Skip to main content

What next for Iraq amid deep political schism?

This combination of pictures shows Iraqi presidential candidates Rebar Ahmed (L) and incumbent Barham Saleh
— Baghdad (AFP)

Six months after Iraq's parliamentary vote, the war-scarred country is no closer to electing a president amid a bitter political stalemate that has thrown institutions into limbo.

Wrangling between rival Muslim Shiite blocs in the assembly on Wednesday scuppered the legislature's third attempt to elect a head of state.

Though a largely ceremonial role, the president determines the country's next prime minister who will in turn form a cabinet to be voted in by an absolute majority of lawmakers.

- What is the hold-up? -

A schism running through the so-called "Shiite house" of Iraqi politics lies at the heart of the impasse.

Firebrand Shiite cleric Moqtada Sadr has long claimed the largest bloc in parliament, with 73 seats out of the 329-member legislature.

But his bloc does not have enough members to establish a clear majority -- forcing him to reach out to form an untraditional alliance.

Eschewing the more predictable grouping with other Shiite factions, Sadr has chosen to ally with the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) and Sunni parties to form a coalition dubbed "Saving the Homeland", with 155 seats.

The coalition backs KDP candidate Rebar Ahmed for the presidency -- a post reserved for Kurds, while the post of prime minister by convention goes to a Shiite.

Shirking the tradition of forming a "consensus government" between Shiite parties, Sadr hopes to put forth a "majority government" led by his cousin, Iraq's ambassador to Britain Jaafar al-Sadr.

This has placed his coalition at loggerheads with the Coordination Framework -- a powerful force that includes former premier Nuri al-Maliki's party and the Iran-backed Fatah Alliance, the political arm of the Shiite-led former paramilitary group Hashed al-Shaabi.

The Coalition Framework has 130 MPs, which boycotted all three sessions to elect a president, preventing the assembly from reaching the required two thirds quorum.

- How to resolve the crisis? -

After the third vote failed on Wednesday, Sadr again rejected the idea of a consensus government, saying this would amount to the "death" of Iraq.

A date for a new vote has yet to be set, and Iraqi political analyst Ihsan al-Shammari believes this "indicated that there is no prospect for the resolution of the crisis".

"There is no rapprochement between (Sadr's) alliance and the Coordination Framework," he said.

This risks dragging the crisis out for months, while keeping the incumbent president and prime minister in their seats.

"Unless there is an outside threat, such as the organisation of Islamic State in 2014 which pushes political leaders to come together and quickly reach agreement, they will continue for as long as it takes to reach what they want. Even if that means surpassing the limits set out in the constitution," said political expert Hamzeh Haddad.

- What does the constitution say? -

Under the Iraqi constitution the president should be elected within 30 days of the first meeting of the new parliament, which in this case was on January 9. This deadline has largely expired and we "have broken the constitution," said legal expert Ahmed al-Sufi.

The country's highest legal body, the federal court, afterwards extended the deadline to elect a president to April 6. But the judges can only give an opinion and not seize the political initiative.

The court "has no authority, other than to rule whether the constitution has been violated or not," said Sufi.

Parliament could dissolve itself and call new elections. But to do that, at least a third of the MPs must meet and present the proposal which must then be approved by a majority plus one.

This option is not very likely, said Haddad as there is "no political will".

"And as was demonstrated by the low turnout in the past two general elections, Iraqis have very little appetite to go out and vote," he added.

Join hundreds of Middle East professionals with Al-Monitor PRO.

Business and policy professionals use PRO to monitor the regional economy and improve their reports, memos and presentations. Try it for free and cancel anytime.

Free

The Middle East's Best Newsletters

Join over 50,000 readers who access our journalists dedicated newsletters, covering the top political, security, business and tech issues across the region each week.
Delivered straight to your inbox.

Free

What's included:
Our Expertise

Free newsletters available:

  • The Takeaway & Week in Review
  • Middle East Minute (AM)
  • Daily Briefing (PM)
  • Business & Tech Briefing
  • Security Briefing
  • Gulf Briefing
  • Israel Briefing
  • Palestine Briefing
  • Turkey Briefing
  • Iraq Briefing
Expert

Premium Membership

Join the Middle East's most notable experts for premium memos, trend reports, live video Q&A, and intimate in-person events, each detailing exclusive insights on business and geopolitical trends shaping the region.

$25.00 / month
billed annually

Become Member Start with 1-week free trial

We also offer team plans. Please send an email to pro.support@al-monitor.com and we'll onboard your team.

What's included:
Our Expertise AI-driven

Memos - premium analytical writing: actionable insights on markets and geopolitics.

Live Video Q&A - Hear from our top journalists and regional experts.

Special Events - Intimate in-person events with business & political VIPs.

Trend Reports - Deep dive analysis on market updates.

All premium Industry Newsletters - Monitor the Middle East's most important industries. Prioritize your target industries for weekly review:

  • Capital Markets & Private Equity
  • Venture Capital & Startups
  • Green Energy
  • Supply Chain
  • Sustainable Development
  • Leading Edge Technology
  • Oil & Gas
  • Real Estate & Construction
  • Banking

Start your PRO membership today.

Join the Middle East's top business and policy professionals to access exclusive PRO insights today.

Join Al-Monitor PRO Start with 1-week free trial