When Iraqi protestors took to the streets in the closing months of 2019, they made clear the conditions under which they would recede. First among their demands were reforms to the electoral law. Second, were a change of the mechanism through which political parties select the Prime Minister (PM) and the cabinet. Anger toward the growing power of these political parties and their total control over the executive and legislative branches was at the root of each of these demands. Protestors hoped that reforms to Iraq’s political system could enable independent members and smaller parties to exercise influence over political appointments and weaken the dominant parties’ grip over the country’s government. Still, the recent selection of Mohammed Tawfik Allawi as the new PM exhibits continuity with that of outgoing PM Adil Abdulmehdi, a perpetuation of the status quo and the perception of an entrenchment of party-dominance that has once again resulted in widespread dissatisfaction.
Both the outgoing PM and the incoming nominated PM had previously been affiliated with one of the parliament’s major parties or blocs, and were ultimately selected by the parties due to their lack of association with any major corruption scandals, which in the past had prompted street demonstrations. Allawi’s recent selection did not appear to have originated from a clear majority bloc, however soon after the announcement it was circulated that the nomination was born of an agreement between the Iraqi president, and the two largest blocs (Al-Ameri’s Iran-backed Fateh, and the Muqtada AlSadr-backed Sairoon). Although Allawi has not been linked to cases of corruption or abuse of authority, his previous ministerial position and the involvement of the political parties in his selection has given the process the appearance of being ignorant to the protestors’ grievances.
Previously, Allawi served for several years as a member of parliament and as Minister of Telecommunications in the government of PM Nouri Al-Maliki. The latter was controversial in his own right due to allegations of corruption and for stoking Iraq’s sectarian tensions. Despite this, Allawi was put forward as a supposed neutral candidate that fit the protestors’ demands.
Allawi’s appointment speech was similar to those of previous cabinets and covered issues of economic reform and anti-corruption measures. However, his first address differed from his predecessors in that he called on protestors to remain in the streets and continue demonstrations. This call arguably evidences the genuineness of his promise to pursue the protestors’ reform agenda. Still, it is not yet clear how he intends to curtail the powerful influence of the very political parties that elevated him to his new position.
Allawi may also face constitutional obstacles to implementing reforms, primarily over his ability to dissolve the current parliament and pave the way for early elections. According to Article 64 of the Iraqi constitution, authority to dissolve the parliament is controlled by the legislature itself. The constitution outlines two mechanisms by which the body can be disbanded. First, by an absolute majority vote upon a request by a third of its members, and second, upon approval by the President at the request of the PM so long as he is not undergoing questioning by legislators. This gridlock could limit Allawi’s ability to compel an early election in order to put an end to Iraq’s ongoing crisis.
Muqtada Alsadr’s Changing Position:
Allawi’s nomination process has been laced with irony due to its backing from Muqtada Alsadr, the leader of the parliament’s largest bloc, the kingmaker of Abdulmehdi’s cabinet, and one of the primary mobilizers of Iraq’s protests. This is not the first time that Alsadr has made a move in which he calls for anti-government protests, despite chairing a large bloc of the leading government coalition. In previous instances, Alsadr backed-politicians have been effective actors within the political system while he simultaneously strived to be in control of the Iraqi street. During the current wave of protests he was one of the first supporters of the demonstrations despite having a major role in Abdulmehdi’s cabinet. He urged his supporters to join protests and in several instances made appearances at main demonstration sites. When the crackdown on protestors by militias and security forces intensified, he called for their protection and dispatched members of his former militia, Jaish AlMehdi (now known in Iraq as the ‘Blue Hats’) to protect protestors.
Furthermore, Alsadr played a major role in pushing Abdulmehdi to resign. Even afterwards however, he was involved in the naming of Allawi as prime ministerial candidate, and expressed his support in a tweet. Despite Alsadr’s prior endorsement of protests, upon demonstrators’ rejection of Allawi, Alsadr supporters began attacking protestors in several locations in Baghdad, Najaf and other cities. This bolsters the argument that Alsadr is proverbially attempting to ‘have his cake and eat it too,’ by depicting himself as kingmaker, while simultaneously looking to influence the outcome of street demonstrations.
Regardless of whether Allawi is ultimately approved by parliament, protests will continue and probably exacerbate until there is a successful call for early elections with a new electoral law. Therefore, the narrow focus on the naming process of the new PM may not be the proper priority for protestors, as the upcoming occupant of this position will merely be an interim PM to prepare for new elections. In addition, since Allawi’s selection appeared as a disingenuous compromise and an extension of the status quo, if the protestors are looking to institute lasting change in Iraq, they should instead work toward securing reforms that would redistribute parliamentary constituencies and force early elections to end the control exercised by political parties over Iraq.