For the first time in its history, the Iraqi parliament voted freely for the country’s next president, with Barham Salih winning by a landslide vote of 219 to 22 over his competitor last week. In the past, the parliamentary vote served mainly as a rubber stamp.
Though elements of the old backroom politics remain, this vote marks a departure. After last summer’s election shake-up, some two-thirds of the members of parliament are new to the job. A growing protest movement has exposed citizen disillusionment with the political process, increasing pressure on the parliament. My conversations with many of these new MPs show how fragmentation of political blocs is challenging Iraq’s ethno-sectarian power-sharing agreement in place since 2003.
What remains the same in Iraqi politics
Immediately after Salih was sworn in as president, he named Adel Abdul Mahdi as prime minister and tasked him with forming the next cabinet. Abdul Mahdi is the first prime minister not to come from the Islamic Dawa Party, which has dominated post-invasion Iraqi politics.
And while the presidential vote was a departure from Iraqi politics as usual, the Abdul Mahdi nomination was a more typical backroom deal among elite. Abdul Mahdi has long been part of the establishment, serving as vice president from 2005 to 2011 and later oil minister from 2014 to 2016. As a compromise candidate, and despite widespread optimism, Abdul Mahdi will probably remain at the behest of the political parties that put him in power.
To become president, Salih, too, had to play politics as usual, by returning to his old political party, the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK). The power of the parties in the political process drove Salih to return, as he probably could not become president otherwise.
Despite these continuities, the process of selecting both Salih and Abdul Mahdi offers insights into the fragmentation of Iraq’s political scene.
Forming a government as traditional blocs fragment
Since 2003, mass blocs based on ethno-sectarian identities were largely unified during government formation. In Iraq’s first election in 2005, the major players were Shiite political actors led by the United Iraqi Alliance and the Kurds, united under the Kurdistan Alliance. With such internally cohesive blocs, each leader could negotiate on behalf of his bloc. During government formation, most negotiations were completed behind closed doors, and parliament served as a rubber stamp to enact elite bargains.
Typically, the largest bloc would choose the prime minister. In the past, this has always been the united Shiite Islamist bloc with eventual accommodation of the Kurds. Even in the most turbulent times, the Shiite groups were able to unite, at least during government formation. In 2010, only a few years after waging a brutal internal war, Moqtada al-Sadr and Nouri al-Maliki came together to form a united bloc.
That was hardly the case with the selection of Abdul Mahdi. This year’s divisive government formation process began to expose the artificiality of these ethno-sectarian bloc constructs. The opening parliamentary session ended with confusion, as the Binaa bloc, headed by Hadi al-Amiri, and the Islah bloc, led by Sadrist leaders, fragmented any single Shiite-led bloc. They offered contradictory numbers in their claim to have formed the largest bloc. Following the deterioration of the situation in Basra, Amiri and Sadr did reach an understanding. They agreed on Abdul Mahdi. On the day of Abdul Mahdi’s appointment, Sadr hinted at the irrelevance of the largest bloc by tweeting, “Iraq is larger than the largest bloc.”
The presidential selection revealed similar fragmentation. For the first time, the Kurds could not agree on a single candidate for the post. The Kurdish Democratic Party (KDP) challenged the PUK’s hold on the position and offered their own candidate, Fuad Hussein.
The major blocs remained divided, while leaders struggled to get their own newly elected MPs to toe a party line. Within the Binaa bloc, the head of one party expressed his preference for Salih, while another voiced support for Hussein.
Why Salih’s election is significant
Many MPs told me that they made their own choice based on qualifications rather than party affiliation. Hussein had never held a high office position, whereas Salih had served as deputy prime minister of Iraq and prime minister of the Kurdistan Regional Government. Many new MPs criticized previous president Fuad Masum — a product of a backroom deal — as weak and ineffective because of his inexperience.
In negotiations for his presidential bid, some Iraqis argued that Hussein looked similarly weak, often sitting behind his party leader Nechirvan Barzani, who did the talking. In contrast, Salih sat at the head of negotiations, with his party officials behind him.
MPs from across coalitions repeatedly expressed to me that the next president must advocate for the country’s unity and not its dismemberment. This point was particularly sensitive coming one year after the Kurdish Region independence referendum. Although both Hussein and Salih voted in the referendum, Hussein had played an active role in the bid for secession while Salih had remained on the outskirts. And less than a month after the vote, Salih publicly admitted that the referendum had been a bad idea.
Ultimately, the political process in Iraq is slowly moving away from the post-2003 ethno-sectarian dealings. On this occasion, MPs chose their president based on their perceptions of competency and ideology — and not as prescribed by their bloc leader.
The road ahead
Tensions with the post-2003 ethno-sectarian system will shape the next government and define its mandate. So far, the government formation process has revealed that the once seemingly unified ethno-sectarian-based blocs are fragmented, complicating the usual backroom dealings. Leaders are less able to rely on identity to legitimately speak on behalf of groups of people, and MPs can diverge from their party line.
Even as a rubber stamp, parliament has considerable influence on the political process. In the past, bloc leaders have impeached opponents or enacted favorable bills, such as the law that legitimized the Popular Mobilization Units. As the gap between citizens and their elite widens across Iraq, this parliament could be an institution to relay the people’s voice rather than a political tool for the elite.
The elite and the traditional political parties remain stronger than state institutions, so the new president and prime minister will have an uphill battle translating recent developments into structural changes that make last week’s events a turning point rather than an anomaly.