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A protester holds an Iraqi flag amid a cloud of smoke from burning tires during ongoing anti-government protests in Najaf, Iraq November 26, 2019. REUTERS/Alaa al-Marjani - RC2ZID9MARY6

Between a Divided Parliament and Determined Protestors: Baghdad Struggles to Select PM

Two weeks after the Iraqi Parliament accepted the resignation of Prime Minister (PM) Adil Abdulmehdi, Baghdad still faces the serious challenge of selecting a replacement candidate who is acceptable to a divided legislature and impassioned street protestors. Compounding this stalemate is a deteriorating security situation marked by the increased targeting of demonstrators by armed militias. The main disagreement over the selection stems from different opinions about the appropriate background for any new PM. While the largest two blocs disagree on the affiliation of the future candidate, neither has a majority that enables their coalition to choose the new PM or his cabinet. This intractably is heightened by the fact that selecting a name not acceptable to demonstrators would exacerbate protests in Iraq, something that was made clear by the intensified demonstrations over the last two weeks. Meanwhile, facing a constitutionally mandated deadline to name a PM candidate within 15 days of the previous PM’s resignation, President Barham Salih has already informally extended the deadline to December 18th. This gave Parliament time to submit a list of candidates, which occurred on December 16th. Still, among this list no individual is expected to get the votes needed in order to form a cabinet.

Government Formation:

The lack of a clear roadmap for resolving the government formation dilemma might increase tension between the top two parliamentary blocs. Even within the coalition that originally voted for Abdulmehdi there are disagreements resulting from the unrest. In line with protestor demands, the largest bloc wants the next PM to be completely independent. Meanwhile, the second largest, (representing Iran’s closest Iraqi allies), continues to insist that the next PM be selected from among those already affiliated with an existing political party.[1]

The failure among both to agree on a candidate became clear after rumors began circulating that Ahmad Al-Sodani, a sitting Member of Parliament (MP), was being considered due to his prior cabinet experience. Despite this, his name was not approved by the Al-Sadr-led bloc and induced a negative reaction among protestors due to his membership in the AlDawa party. In response to several nominations from current political parties, the protestors submitted their own list of five candidates, mostly judges, military leaders, and figures not associated with current political parties.[2] [3] However, with the constitutional deadline to form a new government approaching, there is still no clarity regarding who will replace the Prime Minister. As it stands, the resigned body will continue to function as a caretaker for 30 days until a new one can be formed. Constitutionally, if the assembly fails to form a new cabinet before this deadline, the President will lead the executive branch.

At the same time, the increased number of protestors killed since the resignation of Abdulmehdi has led demonstrators to reject all candidates proposed by the legislature, a stance mirrored by Muqtada Al-Sadr’s bloc.  Among protestors, there has been a significant push for the executive branch to be led by military officers or judges, particularly those who played a major role in the defeat of ISIS or who have never been involved in corruption scandals. The pivot toward military rule perhaps suggests that many Iraqis have lost all trust in the political system installed in the country in 2003.

Complicating decisions surrounding the selection of a new PM are external influences on the process, mainly from Iran, which is likely working to preserve its military and political influence over Baghdad. This influence in particular was one of the factors that contributed to the eruption of protests in 2018 and 2019. Subsequently, after successfully forcing the resignation of Abdulmehdi protestors seem even more determined to achieve their larger aims, including reforms to the laws that enabled existing political parties to control the parliament, the selection of the PMs, and the appointment of executive branch officials. Despite promises from major parties to address flaws in the elections law, as recently as last week and today the Iraqi parliament failed to pass a new election law that would have reformed the constituency system in order to lessen the control that major parties exert over the majority of seats.[4] As it stands, Iraq uses the Sainte-Lague system, a mathematical formula used to count votes and ascertain representation. Yet, in Iraq it is used with a divisor of 1.7 to allocate seats, putting smaller parties at a disadvantage and keeping the power of appointments within the major parties.[5]

Protests Intensified:

Additionally, since the resignation of Abdulmehdi, two factors have made the protestors more determined to pursue their goal of reforming the current political system and eradicating corruption and foreign influence. First has been the targeted kidnappings and assassinations of protest leaders. The fact that these were carried out by masked militiamen passing through, and retreating from security checkpoints without resistance from government forces has heighted protestor anger.[6] Second is the massacre at Al-Sinak Bridge square, which caused condemnation, including from the U.S., the UN, Germany, France and the UK.[7] Both of these factors have made demonstrators more determined to fight the militias’ influence in the country, and more specifically within the legislative and executive branches. However, a boon for the Iraqi demonstrators came when Iraq’s highest cleric Ayatollah Ali Al-Sistani reiterated his support for the protestors in his weekly statements. Al-Sistani also urged the state to restrict weapons in the hands of government security forces, a rare indirect condemnation of the militias’ role in recent attacks on protestors.[8]

The recent statement from Al-Sistani shows an increased agreement among the clergy, political parties, and society at large, that the Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF) within Iraq must be disarmed. Last summer, the now-resigned PM tried to implement such measures by putting the PMF under the leadership of the Iraqi Ministry of Defense; a decision that is being challenged by some militias that work under the PMF umbrella and are considered to be among Iran’s closest allies.[9] The attacks on protestors, coupled with recent mortar attacks on military bases that host U.S. troops and diplomats have pushed the U.S. government to reinvigorate its sanctions of militia affiliates.

The Sinak massacre and the increased number of assassinations and kidnappings of activists have intensified protests in several Iraqi cities in the center and south of the country. Protestors have perceived these attacks to be a response to their demands for efficient governmental institutions and the decreased influence of large political parties and militias. Additionally, the attacks on protestors will probably lower the popularity of the PMF among Iraqis, and despite the fact that its political wing currently controls the second-largest bloc, could cost them seats in future elections. This is in stark contrast to 2018, when the PMF was venerated by the public as a primary force responsible for defeating ISIS.

As it stands, the ruling parties and President Salih seem to be taking steps to form a transitional government with a yearlong ruling mandate to enact reforms ahead of new elections. The real challenge, however, remains in finding a PM candidate acceptable to political parties and protestors. So far, it seems that in order to prevent the ongoing unrest from continuing into 2020 the legislators should select an independent PM who never held a position linked to either corruption allegations or a major political party. The new PM should be committed to the following important, yet challenging tasks. First, he should minimize  Tehran’s influence in Iraq by sequestering Baghdad from all regional and international disputes. Second, he must reform election laws to restore society’s trust in the electoral process. Third, should be the creation of a sufficient anti-corruption campaign that includes legislative and executive actions. Finally, the new PM must limit the increasing influence of paramilitary groups to reassert the central government’s judicial and security authority. In order to enact this agenda, the upcoming PM should present, and if possible, enforce a legal framework through judicial appointments and anti-corruption legislation. Most importantly, each of these steps must be perceived as authentic by the disillusioned Iraqi populace. Furthermore, the PM, along with the President and the legislative branch, need to create a better constitutional Prime Minister selection mechanism to avoid the procedural deadlock and confusion that has defined the past two weeks.  Failure to implement these measures could lead to real chaos and a continued decline of the state’s role.



[1] AP, “No Consensus Yet on New Iraqi PM as Deadline Looms,” VOA, December 16, 2019

[2] “لهذه الأسباب يرفض متظاهرو العراق مرشحي الأحزاب لرئاسة الحكومة” Aljazeera, December 16, 2019

[3] “Sources to INA: Salih may appoint a candidate to head the government away from the largest bloc,” Iraq News Agency, December 16, 2019

[4] “البرلمان العراقي يفشل في التوافق على قانون انتخابات جديد” AlAraby, December 11, 2019

” البرلمان العراقي يخفق مجدداً في تمرير قانون جديد للانتخابات,” AlAraby, December 18, 2019

[5] Mustafa Habib, “Iraq’s New Electoral Law To Sideline Small Opposition Parties,” Niqash, August 9, 2017

[6] “Iraq: State Appears Complicit in Massacre of Protesters,” Human Rights Watch, December 16, 2019

[7] “الاتحاد الاوربي وامريكا وبريطانيا وفرنسا وكندا تدين بشدة «مجزرة» السنك والخلاني بحق المتظاهرين العزل” AlBayyna, December 12, 2019

[8] Raya Jalabi and John Davison, “Iraq’s top Shi’ite cleric condemns protester killings and calls for gun controls,” Reuters, December 13, 2019

[9] Ahmed Aboulenein, “Iraq PM orders Iran-allied militias to be reined in,” Reuters, July 1, 2019

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