answerable to those powers.
Amid strong demands for change by large parts of the population, the new government will face many challenges.
A series of bombings in Baghdad showed how vulnerable the security situation remains after the official defeat of the Islamic State was claimed in December.
In the economic realm, a water shortage forced the Agriculture Ministry to announce plans to reduce the areas in which 2018-19 winter crops will be planted by 55%. An overall failure to tackle unemployment could lead to further mass protests.
Protesters’ demands have included an end to the ethno-sectarian quota system that has been the foundation of Iraqi politics since 2003. Mansour said there has been progress in the sense that all sides agree on the need for “major change” and political leaders are also no longer able to simply rely on identity-based politics. However, he added that “no one doing serious research in Iraq is saying the muhassasah [ethno-sectarian quota] system is over.”
Haddad said structural change in Iraq needed time. “For now, the political system is likely to survive and recreate itself in the form of another government divided among the main political forces,” he said. Beyond the top ministerial posts, it will be key to observe who obtains deputy roles and other posts in the bureaucracy, he said.
Haddad said he expected “some limited progress here and there but the reform agenda is likely to dominate political rhetoric more than political action.”