Muqtada al-Sadr’s exit from Iraq’s political process seems to be a huge political miscalculation, but there is still a tough road ahead for government formation despite the change in the political map.
Jul 6, 2022
On June 23, 64 new members of parliament took their oaths, replacing most of the 73 members whom Shia populist leader Muqtada al-Sadr called on to resign from the Iraqi Parliament earlier in the month. The unprecedented, but swift, move could upset the electoral map in favor of Sadr’s rival – the Coordination Framework.
The withdrawal came after the Sadr-led National Salvation Coalition, which included the Kurdistan Democratic Party (led by Masoud Barzani) and Sunni Sovereignty bloc (led by Speaker of the Parliament Mohammed Halbousi and businessman Khamis al-Khanjar), over the course of many months, failed to form a majoritarian government. The mass resignation was followed by a June 15 meeting between the resigning members of parliament and Sadr. Sadr reiterated that he decided to withdraw from the political process because he did not want to participate in a government in which “corrupters” (implying the Coordination Framework) take part. Sadr vowed, “If the corrupt participate in the upcoming elections, I will not participate in them,” referencing future elections. But he also did not rule out a return, emphasizing the divine role in changing his mind regarding participation in future elections. Therefore, he asked his supporters who resigned to stay together and be ready, a statement that could foreshadow Sadr’s next move in the Iraqi political landscape. But Sadr’s withdrawal could end up being a huge political miscalculation locking in a loss for Sadr and his Kurdish and Sunni allies that only strengthens his rivals’ position to form the next government.
Militia groups associated with political forces that eventually came together in the Coordination Framework have used violence to break up demonstrations over the last three years, killing 600 protesters and wounding thousands of others. With oil hovering around $100 per barrel, if the Coordination Framework forms the next government, as seems more and more likely with Sadr’s withdrawal, it will have greater resources to extend the state’s financial benefits to disgruntled people as appeasement and more power and leverage over the state institutions to control the protests. In the meantime, Sadr could end up kept away from the pie of the government, where, traditionally, leaders in political parties controlling the government have been able to distribute economic and political benefits to their supporters through a sophisticated network of patronage. Despite his anti-corruption rhetoric, also sprinkled with skepticism about his Shia rivals’ calls for a government of national unity and preservation of the post-2003 sectarian-based Muhasasa political compact, Sadr has operated within and benefitted politically and economically from the ethno-sectarian political system established after the U.S.-led invasion that overthrew Saddam Hussein’s Baathist government. In successive governments since, close associates of Sadr have taken important ministerial portfolios, which has helped consolidate and sustain his patronage network and increase his political influence. Should he remain outside of the government, social programs Sadr has established in impoverished Shia-dominated areas of Iraq – and his powerful patronage networks – will suffer.
Political deadlock has been common in Iraq since 2003. In 2010, it took 289 days to negotiate a new government under Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki at the outset of his second term. This time, the process has stalled over the inability to elect a new president, an important constitutional step to pave the way for government formation negotiations. Sadr had initial success in February with the election of the speaker of parliament, Mohammed Halbousi. However, the intra-Kurdish rivalry over the presidency between the Kurdistan Democratic Party, an ally of Sadr, and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, which has sided with the Coordination Framework, prevented Sadr from forming the majoritarian government he sought once the scope of his October 2021 electoral victory became clear to him.
Sadr did try to rally other members of parliament, including independents, at least four times in a bid to meet the quorum to break the political gridlock. Sadr’s unrealistic and inflexible “all-or-nothing” approach to negotiations likely contributed to the collapse of the political process. He sought to sideline his Shia rivals and refused to embrace the independent members of parliament who were a product of anti-government protests that began in October 2019. Like Sadr, the independents also ran on a reformist and anti-corruption platform, but he failed to find common cause with them and convince them to join his coalition – possibly because they remembered Sadrist forces played a key role in undermining and suppressing the protest movement – or at least to attend the parliament session to meet quorum for a vote on the president. Instead, Sadr set inflexible terms for the independent members of parliament. For example, on May 5, Sadr called on them to form an alliance with at least 40 members of parliament within 15 days to seek to form the government with his support. If Sadr had chosen a more constructive and engaging method to communicate and negotiate with these members of parliament, he perhaps could have succeeded at least in overcoming the quorum issue, which has prevented the formation of his majoritarian government.
There are also inherent tensions between Sadr’s quest for increasing his political relevance and power and what seems to be his aspiration to become a prominent Shia marja, in the future. As a religious leader, Sadr seemingly feels a moral responsibility to use his religious credentials to remain a political force in Iraq, but he also understands that politics, with its inherent negotiations and compromises, could undermine his religious credibility not just in Iraq but in the broader Shia community in the region and beyond, where current leader Sistani as well as previous religious leaders from Najaf have been extremely influential. His recent political moves seem to indicate his longer-term religious aspirations have defined and constrained his political moves and the zone of negotiations with his rivals. In the last eight months, he has avoided damaging his religious brand in his efforts to form a majoritarian government. As such, Sadr’s aspirations as a religious figure seem to have superseded his short-term political goals. Accordingly, Sadr might have calculated that with his withdrawal he can bolster both his political and religious credentials in the long term as a figure who refuses to ally with people whom he thinks are responsible for the country’s political, economic, and security crises.
Trouble for Former Sadr Allies
Since Sadr seems to have given primacy to his over-the-horizon religious goals, political alliances with the mercurial Shia leader have become unpredictable and impractical, damaging the fortunes of his former allies. The Sadr exit put an end to the Homeland Salvation Coalition – Sadr’s alliance with the KDP and the Halbousi-led Sunni Sovereignty bloc, which are paying dearly now for having relied on Sadr to deliver political results for them in the next government. The KDP, which had eyed the Iraqi presidency, believed that Sadr would deliver that to them in the same way he delivered the speaker of parliament to the Sunnis. Now, the possibility of a KDP candidate winning the presidency has become quite remote, while Halbousi has seemed to recognize the new reality by playing along with his former rival – the Coordination Framework.
The KDP and the Sunnis appear to have adjusted their postures to deal with the Coordination Framework and took part in the session in which the new members of parliament took their oaths. The KDP has also reshuffled its negotiation team in Baghdad, with Minister of Foreign Affairs Fuad Hussein and former Minister of Housing and Reconstruction Bangin Rekani taking over, and has expressed readiness to hold talks with the Coordination Framework. Rekani said that his party was present in the Iraqi political arena for negotiations and did not pose threats to anyone. Rekani’s statement, attempting to highlight the KDP’s pragmatism, also signaled its precarious position and its scramble for political traction with now-empowered Maliki-led rivals in Baghdad it previously considered as subdued.
For his part, Halbousi also has concerns, even if they are not immediate. For months, the Coordination Framework has worked with and courted Halbousi’s Sunni rivals. For example, the Coordination Framework used allies in the current government to have terrorism charges against powerful Dulaim tribe chief Ali Hatam Suleiman suddenly dropped, paving the way for him to return to Iraq. Former Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki, wielding accusations of collaboration with the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant, forced Suleiman to flee Iraq in 2014. So, Halbousi will likely be under more pressure to negotiate with the Coordination Framework to form the next government quickly as he may not remain speaker if there is a snap election or if Coordination Framework negotiations with the Sunnis head in unpredictable directions. The Sunni front could become more fragmented with the participation of Suleiman, who could chip away at the number of seats Halbousi’s party currently holds.
Coordination Framework Moves
After Sadr’s withdrawal, the Coordination Framework held a meeting noting that it would respect Sadr’s decision while reaffirming its efforts to form a broad-based government through the inclusion of other parties to “fulfill the aspirations of our people in security, stability and a good life and strengthening Iraq’s role and position in the region and the world.” On June 22, the Coordination Framework’s legislative efforts helped replace most of the members of parliament who had resigned with candidates who had come in second in their districts in the October 2021 parliamentary elections. There are still nine vacant seats because some of those candidates did not show up to take their oaths, seemingly as they were ideologically and politically close to Sadr. Therefore, those who came in third could take the oath in the next session in July. But at this stage, the Fatah Coalition, led by Popular Mobilization Forces commander Hadi al-Amiri, has increased its seats from 17 to 29, Maliki’s State of Law Party went from 33 to 37, and the National Power of the State bloc, led by former Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi and Wisdom Movement leader Ammar al-Hakim, has increased its seats from 4 to 11. Accordingly, the Coordination Framework has become the biggest parliamentary bloc with 130 members of parliament, although inside that alliance, strong second-place showings seem to have strengthened the hand of some of Maliki’s Shia rivals at his expense. But the final numbers have yet to be certified by the Parliament. The increased number of seats will give the Coordination Framework a stronger mandate to form the next government. Thus, the government formation process momentum could pick up unless thwarted by internal conflict within the Coordination Framework regarding who might lead the next government as prime minister, which is, predictably, already causing heightened tensions.
Maliki reportedly seeks a third term as prime minister; however, there is no consensus within the Coordination Framework. Such reports triggered Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, who has been largely silent regarding political developments in Iraq for the last two years, to express concerns about the possibility of Maliki’s candidacy. Sistani representative Ahmed al-Safi warned that the marjiyya, or religious establishment, is still not happy with those who “caused the loss of one-third of Iraq to the hands of the terrorist organization ISIS and those who led the country to this blockage.” Although Safi did not mention Maliki by name, his references described the former prime minister, whose tenure was marked by Iraq’s decent into sectarian conflict, instability, and the fall of Mosul in 2014. This lack of support by Iraq’s supreme religious authority is good news for the KDP, which has been anti-Maliki for his breach of agreements with the Kurds and withholding funds allocated in the federal budget from the Kurdistan Regional Government, and for the Sunnis as well, who suffered most during Maliki’s terms due to his sectarian policies, which are thought to have helped facilitate the rise of ISIL in 2013. According to some media reports, KDP leader Masoud Barzani informed the Coordination Framework that he would only negotiate if Maliki is out of the picture for the role of prime minister. Should the Coordination Framework nominate Maliki, the KDP and Halbousi’s Sunni forces could boycott the political process in Baghdad continuing to prolong the government formation process.
Sadr’s exit from the political process appears to be a grave political miscalculation that will play into the hands of his rivals to form the next government. But that does not mean an easy path forward on government formation, as many internal and external factors still hold the political process hostage. If formed, the new government will likely reflect not just the ethno-sectarian features of the past, but also deep partisanship, which will negatively affect governance and risk greater corruption, which, taken together with a potential decline in oil prices, could worsen service delivery and living conditions for Iraqis. Sadr’s options will be limited, and his maneuverability, if not well calculated and defined, could severely increase divisions and heighten instability. Having given up his movement’s seats in Parliament, it is not clear how Sadr could reverse course in the foreseeable future. What is certain is that, if he remains out of politics, his movement will be deprived of the financial benefits of the state, which could weaken his popular social programs in the poor Shia neighborhoods that make up the majority of Sadr’s most fervent supporters. As a result, this could weaken Sadr’s popular base, especially among the younger generation in future elections