Public Demonstrations in Iraq: After Adil Abdulmehdi’s Resignation

Order in Iraq
Established as a kingdom in 1921, Iraq became a country run by presidential system after the 1958 Military Coup. Up until 2003, Iraqi constitutions were based on unitary state structure and central government. In the constitution voted during the referendum held in 2005 following the abolition of the Baath regime that ruled the country for more than 30 years in 2003, the federal system and political decentralization were accepted as the new political system in the country.

Since the U.S. invasion in 2003, apart from the relative stability and development witnessed in the three northern provinces, the Iraqi people have been sentenced to an extremely bad, heavy, unbearable life. Insecurity, unemployment, lack of public services, corruption and poverty have penetrated every aspect of social life in the country, which indeed has many riches in various fields. The society has almost begun to consist of the extremely rich and the extremely poor. The notion of fair distribution of wealth in Mesopotamia has been erased from social life.

The Iraqi people attributed the source of all these adversities to the constitutional system, which provided wide opportunities for political parties and the upper layer. The reaction to the political actors has been around for a long time, but the 2014 ISIS terrorist disaster has delayed public outrage and Iraqi people’s taking to the streets.

After the May 2018 parliamentary elections, among Shiites, Sunnis, and Kurds, the main political actors in the country, the opinion that a candidate not belonging to any political parties should be appointed as prime minister. Although the idea of ​​creating a “technocrat” cabinet, through reaching an agreement upon someone who has not been involved in corruption as the public expects, may seem to be the main reason for this, different impulses underlie this idea. Particularly as a result of the negotiation between the list of “Sairun” supported by Muqtada al-Sadr, who is aware of the anger of the Shiite people and who received the most votes in the election, and that of  “Al-Fatah” led by Hadi al-Amiri, the two sides agreed on the assignment of a joint prime minister. Although an image was created in such a way that shows an answer could be given to the desire to change, both parties, in fact, want the formation of a cabinet in which one party cannot control the other through compromising on an independent candidate who can receive the consent of Kurdish political parties. This has once again demonstrated that in the post-2003 political order in Iraq, the philosophy of forming power in the partnership of Shiite political groups and Kurdish political groups has been adopted. For the Kurdish parties, to elect someone who is close to them and always requires their support, rather than to be in a cabinet led by an elected Shiite mass, who would be close to them and in need of their support, was an opportunity for the Kurdish parties not to miss. For them, the periods of Nouri al-Maliki and Haidar al-Ibadi were very difficult. In terms of bringing Shiites to the prime minister post which has been created as a political custom in Iraq, the two Shiite groups agreed with each other, then with the Kurds and Sunni groups on Adil Abdulmahdi, and then sought a consensus on the distribution of the ministries.

Iraq's former Vice-President Adil Abdulmahdi was agreed to become prime minister, but the system of sharing among the political parties was still active in the formation of the cabinet, and the cabinet Abdulmahdi formed on several ministries before an agreement was reached, or in other words, the cabinet established by the names the primary political groups had offered received a vote of confidence from the parliament. However, as in the expression “coming events cast their shadows before”, it was clear that the task of this cabinet was not easy and did not promise a bright future for the Iraqi people. Abdulmahdi, who had not participated in the election and was brought from outside, did not have his own group in the Iraqi Parliament. It was impossible for Abdulmahdi, who did not have his own projects and goals and whose mere feature was to be the name which political parties agreed on, to take over the administration of the country with an effective council of ministers. In this case, it was not possible for the prime minister to form a government program that could make the country, which has been struggling with great difficulties for many years, reach prosperity and to get the full support of the deputies. In fact, he did not even manage to make appointments to some ministries. Abdulmahdi began to spend his energy not to solve the problems of the country, but to be a balancing instrument between the dominant political forces.

People in the squares
The protests started by the young unemployed university students in the country on October 1, 2019, soon evolved and spread to the whole public. It wasn't just about unemployment anymore, it became a “National Issue”, as protesters called it.

The protesters demanded the total change of the political order in the country, stating that the paralysis of all social life has made things irresistible and that they are about to lose a country where they can live with dignity. The people who connect the source of all evils to the prevailing political order in the country express their wishes for the abolition of the district and provincial councils, which are the main source of corruption, and the necessary constitutional arrangements to change the parliamentary system.

Abdulmahdi indicated that he was ready to resign after the outbreak of public demonstrations, and then resigned following the request of some parties supporting him. However, especially young people did not leave the city squares and continued to protest. Young people in many parts of the country supported the manifestations, especially in the squares in Baghdad and the southern provinces. Schools and some workplaces were closed, demonstrations commemorating the martyrs were held and aid was collected to support the demonstrators. Due to the fragile situation in Sunni and Turkmen (Turkmens are not represented in this government either) regions, people could not take to the streets, but instead, support this social movement through social media.

The demonstrations suspended due to the month of Muharram, "Arbainiye", resumed after a week. Organized in a unique way in the history of contemporary Iraq, young people tried to maintain the pacific (“Silmiyya” in the local Arabic language) image of the protests. However, there were allegations that security forces used excessive force, targeted the demonstrators directly and with real bullets; the gases used were 10 times heavier than the normal ones, and led many lives to be lost. When the incidents in the southern provinces of Najaf, Zikar, and Nasiriyah are added, the number of deaths exceeds 400 and that of the wounded 19,000. Healthy information about the number of detainees or abductees is not available.

During this two-month period, Iraqi people were curious about the attitude of Sayyid Ali Sistani, the Shiite religious authority. The statements made by the “Marja” who got involved in the issue through the expressions in the Friday sermons were not satisfactory to the public. In the fight against corruption and poverty, the Marja was expected to stand by the people more strongly. Undoubtedly, the religious authority, taking into account the negative effects of possible chaos, made general statements such as the right of the people to perform peaceful demonstrations and to determine the power on the one hand, and the protection of public and private properties on the other. However, on its Friday sermon (November 30), the religious authority invited the parliament, the source of the formation of the current government, to review the choices it had made due to the apparent inability of the administration in the face of two months of incidents and to prevent further bloodshed. In addition, it demanded the parliament to pass a series of new laws and hold free, transparent and decent early general elections as soon as possible, which would eventually reflect the real will of the people to the parliament. This call was a demand for a change in the executive and, of course, an expression that the current ruling power did not reflect the will of the people.

After the announcement of the Shiite religious authority, Abdulmahdi submitted his resignation to the parliament. His resignation was voted during the parliamentary session on Sunday (December 2nd). 240 out of a total of 328 deputies of the Iraqi Parliament were present at this session and the resignation of the prime minister was accepted. The current main question is about what kind of change the Iraqi Constitution, which is the target of the people and contains many problematic arrangements, will be subjected to in the upcoming days and how to proceed without a constitutional gap.

Constitution as the Target
The 2005 Iraqi Constitution contains many problematic regulations. Within the scope of what we discuss, Chapter Two of Section Three organizes the executive body. According to Article 66 of the Constitution, the Federal Executive Body consists of the President (Presidential Board)[1] and the Council of Ministers.

According to Article 78 of the Constitution, the Prime Minister is the person directly responsible for the execution of general politics in the country.

The President charge the nominee of the largest Council of Representatives bloc with the formation of the Council of Ministers (Article 76/1). The nominee who receives the proposal to form the Council of Ministers is required to establish it within 30 days (Article 76/2). If the cabinet cannot be established within the period specified or if it cannot get the vote of confidence with the absolute majority of the parliament, the President charges a new nominee for the post of Prime Minister within 15 days (Article 76/3). What is missing here is what will happen if the second nominee fails as well. The constitution does not include any regulation regarding whether the above method will be used indefinitely or the parliamentary elections will be renewed.

The Iraqi Constitution regulates the vote of confidence during the formation of the cabinet as a requirement of the parliamentary system. However, during the mandate of the cabinet, there are no clear regulations on the demand for the vote of confidence and its withdrawal.

The Iraqi Constitution refers to the absence of the prime minister, the head of the council of ministers. Article 81/1 of the Constitution states that the President of the Republic shall take up the office of the Prime Minister in the event the post becomes vacant for any reason whatsoever. According to the second paragraph of the same Article, if the event mentioned in "First" of this Article occurs, the President shall charge another nominee to form the Council of Ministers within a period not to exceed fifteen days in accordance with the provisions of Article 76 of this Constitution.

In Article 81, the word resignation is not mentioned directly, but the word “vacant” is in a very broad sense and includes the vacancy of the prime minister's office for any reason.

In line with the principle of continuity of the administration, after the approval of Abdulmehdi's resignation by the Iraqi Parliament, the current Council of Ministers is expected to serve under the presidency of President Barham Salih for a total of (15+30) 45 days. However, it should be said that this situation may constitute a contrast. According to the constitution, the executive body is composed of the president (presidential council) and the council of ministers. In this administration, which was deemed unsuccessful by the public, the bill should be issued not only to the prime minister but also to the president of the executive body. There is no doubt that the president should assume responsibility in the fight against corruption in the country. There is also a constitutional arrangement that strengthens the hand of the Iraqi Assembly. According to Article 138/2-c of the Constitution, the Council of Representatives may remove a member of the Presidency Council for reasons of incompetence and dishonesty. In the event of a vacant seat in the Presidency Council, the Council of Representatives shall elect a replacement by a two-thirds majority vote of its members (138/2-d).

Some researchers and commentators have expressed the possibility of a legal gap in the country following the resignation. Because in Iraq, where there is not much experience in the administrative philosophy based on the will of the people, rule of law, governance through democratic procedures and change of power, there is concern about both the uneasiness caused by the lack of legal regulations and the dominance of chaos. However, the Iraqi people are eagerly seeking to get rid of this distorted order, unjust administration, corruption, and poverty created.

It is now expected that a provisional government is established and the date of early elections be determined in accordance with the Religious Authority. It is possible for the parliament to take the country to early elections by changing the election law and the Law on the Supreme Electoral Commission, especially during the 6-month period. Since the abolition of the district and provincial councils requires constitutional and political system changes, it does not seem rational and feasible to do this in this process through a parliament that has lost its legitimacy. Therefore, it is highly probable that local and general assembly elections will be held together during the early elections period.

Ali Hüseyin Bayatlı
Iraqi Turkmen Front (ITF) Representative in Turkey, Legal and Political Affairs Consultant

[1] Irak Anayasası madde 138/2-a hükmü gereğince Cumhurbaşkanlığı Divanı, Cumhurbaşkanı ve iki yardımcısından teşekkül eder.