The leader of the Sadrist Movement, Muqtada al-Sadr, surprised his allies before his rivals by asking lawmakers from his parliamentary bloc to resign and leave the political arena to his adversaries.
Many described Sadr’s move as an earthquake hitting the political process, while political pundits scurried to find an explanation to this extraordinary move and found little to answer their inquiries.
On the other hand, the rival Coordination Framework took the news as calmly as it could, but they were extremely pleased with this unexpected bounty.
At the time, his allies in Save the Homeland alliance were desperately looking for answers, while his rivals were making plans on how to make the most out of this opportunity that had fallen from the heavens to them.
The radical move raised many questions
On May 26, the Iraqi parliament passed a bill criminalizing ties with Israel which Sadr considered an important victory for his parliamentary bloc, thanking his MPs and God for the achievement in a tweet. The remarks were followed by another tweet on May 28, where he called for the controversial emergency food security bill to be passed. It was passed by a majority vote on June 8, which prompted Sadr to describe it as a victory in a similar tweet.
“Parliament’s approval of the Food Security Law is another victory for the reform axis, and it has proven to everyone the unprecedented strength of the Iraqi parliament in past years,” tweeted the Shiite cleric, demanding the formation of a parliamentary committee to follow up the implementation of the law.
One day after this Sadrist victory, he announced in a televised speech on the evening of June 9, instructing his MPs “to meet the days.”
Al-Sadr’s appearance and the content of his speech, as well as instructing his MPs to submit their resignations, constituted a great surprise among various circles.
Where is the Sadrist Movement?
Politicians and observers asked several questions, including what prompted Sadr to take this sudden decision, what are the reasons, and are there any other surprise steps coming? What is the planning for the next stage? What will he gain from this decision? Is there any plan followed by Sadr in fighting opponents? Does he have a straightforward reading of what will happen so that he pre-empts his rivals to get out of the political process before it collapses? And many other questions almost all remain unanswered, and perhaps remain so for some time to come.
The decision to withdraw, of course, has significant repercussions on the Sadrist Movement as they are transformed from a dominant and the largest parliamentary bloc to a movement outside parliament. Thus, they will lose all the political and economic privileges granted to them by hegemony and influential political presence during the past years.
Perhaps the explanation for Sadr’s move could have two sides.
The first is that the decision to withdraw is a strategic mistake that will cost him a heavy price, as his opponents will work hard to make sure they do not repeat past mistakes and give him the opportunity to return again and impose his hegemony, especially with regard to the Saraya al-Salam and the economic gains through its executive powers and the curtailment of its governmental positions.
On the second side, which is promoted by his supporters, Sadr is well aware that the current political system will not last long, and he will work through the popular movement to accelerate the overthrow of the regime and the advent of an alternative system that is more appropriate with the Iraqi reality, to the extent that some of them are indicating that Sadr may choose the presidential system instead of the parliamentary system, which failed to manage the country’s affairs during the past two decades.
Speculations have increased recently about the nature of the next steps of the movement and its leader in the coming days. Sadr confirmed his choice in a meeting in Najaf with his resigned MPs, where he thanked them for obeying his orders and asked them to stay alert and try to engage with the people and stay ready for another election if he decides to get into it. At the same time, he described the meeting as a “farewell.”
It is likely that Sadr has chosen seclusion and returned to religious studies to complete the requirements for obtaining a Hawza certificate to become a reference in the near future. Meanwhile, supporters and members of the movement go about their daily lives, waiting for the promised day for Sadr’s return to political life or his permission to move again later on.
All the speculation about demonstrations and taking to the street remains to be seen and it is unlikely to happen for the first few months and until after the government formation.
Framework and a dream to return to the fore
An informed source revealed that some of the leaders of the framework and parliamentary speaker Mohammed al-Halbousi were gathered for lunch in al-Jadriya on June 9, but Sadr’s televised speech that day turned the lunch invitation into a deliberation session. None of those present knew about the decision and were mostly dismissive of its seriousness, they believed that it is yet another maneuver by Sadr.
The framework, at its best, was not dreaming of this sudden decision that transformed the blocking third of the parliament to the largest unchallenged bloc overnight. Sadr presented the power to his rivals on a golden platter.
The framework received the news with total coolness, and decided not to meet on the same day the Sadrist MPs resigned, June 12, instead they arranged a meeting for the next day and issued a mute statement saying they welcome Sadr’s decision while confirming their intention to move towards forming the government as a constitutional entitlement.
A leading source in the framework stated that the meeting of the framework had been preceded by a meeting with the speaker of parliament behind the scenes, away from media attention, which ended with an agreement on the Sunni Sovereignty Alliance joining the framework, with the former retaining the position of parliamentary speaker. The framework had pledged acceptance.
The Coordination Framework could not believe their luck, and now it is working hard to move ahead and to make sure they replace the Sadrists. They have agreed with Halbousi to hold an extraordinary session in accordance with Article 58 of the constitution. They also started negotiations with the Kurds and Sunnis to ensure that the first session after parliament recess is a session to elect the president.
Kurdish and Sunni scene
The Sunnis are maintaining their status with the Sovereignty Alliance securing the position of the speaker of the parliament. The framework needs the alliance hence why it has reached an agreement with the latter that Halbousi holds his position in the legislature. The Shiite alliance also asked the parliament speaker to make up with Azm Alliance, led by Muthanna al-Samarrai, to divide ministerial portfolios and parliamentary committees.
The Kurdish scene has also changed somewhat as some observers view the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) as the biggest loser from the withdrawal of the Sadrist Movement. The Kurdish party understands the gravity of the situation and for that reason, they made an important change in the negotiating team, as each of Iraq’s Foreign Minister Fuad Hussein and the former minister of reconstruction Bangeen Rekani returned to lead the negotiation team, as they both have a solid relationship with the framework leadership.
The fortune of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) increased after they stood with the framework as part of the blocking third and its members did not take part in the March 26 parliamentary session to elect a president therefore the Tripartite Alliance failed to complete the quorum and subsequently failed to vote-in a head of state. The framework will be rewarding the PUK with what it wants, and for that purpose, asked them to start negotiating with the KDP to reach a consensus on the position of the president. It is not yet clear the extent of the latter’s response and flexibility towards the PUK candidate, otherwise, each of them will go to the parliament session with their own candidate, as happened in 2018.
Challenges of government formation
The Coordination Framework pins its hopes on holding the parliamentary session to elect a president after the legislative recess and then assigning the candidate of the largest bloc to form the government.
Choosing a candidate for the position of prime minister may be the most difficult and complex issue due to the multiplicity of personalities nominated and competing for this position, most of whom represent the leadership of the framework.
The framework started deliberation on choosing a candidate and they will take their time, sources confirm that the intention is for none of the first-line leaders to be considered, and perhaps to elect someone who is acceptable to the Kurds, the Sunnis and more importantly, the international community.
Furthermore, the challenges that await the next government will also become more complex as the Sadrist Movement may become a popular opposition movement, and this movement will not be easy to oppose.
On this basis, the government will face difficult and thorny issues, including political, and economic problems, security issues, the continuing electricity, and food crisis, unemployment, poverty, lack of basic services, the spread of armed groups, the spread of drug trafficking and others, in addition to the rocky political conditions.
The mass resignation of the largest parliamentary bloc will certainly generate a new and unfamiliar reality that is difficult to predict the extent of its effects and repercussions. The reaction of the Shiite street in general regarding the return of the hawks of the Coordination Framework to dominate the political scene would be worrying, to say the least.
It can be said that the next stage in the political process is the most difficult of all the previous stages, and any candidate for the position of prime minister must lead a government capable of facing all this torrent of crises and be well aware of the size and gravity of the responsibility entrusted to him to find his way towards saving the country from what threatens its existence, present, and future.
Farhad Alaaldin is the chairman of the Iraq Advisory Council. He was the political adviser to former Iraqi President Fuad Masum, the former chief of staff to the KRG prime minister from 2009 to 2011, and the former senior adviser to the KRG prime minister from 2011 to 2012.