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Iraqi political blocs struggle to meet deadline to replace outgoing PM

As the constitutional deadline arrives, Iraqi political parties seem unable to select a new prime minister.

The constitutional deadline for nominating a new prime minister arrived Dec. 15 with no consensus candidate in view, even though a spokesman for Iraqi President Barham Salih said Dec. 12 that the president was committed to coming up with a candidate within the constitutional time frame.

Former Human Rights Minister Mohammed Shia al-Sudani threw his hat in the ring Dec. 13, announcing on his Twitter account that he has resigned from the Islamic Dawa party to become a candidate for the premiership. Sudani has not been nominated by any bloc in the parliament, although he is believed to be backed by Fatah bloc, which is the political front of the Iran-backed Popular Mobilization Units and former Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s State of Law coalition, which together could form the largest bloc in parliament. However, the president sent a request on Dec. 15 to the parliament, asking to determine the largest bloc, in order to nominate a candidate for the premiership position, which indicates that Fatah was not able to form the largest bloc and Sudani candidacy was not successful. In fact, one of the main criticism against the parliament and government formed after the 2018 election is that the whole process of forming the government had not followed the constitution guideline which obliged the parliament to determine the largest bloc officially, which did not happen. 

Moreover, the protesters had rejected Sudani previously. His photo, among those of other five possible candidates, can be seen in Tahrir Square with a big red X across it, indicating that the protesters do not accept any of the names. The other names are Minister of Higher Education and Scientific Research Qusai al-Suhail, Basra Gov. Asaad al-Eidani, former Minister of Youth and Sports Abdul-Hussein Abtan, former Oil Minister Ibrahim Bahr al-Ulum and veteran politician Izzat al-Shahbandar.

The protesters had previously said that they want a new face without any affiliation with the current political class to lead the caretaker government and prepare for fair early elections, on the condition that the caretaker prime minister not run for office in the upcoming contest. Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, who has the largest parliamentary bloc with 54 seats, also has rejected Sudani. Sadr has said the protesters must nominate the new prime minister. 

Member of parliament Yonadam Kanna said Dec. 8 that 120 legislators had submitted to Iraqi President Barham Salih a list of “characteristics” that the new Iraqi prime minister should have. According to these characteristics, the prime minister should not belong to any political party and should not hold a nationality other than Iraqi.

On Dec. 7, an adviser to the Iraqi president told Al-Monitor that “among the names proposed was Asaad al-Eidani, the governor of Basra. He was suggested by parties close and loyal to Iran. Meanwhile, the Sunnis and Kurds agreed on the name of former Oil Minister Ibrahim Bahr al-Ulum.”

The adviser also said, “Salih has yet to officially receive the names of candidates suggested by political blocs for the premiership.” He told Al-Monitor that representatives of parliamentary blocs attended a meeting with the president Dec. 9 to discuss the premiership candidate but that the meeting ended without a solution, as the political parties insist on selecting a person from the current political class based on the normal process. The adviser said Salih rejected their view by saying, that the protesters must be given a role in the process.

While Iraqi political blocs had only until Dec. 15 to submit their candidates under the constitution, the differences between these blocs and their concerns over the increasing street anger delayed the process, especially after Sadr decided to refrain from nominating any candidates for prime minister. His Sairoon bloc announced Dec. 3 its decision to "waive" its right to nominate a candidate. The Iraqi Constitution grants the largest bloc the right to name a candidate.

Yassin al-Bakri, a political science professor at Nahrain University, told Al-Monitor, “The new equation has further complicated the process, which usually takes months. However, the parties will try to come up with a candidate within the constitutional period for fear of escalation in the street, but the political scene in Iraq is still blurry as it is still not clear whether or not the parties will manage to meet the constitutional deadline. However, they most likely won’t, given the complexity of the situation.”

He said, “Following the resignation of the prime minister, the president of the republic opted for a caretaker government and not for Article 81 of the Iraqi Constitution, which gives him the powers of the prime minister until a new prime minister is agreed upon. In other words, the president will most likely wait for the party nominations in order for him to appoint the next prime minister in accordance with his protocol powers.”

Article 81 of the Iraqi Constitution says, “The president shall charge another nominee to form the Council of Ministers within a period not to exceed 15 days in accordance with the provisions of Article 76 of this Constitution.”

This, however, seems almost impossible in the absence of names accepted by the people.

Sunni parties are even proposing that non-Shiite figures be nominated for the position of prime minister; Sunni member of parliament Raad Dahlaki said Dec. 3, “If the parties claiming to reject quotas want to practice what they preach, they must nominate a non-Shiite figure for the post and leave it to the masses to agree or not, away from any political forces.” For the last decade and a half, the prime minister has been Shiite, the speaker of parliament has been Sunni and the president has been a Kurd. Shiite parties have been the ones responsible for submitting candidates to be prime minister, while the other parties only have approved of such names.

A few days ago, political blocs tried to test the waters by indirectly suggesting a group of names, including Suhail, Ulum, Abtan, former Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi and Adnan al-Zorfi, a member of parliament and former Najaf governor. However, all of these names have been rejected and ridiculed by many Iraqis on social media.

Previously, the Shiite parties who named a candidate for the premiership essentially just had to deal with their Sunni and Kurdish partners in parliament; however, since Oct. 1, the equation has changed, and the Shiite parties that have held the prime minister's post for 16 years now have come into direct confrontation with protesters in the street. This has further complicated the situation and has embarrassed the Shiite parties.

Rahman al-Jubouri, a senior researcher at the Regional Studies Center at the American University of Sulaimaniyah, told Al-Monitor, “The blocs will not be able to choose their candidates within the constitutional deadline because they are confused and all they can do now is monitor what is happening in the squares. They are not convinced of themselves. They are paralyzed and unable to negotiate or make a decision.”

“The protesters have set specific characteristics for the new prime minister. They want him to be close to the people. They do not want him to be involved in the corruption of the 2003 regime. They want him to be distant from Iran and the major blocs. Also, they want him to have a coordinated administration in order to hold elections without scandals similar to the ones witnessed before,” he added.

Musa Rahma, one of the coordinators of the protests in Baghdad, concurred. “We want a prime minister who will restore Iraq’s sovereignty, one we can choose from Tahrir Square, not from the embassies,” he told Al-Monitor.

On Dec. 2, representatives of the Fatah and Nasr coalitions met with the National Wisdom Movement and the Kurdish forces in Baghdad and came to the agreement that the new prime minister should be accepted by both the authority and the street, and not be affected by foreign allegiances. The meeting seems to show that the Iraqi political blocs are genuinely unable to present a substitute for Iraqi caretaker Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mahdi, who resigned at the end of November.

Iraqi politician Ibrahim al-Sumaidai told Al-Monitor that the political blocs are unable to present a candidate accepted by the street, and indicated that “whatever names are proposed by Fatah coalition leader Hadi al-Amiri will not win the approval of Sadr, while the names presented by the National Wisdom Movement led by Ammar al-Hakim have no resonance.”

He predicted “a consensus for the reappointment of Haider al-Abadi as prime minister.”

Before the protests, when the street was still not involved in the process of selecting a prime minister, political parties would take months to agree on a consensus candidate for the post. This could mean that the parties may come nowhere close to meeting the constitutional deadline.

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