Where is the Government Formation Process in Iraq headed to?

In addition to the efforts to form a government after the controversial parliamentary elections held on 12 May 2018, in Iraq, there are still discussions on whether the regional parliamentary elections, which are announced to be held on September 30, 2018, will be held in the Iraqi Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG). Furthermore, the protests, which started in June 2018 in the Basra region and let people take to the streets due to the insufficiency of public services, have also gained momentum. These three agenda items have become capable of determining the course of Iraqi politics. In fact, although these agenda items seem like separate issues, they have turned into intertwined and interrelated issues due to the nature of Iraqi politics. At this point, it is possible to argue that the given agenda items will be the main topics of discussion of Iraqi politics in the short term.

First of all, the government formation process following the elections held on May 12, 2018, is seen to have become extremely complex. Approximately 4 months after the elections were held, the Iraqi Parliament was able to hold its first session with new MPs on September 3, 2018. Just before the parliamentary meeting, the “who is the biggest group” discussion has emerged. The main reason for this is that according to the Iraqi Constitution, the authority to form a government will be given to the largest group in the parliament. In this sense, that the Sairoon Coalition, led by Muqtada al-Sadr, gained 54 MPs on its own and won the elections becomes almost meaningless. Indeed, despite the fact that the Iraqiya List led by Iyad Allawi emerged as the winner of the elections held in 2010 by having 91 seats in the parliament, the State of Law Coalition led by Nuri al-Maliki, with 89 deputies, became the largest group in the parliament by forming an alliance with other Shiite groups and creating the National Alliance. It eventually formed the government. For this reason, political negotiations continue to form the largest group in the parliament. Islah wel Bina (Reform and Construction) Coalition, led by current Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi, Muqtada al-Sadr, and Ammar al-Hakim, on the one hand, and the Bina (Construction) Coalition led by former Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki and leader of the Badr Organization Hadi al-Amiri, on the other, claim to be the “largest group” in the parliament. While there are allegedly 177 deputies in the Islah wel Bina Coalition, Nouri al-Maliki stated that this number was not true, that some groups from this coalition passed to the Bina Coalition and thus, they were the biggest coalition with 145 deputies. At this point, it is possible to say that the situation is a contradiction for both coalitions. For the number of deputies announced by the two coalitions are counted, it equals 322 deputies. No Kurdish MPs (58) are included in this sum. The Kurdish groups have not decided to participate in which group yet. When the number of deputies in the coalitions announced by Maliki and Abadi is added to the number of Kurdish deputies, the total number in the parliament exceeds 329. According to the reports in Iraqi media, it is stated that more than 30 deputies are counted in both coalitions announced by Maliki and Abadi. There is no clarity about which side the Sunni MPs back up. Until now, there has been no clarification on this issue by Sunni MPs. Besides, there have been great ruptures from the Nasr Coalition, which entered the elections under Abadi’s leadership, and some of those that left the Nasr Coalition have passed to Maliki’s Bina Coalition. As a matter of fact, due to this uncertainty, the session of the parliament which opened its first session on September 3, was left open, and the parliamentary chairmanship granted political groups time till on September 15. However, the developments in Basra have significantly affected the government formation process. The demonstrations that started in Basra due to the inability to provide public services faced a harsh response by the government and there were some demonstrators who lost their lives and were injured during the demonstrations. The demonstrations then grew more violent and turned directly into anti-government and anti-political protests. While the government buildings and political party offices in Basra were set on fire, the Iranian Consulate-General in Basra was attacked and burned by the demonstrators. After that, Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi dismissed the Basra security officials and assembled the cabinet for an emergency action plan. In this process, especially the Shiite religious authority and Muqtada al-Sadr supported the demonstrations. In fact, Muqtada al-Sadr called out the parliament to meet urgently upon the Basra agenda and invited Abadi and the government to resign. The last Friday fatwa of Ayatollah Sistani, the largest Shiite religious authority in Iraq, expressed its support for demonstrations and called out the demonstrators and the state to absent themselves from resorting to violence. What is more, the fatwa asserted that the most crucial reason that made Iraq as it is today was the politicians that are active in the last 15 years. At this point, it is possible to say that the Basra events stroke a serious blow against the government formation process. What has happened in Basra brought about a sharper dissolution among the Shiites, the executive power of politics, who did already have serious problems in the given process. It is crystal clear that the Shiite religious authority and tribes oppose the existing political structure. This is a very challenging situation for the Shiite parties. Because from the standpoint of Shiite politics, tribe-centered support constitutes an important base while the support received from a religious community is complementary and even distinctive in terms of political activity. Therefore, it is possible to state that the political steps to be taken without the support of the tribes and, more importantly, the Shiite religious authorities, will not be permanent or influential. For this reason, it would be appropriate to claim that Haider al-Abadi, who was mentioned for the second term of Prime Ministry, lost his advantage. As a matter of fact, after the Basra events, a new effort was made for the formation of a government and Muqtada al-Sadr met Ayatollah Sistani's representatives and Hadi al-Amiri launched a new process and decided to take common steps to form a government. Two political forces that emerged from the elections as the first (Muqtada al-Sadr-Sairoon) and second best (Hadi al-Amiri-Fateh) have made significant progress in the government formation process. After Sadr's meeting with Hadi al-Amiri after seeing Sistani's representatives can be considered as an indication that he has taken approval of the Shiite religious authority for forming a government and that they will carry out the process in a coordinated manner. In this sense, it would be appropriate to say that the Shiite religious authority also gave consent to Hadi al-Amiri. Demanding that the government be established on “new standards”, Sistani's last Friday fatwa signaled that the government could be in a new format. At this point, it is possible for the government to establish a majority government instead of a national unity government, which includes all political groups entering the parliament, unlike the governments formed in the post-2003 period. It is known that Muqtada al-Sadr wants to exclude Nuri al-Maliki because of the problems he experienced during the latter’s Prime Ministry. Likewise, there has been a conflict between Haidar al-Abadi and Hadi al-Amiri upon Hashdi Shaabi in the fight against Daesh. Therefore, it is possible to foresee that Amiri will also want to leave Abadi out. However, the partnership that Sairoon (54) and Fateh (49) will establish will not be enough to form a government by itself. Furthermore, it is not possible to reach more than half of the 329-seat parliament to form a government even if the Sunni groups with 53 deputies or the Kurdish groups with 58 deputies will be included. Hence, it is clear that Sadr and Amiri will need the support of different groups.

At this point, the position of Kurds and Turkmens, as well as Sunni groups, will be critical for the formation of the government. Here, the uncertainty regarding the position of the Sunnis reveals an important challenge for both Sunnis and Sadr and Amiri. Although different Sunni groups formed a group called the National Movement with the participation of 53 deputies after the elections, they experienced a breakdown in the government negotiations and took part in different formations. In the current situation, the Sunnis are expected to move in different directions. It is also possible to say that Muqtada al-Sadr and Hadi al-Amiri will not want to cooperate with some Sunni groups. For example, in case Sadr and Amiri establish a coalition, it is possible that they would oppose Khamis al Khanjar who allied himself with Osama al-Nujaifi. For Khanjar was previously accused by Shiite leaders of supporting radical groups. In this sense, it does not seem possible for all Sunni groups to take part in the government formation process.

At this point, the position of the Kurds will be significant. However, the internal conflicts of the Kurdish groups and the political process in the KRG make it difficult for the Kurds to take a stand. For the debate on the elections, which will be held on September 30 in the KRG, still continues. The PUK, which decided to act jointly with the KDP, wants the postponement of the KRG Parliamentary elections and thus, face the KDP in this regard. It is also known that most of the parties except KDP also take pro-postponement positions. It is also difficult to argue that a compromise could be reached between the parties regarding the posts to be requested from Baghdad. In particular, the presidency has been given to the Kurds so far and this position has been taken by the PUK. In the current situation, it is seen that PUK wants to maintain its position. Even Muhammad Sabir Ismail PUK, who served as the foreign representative of the PUK and the KRG for a long time and later became the Permanent Representative of Iraq to the United Nations, has been nominated as a presidential candidate. Nevertheless, while the news about the KDP's request for this post was in the media, it was alleged that Hoshyar Zebari, who served as the Minister of Foreign Affairs and Minister of Finance in Iraq, could be nominated as a presidential candidate by KDP. In the meantime, the KDP and PUK, which established a joint delegation for the government-building talks, are known to demand for the 17 percent of the budget from Baghdad, the return of peshmerga to Kirkuk and reelection of a Kurdish governor in the city, and a Kurdish president in the country. It is obvious that these demands will not be fully fulfilled in the government formation process. It is clear that the Kurds' withdrawal from these demands will facilitate their participation in the government. As a matter of fact, the Kurds would not want to be excluded from the government, but it would be possible to say that the US would want the Kurds to take part in the government. Since the US-Iran balance in the government formation process is a significant factor. As seen in the previous process, it is not possible to establish a government without a balance between the US and Iran. Especially the fact that a candidate to be prime minister is not to be rejected by both sides is one of the most important cornerstones of the establishment of the government.

On the other hand, the fact that the Turkmens, represented in the parliament with 9 deputies from different groups, formed a group is quite important for the representation of the Turkmen in the government. Even if the given MPs are in different groups, their joint action in the government formation process may also bring the Turkmen to a critical position. If Sunnis do not participate fully in the government, the support of Turkmens will be important in order to establish and maintain a government composed of Sairoon, Fateh and Kurdish groups.

As can be understood, the events in Basra seem to have resumed the government formation process. The political negotiations and government formation process, which have been taking place since the elections in Iraq on May 12, 2018, are in a new phase. The fact that the first government formation process in which emerged two different poles (Sadr-Abadi, Amiri-Maliki) failed to yield results led the parties to take different steps. At this point, the role played by the Shiite religious community played a great part as well as the Basra events. On the other hand, the bipolar structure that showed up after the elections appeared as a US-Iranian pole, a perception that Sadr and Abadi represent the United States while Amiri and Maliki were on the Iranian side. However, both sides do not have sufficient political support to form a government. At this point, it would not be wrong to assert that the United States and Iran have turned back to the equilibrium policy in Iraq and paved the way for a new process to be concluded with a consensus. However, it is seen that the role of the religious authority in Iraq will be determining at this stage. Especially after the events in Basra, the Shiite religious authority has captured the process. The fact that Sistani's representative Ahmed al-Safi went to Basra and started directly water-related infrastructural services is a clear sign of this. This situation should be considered together with the efforts of the Iraqi Shia to find itself again. The reaction of the Iraqi people against the Iranian influence in Iraq for a long time has turned into action in Basra and the Consulate General of Iran has been burned. At this point, it is seen that Iran will have to get along with the Shiite authority and to reach a compromise in order not to lose its influence in the country. Likewise, it is possible to say that the US will not ignore the Shiite initiative to break and stabilize Iran's influence. Herein, Turkey, which did not take a firm stand and instead, showed goodwill to develop good relations with all groups, could have the opportunity to be an equilibrant both between the US and Iran and in relations of the Shiite religious authority with the US and Iran.