09 june 2020
Iraq’s Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi has finalized his 22–member cabinet and for the first time since former Prime Minister Adil Abdul-Mahdi resigned in December, there are no vacancies or acting-ministers. Kadhimi has moved onto mix up the hierarchy of the Army within the Ministry of Defence, also appointing the straight-shooting Judge Raed Juhi as PM Chief of Staff, despite some opposition to his appointment.
So far it is clear that Kadhimi wants to tackle matters head-on and is wasting no time in dealing with the many challenges ahead.
Views are varied on his tenure so far, but many think he is an astute operator and is playing the political game to a high standard, even beating the establishment: giving them a reason to be extra careful.
The strategic dialogue
One of the major tasks ahead for his government is the upcoming strategic dialogue with the United States on June 11. Kadhimi appointed Deputy Foreign Minister Abdul Kareem Hashim as chief negotiator for this round of talks, which includes consultations with all political parties.
On June 4, Kadhimi met with representatives from various political parties, including Hadi al-Ameri, head of the Fatah Alliance, Nouri al-Maliki, Haidar al-Abadi, Speaker Halbousi, and Fuad Hussein among others. As expected, their reception of Kadhimi varied according to their affiliation. The Kurds were straight with their views, whereas Sunnis were more mixed in their opinions. However, both components were clear on the fact that they want an agreement that will allow coalition forces to stay in Iraq under a well-defined framework.
On the other hand, Shia parties had mixed opinions – divided between those who demand the outright withdrawal of US troops and those who vaguely expressed the opinion that they should stay.
It is clear that Kadhimi has a tough balancing act to perform, but he is helped immensely by the understanding of the Iranian hierarchy, whose ultimate goal is to see off US presence across the region. However, they understand that they need to weigh their options in Iraq and not antagonize the situation, particularly ahead of the US presidential election.
Perhaps the most helpful aspect for Kadhimi so far is the US’ understanding of the sensitivities of the situation; they have given the government plenty of room to manoeuvre, including a long sanction waiver.
The protest movement
The reasoning for the resurgence of the protest movement in several cities is not clear yet to political observers, however, demonstrators are back with vigour and have their sights set on local government officials. In Nasiriyah, they stormed the office of Health Director-General and forced him to resign, while in Najaf and Muthanna they are mobilising to storm the governor’s offices and demand their resignation. This comes after the PM ordered the Minister of Interior to form an investigative committee to look into allegations of corruption and misconduct in various governorates across Iraq.
The lengthy COVID-19-induced lockdown has contributed to people’s anger amid losing their jobs and an economic downturn, with no end to the pandemic in sight. The summer heat and reduced electricity supply have also put people on edge.
It is expected that those who oppose the government or want to stoke unrest will use the protest movement to further their agendas. If this happens, the government has an eventful summer ahead.
The government has managed to pay civil servant wages for May without any cutbacks. However, it is going to be difficult to do the same for June or July if there are no immediate solutions to Iraq’s economic crisis.
The government is expected to cut wages and take some drastic measures, while the government’s financial committee has announced that they will not approve any action without a clear plan to fight corruption and wasted government funds.
The committee believes that there should be no external borrowing without reform, and so far there has been little to show on this internal front.
The government is going to have an even tougher time after agreeing to the OPEC+ proposal of further cuts for another month. Although oil prices have recovered to near $40 per barrel, they are still short of the required level to cover government expenditure.
With the current ban on travel and commercial flights due to the pandemic, many sectors of the economy are facing paralysis, and unemployment has risen to very high levels, posing a threat to society as a whole.
Another anticipated political fallout is the expected payment of wages to KRG civil servants this month, which some officials say is going to be impossible. This would create further hardship for the Kurdistan Regional Government and its people of the Kurdistan Region, and antagonise an already fragile relationship between Baghdad and Erbil.
The number of infected COVID-19 patients is on the rise despite a lockdown in place in most Iraqi cities. The country’s health system is not capable of dealing with a sharp rise in the number of cases.
Many observers believe that the government is unable to take control of the situation and is losing the fight against the virus. Many have lost faith in the Crisis Cell, while some openly ask for a new approach to tackling the pandemic.
The new government faces tough choices in managing the multiple crises, and it is unclear how it will deal with the rising number of cases.
Election season approaches
Political parties are gearing up for the summer, and discussions are heating up about the election law. The Sairoon Alliance is leading the charge in the Council of Representatives to finish drafting the law, in particular technical aspects relating to constituencies and representation for women.
Moreover, Iraq’s already burdened electoral commission has come under fire for appointing managers in various centres who are accused of belonging to the partisan muhasasa system.
The electricity shortage in summer could lead to further trouble, especially if the election date is set and the political parties gear up to canvas votes: many find opposing the government to be more in their favour than supporting the current administration.
Some of the ministers appointed in government are going to become targets of the opposition, leading to more potential political crises.
It is clear that the PM has handled political negotiations skillfully so far. However, he will soon need to be more dexterous given the number of challenges that he will face in the upcoming weeks and months.