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Nov 12, 2018
The Daily Star
A fractured Iraqi Cabinet: Abdel-Mahdi facing uphill battle
Kirk H. Sowell
Adel Abdel-Mahdi, a former finance minister, oil minister and vice president of Iraq, barely managed to secure a confidence vote of two-thirds of his Cabinet on Oct. 25. The former member of the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq, a Shiite Islamist party, was nominated prime minister on Oct. 2. But he has since nearly failed to launch his government, which will face pressure from a population frustrated by years of failures on security and public services.
The roots of Abdel-Mahdi’s weak government lie in the manner in which the prime minister himself was elected. After he resigned as oil minister in 2016, Abdel-Mahdi left ISCI to become an independent and did not run in the May 2018 parliamentary elections. However, on May 23 he published a Facebook post explaining why he could not be prime minister because all the reforms he would want to implement would be opposed by many. These included such broad changes as moving away from the rentier state, strengthening state institutions and ensuring their independence from political influence, reining in illegal militia activity and reducing the influence of tribalism.
This pitch aligned well with the rhetorical vision of populist Shiite preacher Moqtada al-Sadr, who has long associated himself with such themes. The political class was focused for much of the summer on the struggle over Haider al-Abadi’s effort to secure a second term. Yet once the fallout over Basra’s massive water pollution crisis ended Abadi’s hopes in early September, Sadr quickly backed Abdel-Mahdi as a replacement, and Barham Salih designated him to head the next government immediately after his own election as president on Oct. 2. Sadr conditioned his support two days later by declaring that he was giving Abdel-Mahdi “a period of one year to prove his success.” This gives Sadr the option to take credit for the government’s success if it does well or turn against it next year if protests over poor public services swell again.
Moreover, the coalition nominating him was unclear and fractured. Although Sadr was the driver behind his nomination, the only figure who actually ran in the election whose approval was essential for Abdel-Mahdi’s candidacy was Hadi al-Ameri leader of the Badr Organization and head of the Fatah Alliance, which with 48 seats is the second largest in Parliament after the 54 for Sadr’s Sairun. The process was so opaque that Iraqi journalists were uncertain which of these blocs had nominated him.
Sadr and Amiri, being political rivals with very different worldviews, also never agreed on a specific policy program or even a method of choosing ministers, with Sairun giving Abdel-Mahdi full discretion to nominate their share of the ministries while Amiri’s Fatah insisted on naming specific ministers. Furthermore, Abdel-Mahdi conducted separate bilateral negotiations for ministerial positions with Nouri al-Maliki’s State of Law Coalition and the Sunni Arab National Axis Alliance, even though they were technically both part of Amiri’s Construction Bloc (Bina). Without agreements with both parties, they likely would have blocked passage of his Cabinet, but this situation also underlines Abdel-Mahdi’s lack of a unified coalition. His bilateral agreements with parties do nothing to bind them to each other into a working majority capable of passing legislation or approving executive appointments.
The lack of a real coalition behind the new government became evident when Parliament met to approve the proposed Cabinet on Oct. 24. Abdel-Mahdi got off on the wrong foot during his speech presenting his government program by failing to make more than passing reference to the demands of Sunni Arab MPs such as reconstruction and the return of Sunni provinces’ displaced citizens. This led Speaker Mohammad al-Halbousi of Anbar to push through a motion to incorporate a list of Sunni demands into Abdel-Mahdi’s prepared text regarding the government’s program, holding a vote to approve his statement before the body could proceed to consider ministers.
As Speaker Halbousi then moved to hold votes to approve individual ministers, Sadr’s Sairun bloc, putatively his biggest supporter, declared that they objected to several of the ministerial nominees from other blocs, such as the outgoing Hashd militia leader Falih al-Fayyad’s nomination as interior minister. They alleged that some were former Baath members and others face corruption or other criminal charges, and thus Parliament could not go forward with their confirmation. The problem is, having negotiated the ministerial appointments bilaterally with each bloc right up until that afternoon, Abdel-Mahdi had not provided blocs with the names of his nominees until about five hours before the meeting.
Parliament took what was supposed to be a 30-minute break that went on for much longer, and near midnight it appeared Abdel-Mahdi would fail. Bloc leaders then emerged with a compromise to pass just 14 of the 21 ministers originally submitted. The most important of those approved included Foreign Affairs Minister Mohammad Ali al-Hakim, Oil Minister Thamer al-Ghadhban, Finance Minister Fuad Hussein and Electricity Minister Luay al-Khatteeb. All passed on a voice vote, and the passage of the majority of the Cabinet allowed Abdel-Mahdi to take the oath of office in the early morning of Oct. 25. However, among the important positions left unfilled were the interior minister, the defense minister and the justice minister.
Amiri’s Iran-aligned Fatah Alliance and their Sunni allies obtained some lesser ministries, and so were not entirely empty-handed. But they failed in their most important goal, which was to get Fayyad confirmed as interior minister. Likewise, they failed to have Asma Salim Sadiq, an otherwise unknown figure whose brother heads the pro-Iran Chaldean Babilyon Brigades, as justice minister. Aside from leaving the position unfilled, her rejection meant that there are no women in the Cabinet. Meanwhile, Sadr was able to show that his bloc was able to veto the prime minister and prevented the election of the Fatah-aligned ministers to which he most strongly objected.
Abdel-Mahdi’s effort to fill his Cabinet continues to face resistance. Parliament was scheduled to hold a vote on new nominations on Nov. 6, but despite predictions that at least a few ministers would pass, Parliament did not consider any of them, and has not yet scheduled a further vote on nominees. In addition, reports indicate that between two and four of the 14 ministers approved on Oct. 25 face imminent impeachment threats. The grounds for impeachment include allegations of unresolved corruption charges, former membership in the Baath Party, and even an accusation that Sports Minister Ahmad al-Obeidi is wanted for a murder committed in 2004.
Without a strong coalition backing him, Abdel-Mahdi is already facing his first policy crisis over the passage of the 2019 budget. He was moving forward with an amended version of the one drafted by the outgoing Finance Ministry, expecting to have it introduced into Parliament on Nov. 6 despite objections from both Sunni Arab and Kurdish MPs. The Sunni criticism focused on the large disparity in capital spending for Shiite-majority provinces versus Sunni-majority provinces, which have traditionally received the same amounts per capita. During the session, instead of conducting a formal “first reading” of the bill to be followed by debate, MPs launched into a 2-hour-long tirade in which every major bloc, particularly the Sunnis but also the Sadrists, strongly criticized the bill as inadequate. Parliament voted to wait for the government to agree to amendments before proceeding.
At a time when Iraq needs a strong government with a clear policy program for addressing the nation’s challenges, the new premier is already struggling. With no popular mandate and no stable coalition, Abdel-Mahdi seems set to face an uphill battle each time he wants legislation passed or a nominee approved.
Kirk H. Sowell is the proprietor of Utica Risk Services, a Middle East-focused risk consultancy. Follow him on Twitter @uticarisk. This commentary first appeared at Sada, an online journal published by the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace (www.carnegieendowment.org/sada).
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on November 10, 2018, on page 6.
The views and opinions of authors expressed herein do not necessarily state or reflect those of the Arab Network for the Study of Democracy
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