Reaching a quorum in Iraq’s presidential election remains an insurmountable obstacle so far for Iraqi leader Muqtada al-Sadr and his tripartite parliamentary alliance. The last round of voting for the president, which went nowhere, showed this quite clearly. Negotiators and political leaders believe, local media reported, that the influential Shiite cleric and his political allies are struggling to find a way to overcome obstacles set by their rivals and form a majority government that will sideline major forces backed by Iran. The struggle between the two main rival coalitions – Sadr-led Saving the Homeland and the Coordination Framework, led by former Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki – over who will be able to form the government has reached a climax as of late. Shiite cleric Sadr needs two-thirds of Iraq’s 329 MPs to turn up for a quorum to elect a new president and appoint a prime minister after the last parliamentary elections of last October.
However, Maliki and his allies have so far secured a boycott of at least 110 MPs, creating a “blocking third” to avoid victory by Sadr’s political project. During the last two weeks, both sides have been working to persuade independent MPs and small parliamentary blocs, including those that emerged from the 2019 anti-government protest movement, to either attend parliament or not. Various legal and illegal instruments of persuasion, including bribery, promises of public office and threats of banishment and assassination, have been used by rivals to force MPs to do what they demand. When an attempt was made to elect a president before Ramadan, Sadr’s coalition failed to convince more than 202 of the 220 MPs needed to reach a quorum to participate.
Sources from both rival camps say that Sadr and his allies have failed to persuade the other MPs they need to support them and vote for the candidate they want. Negotiators from the Sadr and Maliki alliances believe that any meetings and talks are likely to be postponed and that the current holy month of Ramadan will be an appropriate opportunity for further talks. “The quarantine still exists. Nothing has really changed. The likelihood of a session is very slim. … We do not think that a quorum will be reached any time soon. In any case, parliamentary sessions will be suspended during the month of Ramadan and this will allow all parties to negotiate and resolve issues,” said a negotiator from the Saving the Homeland bloc.
The fact is that the Saving the Homeland coalition consists of the Sadrist Sayroun bloc, which won the October national parliamentary elections, a majority of Sunni blocs led by Mohammed al-Halbusi, speaker of parliament, and several Kurdish blocs led by Masoud Barzani, former president of Kurdistan. Although together they have around 190 MPs – enough to vote for president and government – the alliance needs the support of at least another 30 MPs from other blocs or independents to reach the necessary quorum. According to the Constitution, the president must be elected before a prime minister is appointed and a government formed.
The dispute between the Sadr and Maliki projects revolves around who has the largest bloc and hence the constitutional right to determine the choice of prime minister. Sadr, whose bloc won 74 seats, more than double that of his closest Shiite rival Maliki, is seeking to form what he calls a “national majority government.” Iraq’s major parties traditionally share power, but Sadr wants a government that excludes Maliki and other forces close to Iran, suggesting they will act as the opposition and put all sorts of obstacles in the way of the future cabinet, up to and including criminal charges against its members.
For their part, Iranian-backed forces such as the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) and Shiite armed groups, which suffered serious losses in the elections, see Sadr’s project as a serious threat to their interests and an attempt to exclude them from political life in the country. Under the sectarian and ethnic power-sharing system adopted by Iraqi political forces since 2005, the post of president is always held by a Kurd, the post of speaker by a Sunni, and prime ministers are appointed from the Shiite community, as it is the largest demographic group. However, the Kurds are divided into three main groups: Barzani’s Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP), outgoing President Barham Salih’s PUK and the opposition New Generation movement led by Shaswar Abdulwahid. Their confrontation with each other’s projects has created a rather complicated political picture. “In truth, the cause of the current blockade is Kurdish political forces. The political stranglehold is at its highest, with everyone insisting on stubbornness and refusing to compromise with others,” a senior PUK leader close to Salih told Al-Bawab newspaper. “We do not expect any breakthrough in the near future. The situation is very difficult and it is hard to get out of it.”
Since 1991, the KDP and the PUK have ruled together in semi-autonomous Kurdistan and have reached an understanding, after which a representative of the latter takes over as federal president and a representative of the KDP takes over as president of Kurdistan. But when the PUK merged with the Baghdad government in 2017 and the KDP achieved Kurdish independence through a controversial referendum, the seeds of future conflict between the two sides were sown. In Kurdistan, many believe that the KDP sees the PUK’s policies as a betrayal that annulled their power-sharing agreement, and the party is now seeking the federal presidency so valued by its rival, a prominent Kurdish political leader told Shafaq News.
At the same time, observers say that although he has faced serious difficulties, the success of Sadr’s project is still likely. But it depends on him finding the 20 MPs he needs to reach a quorum. However, betting on independent candidates who have not responded to his call does not seem promising as they have made “unrealistic demands” and have little confidence in Sadr. That is why the Shiite cleric has had to widen and intensify his attempts lately by including other forces. This time the PUK was Sadr’s first choice and so he called Bafel Talabani, head of the Kurdish Party negotiating team, and offered to talk. But negotiators from both alliances told Shafaq News that the call did not lead to any change in the current situation.
The second scenario, which is likely to happen in the near future, would announce a postponement of attempts to form a government until after Ramadan in early May. “This is a long time that will allow many forces to change their positions, negatively or positively,” said one of Sadr’s negotiators. Sadr’s opponents are not expected to object to this delay, as they are also betting that Sadr or a number of his allies will change their positions and soften their stance on the majority government.
Under these circumstances, independent MPs and small parliamentary blocs that emerged from the October 2019 protest movement become Iraq’s lawmakers and could end the political hegemony of Iranian-backed factions. The most prominent are the Tishrin parliamentary bloc, which emerged from anti-government demonstrations in October 2019, including Emdad (nine MPs), Ashraqat Kanun (ten), al-Jail al-Jadeed (nine) and al-Kutla al-Shaabiya (five). According to several MPs approached by the rival coalitions, all meetings presented financial offers, promises of government jobs, protection and favors. “Suggestions from both sides included participating in the selection of a prime minister and ministers, as well as getting some frontline government jobs to serve our audience,” said the MP, who attended several meetings. Nevertheless, there are serious problems with support from both sides for the Tishrin MPs, who accuse Iranian-backed factions of killing several activists and members of the protest movement.
The election of top officials is a key position for the two rival political alliances: Saving the Homeland led by Muqtada al-Sadr and the Iranian-backed Coordination Framework led by Nouri al-Maliki. If Sadr and his partners succeed, they will end nearly two decades of domination of the Iraqi political scene by Iranian-backed political forces. It would also challenge and perhaps even begin to dissolve the sectarian and ethnic political processes that have shaped Iraq’s governance since 2003. “If Sadr goes ahead with his project and succeeds in forming a majority government, the biggest loser will be the Iranian-backed forces,” an Iraqi independent political analyst who declined to be named for security reasons told the media. It is quite clear that the political struggle has simply been postponed for the time being, but it will flare up again with renewed vigor after the end of the holy month of Ramadan.
Viktor Mikhin, corresponding member of RANS, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.