Will Iraq’s Old Divisions Undermine Its New Prime Minister?

In his first hundred days on the job, Adel Abdul Mahdi has hit entrenched political roadblocks to choosing cabinet ministers and changing a system of political patronage.

Prime Minister-elect Adel Abdul Mahdi addresses the Iraqi parliament during a vote on the new government in Baghdad on Oct. 24, 2018. (STR/AFP/Getty Images)
Prime Minister-elect Adel Abdul Mahdi addresses the Iraqi parliament during a vote on the new government in Baghdad on Oct. 24, 2018. (STR/AFP/Getty Images)

BAGHDAD—When he was sworn in as Iraq’s new prime minister in late October 2018, Adel Abdul Mahdi vowed to fight corruption, address electricity and water shortages, create private sector jobs, and curb an entrenched system of political patronage that has long hamstrung Iraq’s ability to serve its people.

Abdul Mahdi’s agenda was as ambitious as it was necessary. It sought to calm public anger following the worst anti-government protests the country has seen in years, fueled by a severe water and sanitation crisis in Iraq’s south that had resulted from years of neglect and mismanagement of public resources. The prime minister’s pledge to choose his own ministers, rather than let political parties pick candidates, aimed to restore trust in a political process that many Iraqis had come to dismiss as corrupt and undemocratic.

But with the 100-day mark of his administration gone, Abdul Mahdi and his reform agenda appear to be faltering. He has been able to freely choose only a handful of ministers, while four ministerial positions remain vacant amid haggling among political parties insisting on their candidates. His budget has drawn widespread criticism for failing to shift resources away from salaries and the security sector toward services, agriculture, industrial development, and the reconstruction of war-torn areas in the country’s north.

Still, this political cycle has offered some reason to hope that Iraq’s 14-year-old democracy is gradually maturing. For the first time, the prime minister doesn’t hail from the Islamic Dawa Party, a Shiite political movement that opposed Saddam Hussein and emerged as the country’s dominant political force after his overthrow in 2003. The president was elected in parliament in line with the constitution, in contrast to previous years when the candidate was chosen in murky backroom negotiations. In a notable shift away from sectarian alliances, the two main blocs in parliament include Shiite, Sunni, and Kurdish parties.

Despite these encouraging signs, Abdul Mahdi’s perceived lack of progress in filling his cabinet is gradually eroding public confidence. Many Iraqis on the streets call him “weak” and perceive him as unable to stand his ground in the face of powerful political interests.

An independent who chose not to run in the May 2018 parliamentary election, Abdul Mahdi was a compromise candidate for prime minister agreed on by the two biggest Shiite-led blocs in parliament: The reform bloc, Islah, led by the Saairun party of the populist Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, and Hadi al-Amiri’s construction bloc, Binaa, which encompasses the political wings of the Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF) and includes several groups with close ties to neighboring Iran.

In the absence of a popular mandate, Abdul Mahdi’s legitimacy depends on keeping the support of both blocs, a source of weakness according to some observers.

“He failed to work as a prime minister because the political powers which brought him to this position are in fact controlling him,” said Husham al-Hashimi, a political and security analyst. “It’s them who granted him the legitimacy, and they are threatening to withdraw it.”

Although both blocs had agreed to grant the prime minister a free hand to appoint his cabinet, Abdul Mahdi was able to independently appoint technocrats for only five out of 22 available ministries. The remaining ministers were nominated by political parties in line with the apportionment system, whereby parties divide the ministries based on their respective share of seats. The practice isn’t mandated by law, but it has become the norm in the post-Saddam era and is widely seen as a way for parties to gain access to public funds. Since taking office, the prime minister has drawn criticism for failing to upend the system.

“Here you have a prime minister whom everyone agreed upon. He had the support no other prime minister had ever. He shouldn’t waste the opportunity to make his choices,” said Raid Fahmi, a member of parliament for Sadr’s Saairun, which won 54 seats in parliament.

Saairun is one of the parties supporting Abdul Mahdi, and it led the call for a technocratic and independent government. It gave the prime minister relative freedom to appoint ministers to the slots it controlled under the apportionment system, including the ministries of foreign affairs, oil, health, electricity, and water. The last three are particularly crucial in addressing the root causes of popular unrest in southern Iraq.

Other parties, however, have proved reluctant to give up what they perceive as their right to get a fair share of the pie. This has been the case for the Sunni parties within both blocs backing Abdul Mahdi and for the political arms of the Iran-backed paramilitary groups that fought in the war against the Islamic State. These parties now seek to translate battlefield spoils into political influence.

Sadiqoun, the political arm of Asaib Ahl al-Haq, a U.S.-designated terrorist group that fought in the latest war under the umbrella of the PMF, currently holds 16 seats in parliament, according to Sadiqoun member Wajih Abbas, a significant increase compared with the single seat it won in the 2014 elections. Mohammed al-Baldawy, a first-time parliamentarian and member of Sadiqoun, believes that the politicians representing the PMF should have some power over ministry appointments.

“When Iraq needs sacrifice and blood, they will be called, while afterwards, when there’s an election, they won’t have a share of the government?” Baldwady said. “This would be unjust.”

Like most parties, Sadiqoun gave the prime minister a choice of four candidates for each ministerial post, a level of freedom Baldwady believes to be more than sufficient. “We gave him many options,” he said.

In other cases, the parties have sought to impose their will more forcefully. Amiri’s construction bloc nominated a single candidate, Falih al-Fayyadh, for the strategic post of interior minister. Fayyadh is the head of the Iraqi National Security Council and the chairman of the PMF. Sadr, who has been a vocal critic of Iranian influence in Iraq and heads the rival bloc that also supported Abdul Mahdi, rejected the nomination, which would have granted the Iran-backed PMF unprecedented power over the Iraqi government.

The impasse over Fayyadh has come to symbolize the ideological rifts within the Shiite camp over the nature of Iraq’s relationship with Iran, but it has also been described as a rivalry between leaders from both sides. Abdul Mahdi has refused to pick a side, neither rejecting nor endorsing Fayyadh, a stance that has drawn mixed reactions.

“What Abdul Mahdi is doing is aikido politics. He’s basically using the strength of his opponents against them,” said Ramon Blecua, the head of the European Union’s delegation in Iraq, referring to the Japanese martial art. “We have divisions and rivalries in each camp. It is to be seen to what extent the prime minister can play on those divisions to actually get through his policies.” For the moment, Abdul Mahdi is conserving political capital by watching the struggle from the sidelines.

Sadr’s reform bloc, however, is increasingly frustrated over the prime minister’s lack of pushback, which has effectively given rise to a cabinet that appears tilted in favor of the rival construction bloc. “The impression we got is that he is closer to the construction bloc,” said Mohammed Radhi, a professor of political science and senior member of the Hikma party, the second largest in the reform bloc. “We have no ministers in the government, which means that we might have no option but to become opposition.”

Abdul Mahdi’s perceived indecisiveness in the political struggle over ministers has also raised doubts about his ability to implement controversial policy reforms. Sadr, who holds great sway over public opinion, gave Abdul Mahdi only a year to achieve tangible change, an ambitious timeline that, with a quarter already gone, appears increasingly unrealistic. But Abdul Mahdi, who has garnered a reputation as a technocrat who likes to delve into detail, appears determined to do things his way. The first six months of his program focus on improving Iraq’s governance by completing studies and making road maps.

“This isn’t something people generally understand or are interested in,” Radhi said. It took three months for the prime minister to visit Basra, where simmering unrest could once again escalate if the electricity supply doesn’t improve before the scorching summer months. “There’s not enough focus on Basra. If Basra blows up, all of Iraq will blow up,” he said.

Freeing up resources for public services is an unenviable task in a country where the government spends half of its budget on salaries for a staggering 3 million public employees, who are protected by law from being fired. The Ministry of Culture, for example, has no fewer than 15,000 employees, although a senior manager there told Foreign Policy that he needed only 600.

Whatever isn’t spent on salaries is often squandered amid widespread corruption and mismanagement. Resource allocation inside ministries is widely believed to be controlled by the parties that backed or nominated the minister and other key positions, with contracts often awarded to associated companies.

“The political parties look at the government as a treasure trove and not as a government of services. They finance themselves through the ministries,” said Karim al-Nouri, a member of the Badr Organization who ran in the May election on Fatah’s ticket but has since fallen out with the party’s leadership. The long-standing system of de facto patronage could impede Abdul Mahdi not only from finalizing his government but also from passing critical reforms.

As part of his efforts to curb misappropriation of public funds, Abdul Mahdi wants to set up a construction council that centralizes contract allocation for key infrastructure projects. He has also announced the creation of a new anti-corruption council to go after officials who embezzle funds and, broadening the definition of corruption, those who deliberately obstruct government projects. But critics have questioned whether this new council can succeed where the country’s three existing anti-corruption institutions, stifled by the lack of political will, have failed.

Ultimately, any reforms will require the backing of the two main blocs in parliament, which are increasingly at odds with one another. Further complicating matters, each bloc has its own military wing that, in practice, operates outside of the control of the state. Abdul Mahdi’s need to appease Iraq’s different centers of power to avoid renewed violence could come at the expense of real policy change.

“Iraq cannot bear the existence of two big blocs opposing each other,” said Fahmi, the Saairun MP. “There’s a fear always that the political conflicts will degenerate into armed conflict.”

Simona Foltyn is a journalist based in Baghdad. Twitter: @SimonaFoltyn

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