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A Likely Story:
How Will The Next Iraqi Government Come Together?

Mustafa Habib
The still-disputed Iraqi elections did not return a clear winner. The formation of a new government will be long and complicated. Here, three scenarios that may play out in the coming weeks, and most likely, months.
7.06.2018  |  Baghdad
The Iraqi parliament in session.
The Iraqi parliament in session.

Ordinary Iraqis may currently be more worried about the country’s water crisis and power cuts during the height of summer. But since the Iraq elections were held in mid-May, Iraq’s politicians have been in intense discussion. At first, talks focused on which coalitions would ally with which other coalitions. Then things moved onto the charges of electoral fraud levelled by some politicians against others, and now potential parliamentarians are awaiting the final decisions on those charges.

In terms of the formation of the government after the situation around a potential recount has been resolved, there are three possible scenarios, based on the meetings held in Baghdad already. They all start with the choosing of a new Speaker of Parliament and the president of Iraq, who will give the largest bloc in parliament the task of forming a government. But after that it gets much more complicated and each of the following scenarios will doubtless require months to finalize.

After previous elections there were only four or five major alliances. In this election’s aftermath there are ten alliances that have won the majority of the seats.

Scenario 1:

The three major ethnic or sectarian powers in Iraq carry on as they did before, teaming up along established ethnic or sectarian lines. So that is, the Shiite Muslim, Sunni Muslim and Kurdish politicians will band together within their demographic. In doing so they will uphold Iraq’s unofficial and dysfunctional quota-based system of politics that says that each of the components of Iraqi society needs an equal share of power.

Although it has never been written into Iraqi law, the country has been run according to the quota system for years now. When US administrators set up the country’s new government after the 2003 US-led invasion that toppled Saddam Hussein they wanted to avoid sectarian infighting. So they split the most important positions in Iraq’s new Parliament between the three major ethnic and sectarian groups in the country. Traditionally this has meant that the Kurds always get the post of Iraqi president, the Shiite Muslims always get the prime minister’s job and the Sunni Muslims get the Speaker of Parliament position.

Over time though, many believe this practice has come to hamper Iraqi democracy, with leaders being picked for their sect or ethnicity, rather than on merit. In this case, it would involve consensus between all ten of the winning alliances, about how to share out ministries and senior jobs.

However it also creates a weak government. The existing conflicts between the parties, even within once monolithic demographic blocks, will extend into parliament. Additionally, once again, there will be no opposition in the Iraqi parliament to call out those in power for wrong doing.

This is also why this scenario is less likely than it might first seem. There are now deep divisions, formed over the past few years, within all the demographically-defined groups. Long-lasting alliances have faltered or been found lacking.  

Scenario 2:

In this case, the alliances split based upon how they feel about neighbouring Iran. One alliance in parliament might be formed by pro-Iran parties and another by anti-Iran parties.

Anti-Iranian, pro-Iraqi-nationalism parties would include the group headed by the cleric Muqtada al-Sadr which, with 54, won the most seats in parliament. It would also include the coalition headed by the sitting prime minister, Haider al-Abadi, which has 42 seats, the movement headed by another cleric Ammar al-Hakim, with 19 seats and several other coalitions: the group headed by another former prime minister Ayad al-Allawi, a Sunni Muslim group and the Iraqi Kurdish party, the Kurdistan Democratic Party, or KDP. All together they would have 175 seats, enough to be able to choose the prime minister and form the government.

Any such coalition would exclude the parties that are closer to Iran. That means the alliance made up of representatives of the Shiite Muslim militias that fought the extremist group known as the Islamic State: some of those militias have particularly close ties to Iran and are funded and guided by Iranians. This group has 47 seats and came second to al-Sadr’s alliance. It would also exclude the party of former, unpopular prime minister Nouri al-Maliki, which has 25 seats and the Kurdish party closer to Iran, the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, or PUK, with 18 seats.

However this scenario is a risky one. With an opposition like this, there is much to fear. The parties – and in particular the Conquest alliance, representing Shiite militias’ interests – could mobilize public support against the government and disrupt its works. There is also a grave fear that if the Conquest alliance is left out of the government, they could turn to armed conflict on the streets, given the weaponry and fighters they have.

Scenario 3:

The third scenario envisages a kind of “alliance of the most powerful”. This would be achieved via an agreement between the alliances that won the most votes in the elections. This means al-Sadr, the Shiite militias, al-Abadi, the KDP and al-Allawi. That would give this group a total number of 189 seats, easily enough to form a government.

This is a viable scenario for several reasons. The Iranians won’t be upset because their militia allies are included. Al-Sadr is satisfied because the state of law alliance – another Iran-allied group but one that is less popular than the militias’ – is not part of this agreement. There are also Sunni Muslim and Kurdish parties involved, so the government would still represent the major populations of Iraq.

The biggest problem will be what to do with everyone. The various “winning” parties will want prestige political positions in ministries and departments for themselves, in exchange for agreeing to participate in such a government. In 2006, in the first government after the US-led invasion of Iraq, there were 37 ministerial portfolios and two vice prime minister-ships. In 2010, the number of ministries was reduced and then in 2014, reduced them again to 23. If all of the powerful want a piece of the political pie, it may end up being cut into very small pieces.

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