The Political Scene: Sources of leverage in Iraqi politics

Farhad Alaaldin
28th July 2020
The Speaker of the Iraqi Parliament Mohammed al-Halbousi and his deputy met with the parliamentary bloc leaders on 22nd of July to discuss the election law completion. The political parties feel that the election is a way to redistribute power among them and it is expected that the new election will redraw the political map.
The bitter divide within parties, such as Badr and Dawa, has led to the disintegration of some of the political alliances that followed the 2018 elections, and now the search is on to find new partners in preparation for the upcoming elections. The dominance of the Fatah/Sairoon blocs over the 2018 government is now over. Their grip has loosened after the resignation of the previous government, leaving a gap for others to assume political leverage.
The three presidencies: President, Prime Minister, and Speaker
The weakness of the political parties have led to a more dominant role for the three presidencies, in particular in the set up and control of the political agenda. The president and prime minister are playing a central role in internal and foreign affairs, with a clear absence of the speaker’s role given that the parliament sessions (two in six months) contributed to the loss of influence by parliament over the executive branch. Nevertheless, the three presidencies collectively constitute an important pillar of power and influence in the political arena in the coming stages of the political process, while the political parties compete over filling the remaining gaps and who will lead the way.
The Shia blocs
Jostling for new power position and to break up the grip of Fatah/Sairoon over state affairs, Ammar al-Hakim led the formation of a new alliance under the name of “Iraqioon,” which include 41 members. This new coalition attracted members of State of Law (6 of them) and smaller groups such as the Eradah and Fadhila blocs. Their original idea was to reach 60 seats before asking Sunni and Kurdish blocs to join them, for which they were in long negotiations with al-Nasr bloc led by former Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi. However, their negotiations ended with a disagreement over leadership as Abadi wanted to lead the new coalition and Hakim refused.
State of Law (SoL) is feeling the pinch and knows that its influence is receding, especially after formally opposing Mustafa al-Kadhimi to become the Prime Minister. Consequently, they moved to form an opposition bloc inside parliament and courted the Fatah bloc, in particular, its leader Hadi al-Amiri who is very critical of the government and the Prime Minister. However, the PM dealt a blow to this move by meeting with Amiri face-to-face and mending some of the bridges, with the mediation of National Security Advisor Qasim al-Aaraji.
Fatah bloc lost its grip on power after the resignation of the previous government and there are talks of bitter internal divisions among its parties, which has led to one of them asking to join the new Coalition of Iraqioon. There are also big differences between Asaib Ahl al-Haq (AAH) and Badr Organisation over the state of affairs; AAH blames Badr, and in particular its leader Amiri, over the loss of power. In addition, Fatah lost its wider coalition of al-Binaa that included the likes of al-Ataa bloc led by Falih al-Fayadh and al-Qiwa Coalition led by the speaker Halbousi. The Fatah bloc lost its popular support among the southern population due to the miserable state of affairs in the provinces. The youth see the construction and stability of cities like Ramadi and Fallujah in Anbar province, and compare them to their own cities that lack most basic services.
Meanwhile, the most influential, secure, and stable political bloc is Sairoon. Led by influential cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, who played and continues to play a central role in Iraqi politics, the bloc knows that any government must bend to their will and get their stamp of approval for decisions, as all parties recognise there can be no stability without Sairoon onboard. Their support to the current government has been instrumental in the relative stability it has enjoyed. However, many observers believe this might not last, and expect the Sadrists to take to the streets demanding better services, with a renewed anti-government tone as the election date gets nearer.
The Sunni Blocs
The Sunni political parties are divided between several blocs such as al-Qiwa Coalition, the Alliance of Liberated Governorates (ALG) and the Salvation Front. These blocs remain unstable and cannot be relied upon due to the cross-over of MPs from one coalition to another. This was especially the case during the distribution of government posts, as it became apparent in the latest government formation. The fragmentation of the Sunnis parties is a real factor contributing to their loss of leverage, as they inevitably form a minority in all the coalitions they enter.
These parties are not strikingly different than the Shia ones when it comes to their leaders, as there is no one leader who can lead the Sunnis. Halbousi attempted to take on such a role, but faced several setbacks, particularly with the formation of ALG, led by Khamis al Khanjar, which attracted 20 members. In addition, he faced personal pressure when Sairoon accused him of power play and vowed to sack him from the speakership, before a meeting took place in which they agreed on a new course of action.
The Kurds
The Kurdish blocs also suffer from internal divisions especially between the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) and Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP). Their sharp differences even led to the PUK demanding decentralisation as a way of reducing Erbil’s control. Furthermore, the tension became even more apparent when the KRG was hit with major financial trouble as a result of a budget cut from Baghdad in the past three months, previously instated by former PM Adil Abdul-Mahdi.The KDP supported Kadhimi, hoping that he would continue to pay their share of the budget. However, Kadhimi, under immense political pressure himself, stopped the payments citing financial hardship, and the approval of the ministerial committee that recommended the handover of oil revenue and border control.
Another factor that loses the Kurds influence in Baghdad is the fact that they have failed to formally join any political coalition, in particular those that are forming the government. This lack of involvement and sense of being outsiders has lost them all the power they could have if they were part of such a coalition.
Other power points
Other sources of power within Iraqi politics can be seen in those vested within the armed groups, the protestors, the Marjaiya (Shiite religious establishment) in Najaf, Iran and the USA,. However, they all practice influence over politics indirectly and the power of policy making remain in the hand of political parties. Nonetheless, these players could play an important role in guiding or changing the course of the political situation, as was apparent in the October demonstrations or the calls made by the Marjaiya for the government to resign.
It is clear that political influence in Iraq is scattered between multiple personalities and political blocs. It is difficult for them to agree and move toward a single path in the interest of the country, and to give up their own interests for the sake of the common interest of the state. Perhaps the upcoming elections will contribute to shifting the political landscape and producing a new, more selfless, equation. It is clear that the current path is not sustainable and Iraq is heading for an unknown future unless a dramatic change takes place.

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