In Iraq, government formation takes 5½ months on average, from election day to the swearing in of the prime minister and cabinet. But Iraq has yet to form a government after its last election, on Oct. 10, 2021. It’s one year since Iraqis went to the polls in the sixth parliamentary election since the overthrow of Saddam Hussein in 2003.
Iraq found itself on the brink of civil war by late summer, following widespread protests and a Sadrist occupation of parliament after populist cleric Moqtada al-Sadr ordered his parliamentary bloc to resign. Why has this government formation process been longer and more violent — and what does this mean for Iraq’s democratization?
Iraq’s democracy depends on consensus
Iraq’s political structure, installed by the U.S.-led occupation, relies on a broad consensus government. The Sadrist movement resigned after unsuccessfully challenging the system, prompting an armed confrontation in late August between the Sadrist paramilitary, Saraya al-Salam, and the Iraqi security forces and other paramilitary groups representing Sadr’s rivals.
The Iraqi public, which had called for early elections through mass mobilization in fall 2019, has become more disenchanted with political parties and the democracy they purport to represent. My research on government formation in Iraq helps explain the growing frustration, and the current political impasse.
Iraq’s informal power-sharing system ensures that each of the major ethno-religious groups — Shiites, Sunnis and Kurds — has a share. This time, the tripartite alliance, representing the winning party within each ethno-religious group, instead tried to form a government on its own as the majority, and sideline its co-ethnic and co-religious rivals to the role of opposition.
The Iraqi constitution does not enforce the informal requirements for the president to be Kurdish, the prime minister to be Shiite and the speaker of parliament to be Sunni. But it does require a two-thirds majority of parliament to elect a president in the first round of voting. This article was included in the constitution to protect the Kurds, a minority group, and to prevent the tyranny of the majority. Despite pressures exerted by Iran and Turkey in favor of their respective Iraqi political allies, government formation has been stalled since January.
A clarification from the Federal Supreme Court in early February reinforced the two-thirds rule. The tripartite alliance didn’t have the numbers and was unable to recruit other parties. After successfully installing its choice for speaker of parliament, the alliance failed to reach a quorum to elect a president, who should then designate a prime minister.
Iraq lacks a culture of opposition parties
No political party has won a majority in Iraqi elections. In fact, some previous winners, who won more seats than the Sadrists in 2021, were forced into consensus governments with a compromise prime minister.
The generation of politicians who have governed Iraq for the past two decades only understand opposition as being anti-state. The concept of parties in the majority working together to form a cabinet, while parties in the minority agree to take their place in parliament as opposition, is alien. Political parties always prefer to be in government as it allows them access to state resources. In opposition, parties only have their parliamentarians and no presence in cabinet.
How does this unfamiliarity with the role of the opposition play out? Parties excluded from the tripartite alliance actively worked to keep the winning bloc from reaching a quorum. And the Sadrist movement — which won the most seats in last year’s election but failed to form a government with its allies — resigned from parliament in June. The Sadrists took to the streets; they and their rivals seemed to view the near prospect of civil war as preferable to staying in parliament as opposition.
The frustrating process of government formation has overshadowed the gains made from the 2021 election, which include the emergence of protest-based parties and nonpartisan independent candidates. Although they are not a large enough bloc today to transform the informal political system, these newcomers may be enough to begin a genuine opposition, which could grow in coming elections. After all, it takes just 50 members of parliament to hold a vote of no confidence for the executive branch.
Unfortunately, the ongoing stalemate has deprived Iraqis from witnessing what a genuine parliamentary opposition can look like.
Iraqis are less trusting of their political system
The 2021 elections were held early, in response to a mass protest movement in the fall of 2019. But Iraqis have now had a caretaker government for a full year. That government is unable to pass major legislation, like a federal budget. This has paralyzed the country, hurting the fragile relationship between the government and its citizens.
Iraqi political parties have politicized public institutions to an alarming degree, analysts find. Ethno-sectarian parties built their patronage networks by expanding the public sector, which now provides about 40 percent of employment in Iraq. But Iraqis outside these networks have grown frustrated that services like education, water, electricity and health care function poorly.
As the government continues to tighten up on dissent, voters have become increasingly apathetic, with many joining a boycott movement. In 2021, only 44 percent of Iraqis voted, despite citizens’ demands for early elections. A year-long gridlock, with political parties now calling for yet another early election, isn’t likely to restore people’s faith in democratic institutions.
What does this mean for Iraq’s future?
Whether the Sadrists participate, Iraq is likely to see another broad consensus government — even if only long enough to oversee early elections. However, early elections will not suddenly provide a clear parliamentary opposition, nor overcome the ethno-religious apportionment.
These issues do not necessarily point to constitutional change, or a revolution. The constitution is not responsible for the lack of constitutionalism, and a revolution risks further chaos. Iraq may be able to overcome the challenges of democratization — and its own undemocratic history — by developing a stronger democratic political culture. New political groups, new nongovernmental organizations and even popular protests will probably be part of the ongoing process.
Hamzeh Hadad is a visiting fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations. Find him on Twitter @HamzehKarkhi.
Photo Credit: Mondalawy via Wikimedia