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Muqtada al-Sadr speaks during a press conference in Najaf, Iraq. Muqtada al-Sadr speaks during a press conference in Najaf, Iraq, Nov. 18, 2021 (AP photo by Anmar Khalil).

Despite the Stalemate in Baghdad, Iraq’s Political Winds Are Shifting

Tuesday, May 10, 2022

Iraq has blown past all the constitutional deadlines to form a government in the aftermath of its October 2021 parliamentary elections, the results of which initially threatened to upend Iraq’s system of sectarian kleptocracy.

Instead, seven months after the election, Iraq’s government formation talks appear to have reached a stalemate, with the most likely outcome now being a government that reflects the exact same power-sharing consensus that has shaped every Iraqi government since 2005, election results notwithstanding.

But the twisting negotiations and gothic political scenarios involved in the government formation talks mask significant long-term shifts underway. The country seems to be moving inexorably away from an identity-based sectarian system that distributes government positions to all of Iraq’s political factions, with few expectations of responsible governance, and toward a majoritarian system where a government that reflects the will of the electorate is tasked with the responsibility of managing the affairs of state.

The current government formation process is nonetheless still important, as the way these negotiations have unfolded holds important portents for Iraq’s political trajectory. Local militia groups with close ties to Iran but tiny public followings, like Kataib Hezbollah and Harakat Hezbollah al-Nujaba, have recklessly but effectively used violence as a means of leverage, demanding a share of political power based not on their performance at the ballot box but through the force of their weapons. Tellingly, however, the hardline factions that are now thwarting the government formation process have coalesced not around the guidance of an Iranian figure—as they usually did when the late Gen. Qassem Soleimani, Iran’s former top military commander, was alive—but as part of a fractious coalition whose key strategist is former Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki.

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Facing off against the Maliki-led bloc is one led by Moqtada al-Sadr, whose party finished first in the elections and who is the closest thing to a kingmaker in Iraq’s current political landscape. But though avatars of competing camps, the two men share some things in common, and it would be a mistake to simplistically reduce them to pro- and anti-Iranian figures. Both are nationalists and state-builders, and neither is a reformer or a democrat. When he held power, Maliki was bent on centralizing state authority, and today Sadr has assembled the most credible coalition to date that unifies Iraqis from every major identity group behind a nationalist state-building project.

The current impasse is likely to be resolved by a compromise agreed to by factions exhausted by the months of long negotiations, with no qualms about bending constitutional rules, given that they’ve already missed all the official deadlines to select a new government. Perhaps Sadr will accept a government that includes his old nemesis, Maliki. Or else the factions might agree to a weak new government that can muddle through its time in office until the next elections. In the most dramatic scenario, the deadlock will stretch on, leaving the existing caretaker government to rule until all sides agree to hold early elections.

But none of these potential scenarios touches on the most important issue presently being contested: the very nature of Iraqi governance. Sadr’s Tripartite Alliance includes the biggest Kurdish, Sunni Arab and Shiite factions, all of which are the best organized, centrally led political organizations with the proven ability to both get voters to the polls and deliver political patronage. All Iraqi elite-dominated factions are corrupt, but the Sadrists and their allies are arguably distinct in seeking to work through the official activities of government institutions like the Health, Trade and Oil Ministries, which could conceivably reinforce a state-building project rather than vitiate it. Many of the Tripartite Alliance proposals would create new government services, like a national health insurance scheme, that would likely create opportunities for patronage and embezzlement, but would simultaneously deliver much-needed public goods and services to Iraqis. The alternative is the extractive corruption favored by many of the militia factions, involving schemes that take public money for no-show jobs or contracts that are never fulfilled.

The coalition that has blocked government formation has no conceivable grand narrative other than bald self-interest. Its main, stated commitment is to seek government posts for its acolytes. In contrast, Sadr’s Tripartite Alliance has a well-honed message, clear even to those who doubt its sincerity: It seeks a government that will have the power to rule, attempt transformative policies and be held accountable by voters, not another “Frankenstein’s monster” government comprising every conceivable faction. The hardline militias and assorted opportunists that have resisted a majority government are terrified that they could lose access to lucrative state resources—and perhaps any future shot at holding power—if they are forced into the opposition.

The Sadrists, along with their Kurdish and Sunni Arab partners, are playing a long game, and their message and sales pitch only become more compelling as the current paralysis and dysfunction drags on. A growing cohort of Iraqis want to see results, and not sectarian posturing, from their government. The alliance across sectarian and ethnic groups appeals to the vital need for a functional state capable of responding to the needs of every Iraqi.

Whatever time the hardline factions have won through their bare-knuckle negotiation tactics will probably prove to be a pyrrhic victory. Iraq is a massive, rich country with dizzying problems, as well as the potential to address them. Sadr and his allies are building their case to ditch a broken spoils system and replace it with an empowered national government with more power and capability than any since before the 2003 U.S. invasion. Whatever short-term compromise emerges from the shambolic political negotiations that have followed the October elections, the case for a strong majority government will have the advantage in the next round of political competition.

Under the Radar

Elections have proven to be remarkably poor tools to change the balance of power in corrupt power-sharing systems like those in Lebanon and Iraq, which borrowed most of its worst institutional designs from Lebanon. Nonetheless, they can serve as referenda on failed governance, and Lebanon’s ongoing elections have brought out more viable challengers, as well as more visible contempt for the ruling order, than any elections since the end of the country’s Civil War. Expatriates voted last weekend, while voters in Lebanon will cast their ballots this Sunday. The result of next week’s poll will provide more insights about the opposition’s organizing prowess and the level of popular discontent with Lebanon’s bosses. Anyone interested in deeper analysis should listen to the Lebanese Politics Podcast with Benjamin Redd and Nizar Hassan, who look at the key issues at stake in the election.

What I’m Reading

The Pulitzer Prizes awarded Monday offer us a moment to appreciate the incredible investigative and narrative work done by journalists around the world, but especially in the MENA region. The awards also present an opportunity, amid the rush of events, to momentarily pause and think about the recent past and the arc of unfolding history. The winning international reporting entry from The New York Times showcases some of the most important accountability reporting that’s been done about the civilian casualties of U.S. airstrikes in the region, reporting that I’ve highlighted before in this newsletter.

The runner up packages—another from the Times and one from The Wall Street Journal—chronicle the messy U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan and the Taliban’s subsequent takeover, which is sure to have immense consequences for many years to come. The hour it takes to read, or reread, all three packages of stories is time well-spent.

Thanassis Cambanis is a senior fellow and director of the international policy program at The Century Foundation in New York. He teaches at Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs. His books include “Once Upon a Revolution: An Egyptian Story,” “A Privilege to Die: Inside Hezbollah’s Legions,” and four edited volumes about politics and security in the Middle East. He is currently writing a book about the Iraq war’s global impact. His Twitter handle is @tcambanis.

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