The Impact of Iraqi Protests on the Negotiations to Form the New Government
Wednesday, August 29, 2018
Despite the raging popular protests in central and southern Iraqi governorates, which have morphed into political protests against the political elites of different affiliations, they did not alter the equations governing the Iraqi political landscape. Tensions and negotiations to form the largest parliamentary bloc in preparation for the formation of the government continue, the Shiite forces take the loyalty of the central and southern governorates for granted, the Kurdish and Sunni forces sound indifferent to the protests, and the regional and international forces concerned with the political situation in Iraq are focused on political balances and maintaining their influence, giving priority to tip the balance of their agents over the formation of the ruling coalition.
Snowballing Political Protests
Cities of central and southern Iraq are overwhelmed by a flurry of protests and demonstrations condemning the country’s general economic conditions, particularly with regard to the services sector and the general looting of the state treasury and its resources. These demonstrators protest the country’s central political elite, which runs the country, accusing it of ignoring the realities on the ground and the living conditions of citizens. These protests adopt clear political rhetoric and demands that go beyond all the previous protest movements in those areas, which were limited only to opposing a minister, a service sector or an institution.
Furthermore, the current wave of protests has a special and unique character for various reasons: its expansion to more than one governorate, intensity that almost cripples public life in any city that breaks out in it, persistence for long time, the nature of the age, profession and religious identities of protestors, and the fact that they are unaffiliated to any political movement or party.
Accordingly, it can be argued that they constitute a pattern of general protest against the status quo and political elites in the country, particularly Shiite political parties. In this context, repeated attacks by demonstrators on the headquarters of these parties have a profound significance.
These protests come at an extraordinary political moment, in which the political class thought it had dominated the Iraqi political scene, having achieved the two most significant political gains, curbing Kurdish nationalist aspirations, and containing the fallout from the independence referendum on Iraq in September 2017. This has been declined and diminished by regional and international consensus at the expense of Kurdish aspirations, allowing this class to reduce the political and military space of Kurdish activism, and pull Kirkuk governorate out of the Kurds’ control.
Moreover, this elite has managed to curtail the so-called “Sunni protest”, which has an impact on their political legitimacy as it was accusing them of deliberately marginalizing Sunni Arabs by adopting a rhetoric that presumes that Sunni protests have led to the emergence of ISIS. In this setting, it can be argued that these protests are viewed as an initial coup by social bases (constituencies) that the central Iraqi elites considered them to be a social backer and supporter, at a time when the elite believed that they had become absolutely hegemonic on the Iraqi entity and its powerful actors.
Formation of the Government Falters
Amid the continuing protests, deliberations on the formation of the new government are underway, and Shiite forces are holding internal discussions on the formation of the largest parliamentary bloc that will determine who will be the next prime minister. Some of the features of those deliberations are clear: there are two major, semi-equal blocs, one is composed of the Sairoon bloc led by the Sadrist movement with the Wisdom Movement led by Ammar al-Hakim, and the other consists of the Fatah Alliance, which is the political front of the Popular Mobilization Forces, led by Hadi al-Amiri, leader of the Badr Brigade, with the State of Law bloc headed by former Prime minister and Dawa Party leader Nouri al-Maliki. Between these two blocs stands the Victory Alliance bloc led by current Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi, which believes that either side will eventually resort to it to be able to form the largest parliamentary bloc.
On the other hand, there is a vigorous political debate between these central powers with Kurdish and Sunni Arab political forces, to reach a consensus, through which they can redistribute positions and benefits between these central powers and their marginalized counterparts. However, the priorities of the Kurdish and Arab Sunni parties are evidently divergent; while the Kurds are trying to lure Shiite parties back to the partnership and consensus that prevailed between the two parties before 2014, particularly in disputed areas and financial and economic issues, Sunni Arabs are seeking to align with the new government for the return of displaced persons and the reconstruction of devastated areas in the western governorates, particularly in Mosul. Yet in the end, all these forces are jockeying for a share of what the Iraqi governing authority generates, with no hope of genuine participation in determining Iraq’s strategic identity, directions, and regional and international relations.
The interest in this new government is not confined to the Iraqis, but extends to Iran, the US, and Turkey to a lesser extent. The new government to be formed in Iraq will determine Iraq’s identity and strategic political options, which is crucial in identifying some of the contours of the regional conflict, particularly amid the anticipated US withdrawal in the foreseeable future.
Repercussions of Popular Protests
Seemingly, the protests will not have a major impact on the Iraqi government’s composition and orientations. A review of the deliberations to form the government indicates three key features as follows:
1- The elite is set to remain in control: The same central government is expected to continue controlling key echelons of power, public wealth and bureaucratic and economic institutions, in a centralized state where the government is the principal economic and social actor, and perhaps the only one, in public life. Despite the widespread discontent in the street over sectarianism, Hadi al-Amri, the leader of the Badr militia, is one of the main candidates to win the premiership.
2- Ties with Iran to endure: Iraq is expected to keep close ties with Iranian circles that seek to weaken Iraq in order to keep it in Iran’s orbit. This may prove more difficult in the coming period, especially if the US-Iranian confrontation escalates in the foreseeable future.
3- Political conflicts to continue: The unstable relationship between the Iraqi political center and the Kurdish and Sunni Arab parties may lead any new Iraqi government to be locked in constant conflict with these two parties, and hence the problems and core issues of these Iraqi constituencies will not be given more attention beyond what is being done right now.
In other words, the next Iraqi government will remain bogged down in political conflicts, without a well-considered and well-defined strategy towards the fundamental and compound problems of the Iraqi society. This has to do first with the role, form and efficiency of the state in public life, in terms of development, education and health, and bringing stability and social peace, as well as its ability to curb both political and economic corruption.
That said, the central political forces are indifferent to the impact of these protests on the Iraqi scene; they are pressing ahead to form the government in the same way former central Iraqi governments were formed. The Shiite central forces continue to believe that the Iraqi south and central regions are loyal to them, while the main Kurdish and Arab Sunni forces do not care about the protests in the south and the central regions. Negotiations of the international and regional powers focus on maintaining political balances without paying attention to what is happening in the cities and regions in which protests erupt. Moreover, the current protests cannot forestall the process of forming the Iraqi government, due to the lack of enough organization and coordination among various governorates.
After assuming power, the new Iraqi government will face two paths: to adopt a kind of undeclared economic and administrative decentralization, through which the southern governorates are granted reasonable shares of the public wealth and a greater freedom to run their internal affairs- service, economic and administrative matters- through which they can buy their political allegiance again, given that the ability of these parties to polarize their constituencies with sectarian and nationalist discourses has declined. The second is to go down the same road of previous governments, which will push protests to increase and spill over into other governorates.