Major changes to the Iraqi political scene are awaiting the formation of a new government following the results of the early parliamentary election that took place on October 10. That election brought a major victory for the Sadrists, a crucial defeat of Iran-aligned groups, and a surprising gain of seats by independent candidates and groups affiliated with the October (Tishreen) protest movement despite a boycott campaign.
In the post-2003 period, Iraq’s electoral negotiations have witnessed a distribution of power between the major Shia, Sunni, and Kurdish political forces. Although internal negotiations within each of the forces usually last for a shorter period than the formation of the central government, this election, however, reflected Iraq’s most complex intra-Shia rivalry: between the electorally victorious Sadrists and the electorally defeated Iran-aligned groups.
The Iran-aligned groups rejected the election results and staged violent street protests. Their attack with drones on the house of Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi outraged the political scene. These groups represent a “rejection campaign” of the election and are gathered under the umbrella of the Shia Coordination Framework (the Framework, hereafter). The coalition mainly consists of the Fatah Alliance led by Hadi al-Ameri, the State of Law Coalition (SoL) led by former Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, the newly established Harakat Huqooq (an affiliate of Kataeb Hezbollah), al-Aqd al-Watani led by Faleh al-Fayyad of the Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF), the Hikmah movement of Ammar al-Hakim, the Nasr bloc of former Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi, and other groups.
The Sadrist leader, Muqtada al-Sadr, entered the debate following the election results as a winner who would accept to form the future government and name the prime minister only under his conditions.
The tensions between the Sadrist movement and the Framework alarmed Iraq’s security services and resulted in a political deadlock in government formation. The Sadrist leader, Muqtada al-Sadr, entered the debate following the election results as a winner who would accept to form the future government and name the prime minister only under his conditions. In return, the Framework wants to maintain influence and power under future governance by negotiating a consensual government with the Sadrists.
Electorally speaking, Sadr does not see the necessity of acknowledging the Framework’s request. However, he is aware of the impasse that could result from the Framework’s insistence on a future role in governing and, possibly, from their threats of violence. For their part, members of the Framework are aware that Sadr is politically capable to form a government without their blessing, and that they would not be able to conduct a campaign of threats and violence to pressure a leading Sadrist government, as they did against the Tishreen activists and protesters. Therefore, current frictions between the Sadrists and the Framework are gradually easing as both sides are pushing for their gains in an attempt to avoid a confrontation.
The Sadrist Dilemma
With Sadr gaining 73 seats, he is not far from negotiating a majority government with parties beyond the Framework, such as other Shia groups and some of the traditional opportunist Sunni and Kurdish political forces—and that is an attractive possibility that the Sadrists would be ill-advised to miss. Sadr needs the quorum of 50-percent-plus-one of the cabinet and parliament in order to pass laws without having to go through the Framework parties.
It is noteworthy that there are major differences between the various parties within the Framework, which means that some of them are acceptable to the Sadrist movement. Sadr is reportedly keen to work with some of the Framework’s more politically oriented groups such as Fatah, SoL, and certainly, Hikmah and Nasr, which are allegedly the groups least influenced by Tehran within the Framework. Others affiliated with Kataeb Hezbollah, for instance, seem to have the smallest chance of agreeing with Sadr.
It is noteworthy that there are major differences between the various parties within the Framework, which means that some of them are acceptable to the Sadrist movement.
On December 2, Sadr met with Framework leaders including longtime foe Qais al-Khazali, leader of the Asa’ib Ahl al-Haq faction and a former member of the Sadrist movement, in the early days of the US occupation, who split from Sadr with the support of Iran. Sadr also met with Ameri, a common rival of Sadr in today’s PMF power structure, as well as Maliki, a former political ally who once participated in a military operation with the US army against the Sadrists in Basra in 2008. The meeting was an attempt to break the stalemate between the two sides and had nothing to do with the previously mentioned events; however, the context is important for understanding the acrimony of the meeting.
The Coordination Framework’s Inconsistent Approach
The Framework’s approach to negotiations for the formation of a government transitioned from an aggressive tone of violent threats and denouncements of allegedly rigged elections, to proposals of initiatives to get everyone around the table for the sake of stability and “brotherhood.” Following major denouncements from various Iraqi political forces and the international community, including Iran, of the assassination attempt on Prime Minister Kadhimi, the Framework parties filed a lawsuit to the Federal Supreme Court to invalidate the election results. Their initial attempt to delegitimize the election results through the high court serves to increase the pressure on the winning parties, such as the Sadrists, to accept a consensual governmental formation. But their gambit has failed since the Supreme Court ratified the results of the elections.
With Sadr’s potential willingness to collaborate with only some of the Framework’s parties, it is possible that Ameri and Maliki would take part in a cabinet led by the Sadrist movement, while leaving armed groups such as Asa’ib Ahl al-Haq and Kataeb Hezbollah to continue to protest on the streets and, most likely, to target US and other foreign troops and companies. This way, Iran would have allies in the government and on the ground—two different cards to utilize, depending on the situation. Still, today’s stalemate is pushing Iran to be quieter than usual.
With Sadr’s potential willingness to collaborate with only some of the Framework’s parties, it is possible that Ameri and Maliki would take part in a cabinet led by the Sadrist movement.
In recognition of its crucial electoral defeat, the Hikmah movement announced its acceptance of a non-participatory role in the future government. Hikmah’s leader, Ammar al-Hakim, proposed a solution to the current deadlock, an “expanded majority,” which would include all the Shia political parties (armed and unarmed) within the Framework grouping, the Sadrists, and some Kurdish and Sunni political forces. Such an “expanded majority” will mean that the next prime minister and government will be backed by 200-250 members of parliament—an unrealistic and relatively desperate call by Hakim who is representing the weakest voice in the intra-Shia negotiations.
The Position of the Independent and Tishreen Candidates
Currently, Iraq is witnessing the beginning of a new coalition of various opposition blocs known as “For the People Alliance.” Alongside Imtidad, the representative of the protest movement in parliament, the alliance consists of the Kurdish New Generation Party and 10 independent representatives. The alliance so far is represented by 28 MPs. However, Imtidad’s leader, Alaa al-Rikabi, aims to reach 40 parliamentary seats.
To be sure, the leader of the Kurdish New Generation Party is not a stranger to the Iraqi political scene. Shaswar Abdulwahid, a businessman and politician, established his party in 2018 to challenge the two-tiered political system of the Kurdistan region: the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK). Many observers fear that his presence in the so-called “opposition bloc” may result in driving out the Tishreen protest movement and lead to long-term damage to the rebellious reputation of the alliance.
Kurdish and Sunni Political Opportunities in an Intra-Shia Rivalry
The Kurdish political parties gained 63 seats in the recent election, up from 58 in the previous one. Increasing divisions are more apparent than usual between the KDP, which is known for dominating the leadership of the Kurdistan region of Iraq, and the PUK, which usually names the president of Iraq—the position of which is reserved for Kurds in Iraq’s ethno-sectarian power-sharing system.
Irbil’s political parties have many pending files with Baghdad. These parties’ approach toward the new government will depend on the settlement among the Shia political parties. If Sadr creates a majority government with the Kurdish and Sunni parties without including the Framework parties, the KDP could hope to finally implement the Sinjar deal from October 2020, which was supposed to expel all non-state armed groups such as the Kurdistan Workers’ Party-affiliated People’s Protection Units and pro-Iran groups working both under and outside the umbrella of the PMF. And for PUK, it would seek an opportunity to negotiate to regain Kirkuk’s governance, which it lost following the independence referendum in 2017 at the hands of the Iraqi army and groups affiliated with the PMF. The PMF groups that were part of returning Kirkuk to Baghdad’s central government are also affiliated with some of the political parties in the Framework.
Framework politicians are also aware of the Kurdish strategic approach of quietly watching their negotiations with Sadr and preparing their demands and conditions before forming a cabinet.
However, Framework politicians are also aware of the Kurdish strategic approach of quietly watching their negotiations with Sadr and preparing their demands and conditions before forming a cabinet. The Framework’s leaders, such as Maliki, Fayyad, and others, visited the Kurdistan region on December 22 and separately met with both KDP and PUK leaders; such a meeting mostly means that they have not gained much during their negotiations with Sadr and are offering promises to the Kurds to encourage their participation in a consensual—rather than majority—government.
The Sunni politicians are competing over their main share of the system: the speakership of parliament. In the early days following the October 10 elections, it seemed like the current speaker, Mohammed al-Halbousi, dominated the Sunni political force by winning 37 (now 43) seats through his Taqaddum bloc. At the time, Halbousi’s only concern was to await the results of the Shia political negotiations between Sadr and the Framework. Today, he is threatened by another Sunni bloc known as the New Determination and led by Khamis al-Khanjar, who is gathering the winners of the other small Sunni political parties and has so far reached 34 seats. In contrast to the Kurdish politicians, neither Sadr nor the Framework is concerned with who wins the parliament speakership, as Sunni politicians mostly bet on ministerial positions rather than calls of inclusivity or protection of Sunni areas and communities—issues that could bother armed groups affiliated with some of the political parties.
After rejecting the Framework’s offer for so long, Sadr finally accepted their inclusion without Maliki. This means that he would accept them without their highest seats gained by SoL and that way, their influence would be extremely minor in parliament, and politically, since Maliki represents a major influence in Iraq’s pro-Iran camp. The Framework viewed Sadr’s offer as far from reality and began searching for cross-sectarian alliances, which is why it visited Irbil to try to woo the Kurds. This proposal contradicts all of Sadr’s statements that were known for targeting the pro-Iran groups (those with armed factions) within the Framework. Maliki is arguably one of the Framework’s politicians who are least associated with the so-called “unruly militias”—those that are involved in political violence against protesters and allegedly in the assassination attempt at Kadhimi’s house. Does this mean Sadr is mostly concerned about his personal issues with Maliki that derive from past conflicts? And that his anti-militia discourse was one of his attempts to buy the hearts and minds of the voters?
There are two major absences in the negotiations among the traditional political forces across all fronts: the lack of opposition interest and of policy roadmaps. The Sadrists and the Framework are focusing time and effort on negotiating the leadership that would constitute the majority of the consensual government. The traditional Sunni and Kurdish political forces are comparing compromises from both Shia sides to negotiate the leadership of their representation in the power-sharing system. This is in great contrast to the stance of the For the People Alliance, which is insisting on the opposition role and consistently presents issues and files to be raised and addressed.
The political deadlock resulting from the government formation process, following the October 10 elections, was allegedly stuck within the negotiations between the Sadrist movement and the Shia Coordination Framework. Considering the failure of achieving any settlement, the deadlock’s future now depends on the negotiations and deals that are created by both the Sadrists and the Framework as they separately approach the Kurdish and Sunni political parties.