Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi’s attempts to introduce a new cabinet as part of a reform drive have threatened his position, divided parliament, and strained traditional political alliances to the point of near collapse.
External support is likely to ensure Abadi remains in office, but divisions within key political blocs point towards a prolonged deadlock that will continue to paralyse government decision-making and possibly fuel efforts to dissolve parliament.
- Tensions over reforms have already led to disruptive protests in Baghdad, and the scale and intensity of the unrest may worsen if the crisis spills over into the summer, when demonstrations over inadequate public services typically peak. Ongoing political paralysis also threatens to undermine government offensives against the Islamic State group, which remains a severe threat to national security.
Abadi’s attempts to implement anti-corruption reforms following months of unrest over graft and inadequate government services have contributed to political instability and paralysis within the country’s key institutions. Differences over the reforms have also fuelled new divisions within traditional political coalitions that threaten to prolong deadlock in parliament and undermine the stability of the Iraqi government, as well as the future of the premier.
The prime minister’s proposed reforms – which include the replacement of the existing cabinet with technocrats – has ruptured some of the traditional alliances and rivalries along which parliament has been organised for more than a decade. Since the US-led military operations in 2003, Iraqi political parties have been divided along ethnic and sectarian lines, but the recent crisis has led to the emergence of a new, more diverse camp favouring reforms. This multi-sectarian bloc comprises members of existing Sunni Etihad bloc and Shi’a parties, including the majority State of Law Alliance (SLA), as well as cross-sectarian parties such as Former Prime Minister Ayad Allawi’s al-Wataniya. On 14 April, more than 100 lawmakers voted to oust Speaker Salim al-Jabouri and two of his deputies from office for repeatedly delaying a vote on a technocratic cabinet, but the number of MPs present in parliament at the time of the vote was below the 163 necessary for a quorum. The durability of this new alliance is uncertain but it could act as a temporary political bloc capable of forcing the dissolution of parliament or the cabinet reforms it demands. In a contested move, the bloc voted in favour of a new interim speaker, Adnan al-Janabi, prompting Jabouri to suspend parliament indefinitely on 19 April. The emerging split within the legislature may leave parliament unable to reach a quorum for a prolonged period, as witnessed in 2006-2007.
In response to waves of anti-government protests that drew support from both religious and secular organisations, Abadi announced a major reform effort in August 2015 that included austerity measures and a reorganisation of senior government posts. The reforms included eliminating the country’s three vice-presidency positions, one of which is held by former Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, leader of parliament’s most powerful bloc, the SLA. Abadi’s purported attempts to address public concerns over pervasive corruption and chronic energy and water shortages were interpreted by many of his political rivals, including the SLA, as a move to consolidate his own position at the expense of his opponents. The prime minister’s attempts to keep loyalists from his own Dawa Party in senior positions only reinforced this perception, leaving Abadi increasingly isolated as he failed to build broad support for his reforms among lawmakers in powerful Kurdish, Sunni and Shi’a blocs. By November 2015, the already stalled anti-corruption drive was dealt a decisive blow when lawmakers adopted legislation requiring parliamentary approval of any reforms such as cuts to government salaries or changes to political personnel.
Abadi’s mishandling of the proposed cabinet reshuffle has demonstrated his weakness and limited political manoeuvring. In an effort to regain momentum, on 9 February, the prime minister announced a plan to form a government comprising technocrats, a move that would upend the current system whereby political parties control ministerial appointments so as to protect networks of patronage and influence. After weeks of delay due to political infighting, on 31 March, Abadi nominated a cabinet composed entirely of technocrats. However, key groups – including the majority of the Shi’a National Alliance coalition – rejected the prime minister’s nominees. Under pressure from political blocs, on 12 April, Abadi submitted a new list of candidates that included both technocrats and nominees backed by political parties. The latest proposal has divided parliament among those who favour an independent cabinet and those who seek to maintain party dominance. Lawmakers in support of the technocratic cabinet have threatened to hold a no-confidence vote against Abadi and President Fuad Masum. Should 25 MPs vote to call Abadi in for questioning, they can begin the lengthy and uncertain process to remove him from office.
A no-confidence vote requires only a simple majority of 165 of the 328 seats, but the lack of a credible alternative, and external support from Tehran and Washington, make it likely that Abadi will remain premier. However, the collapse of party discipline increases the unpredictability of the situation, which rivals of Abadi such as Maliki and Iyad Allawi may seek to exploit. Underscoring the threat, Reuters reported on 6 April that both the US and Iran have already used their leverage and influence to prevent an attempt by Maliki to force Abadi from office. Given that the current parliament is led by Shi’a parties, many of which are close to Tehran, there is concern in the US that a more pro-Tehran lawmaker would replace Abadi as PM, increasing the incentive for Washington to preserve the status quo. Any attempt to replace the prime minister would set off a protracted and uncertain process, given the lack of consensus on his replacement and further weaken party discipline among key blocs in parliament.
Under the direction of prominent Shi’a cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, mass protests in Baghdad have resumed to pressure the government to introduce a technocratic cabinet and undertake other measures against corruption. On 18 April, his supporters forcibly shut down several ministries in Baghdad during protests attended by thousands of people. The heavily fortified Green Zone and Tahrir Square, which have been flashpoints in previous demonstrations by Sadr’s followers, will continue to be targeted by protesters who have demonstrated the capability to disrupt operations in sensitive parts of the capital. Sit-ins and other protests by Sadr’s supporters have also been reported in the predominantly Shi’a south, and unrest could intensify nationwide in the coming weeks as temperatures rise. Protests in Iraq typically increase in the warm summer months when power shortages are most severe. Frustration with the ongoing political crisis, if unresolved, could combine with disaffection over poor public services to exacerbate the levels of discontent.
Prolonged political uncertainty threatens to undermine government policy-making at a time when the country faces critical economic and security challenges. The BBC reported on 14 April that a successful government offensive to recapture the western town of Hit from Islamic State (IS) militants had been delayed by the two-week sit-in protest by Sadr’s supporters, which necessitated the redeployment of security forces to Baghdad. The risk of further disruption to ongoing security operations cannot be discounted if the crisis intensifies and unrest worsens, especially in the capital where demonstrators have threatened to storm the Green Zone. Despite recent territorial losses in Anbar province and northern Iraq, IS could seek to exploit the crisis by intensifying its attacks, at a time when the stability and responsiveness of the government is questionable. The potential removal of Abadi from office could disrupt the support of the US-led coalition for the fight against IS, particularly if a premier seen as more pro-Iran were to come to power.
External pressure and the threat of mass protests may force political leaders into a compromise that sees some technocrats enter government and allows for the implementation of some limited anti-corruption measures. However, it remains unclear whether such a deal will satisfy those who favour more substantive reforms, especially those led by a resurgent Sadr and an increasingly vocal pro-reform camp emerging in parliament. Their reaction, as well as any potential response from Grand Ayatollah Sistani – who has voiced support for Abadi’s reforms in the past and is the country’s most powerful Shi’a religious authority – will be key to shaping the outcome of the current political crisis.