Mohammed Allawi Fails to Form Government in Iraq: What’s Next?

EPC | 09 Mar 2020

Efforts to form a new Iraqi government returned to square one, after the Prime Minister-designate Mohammed Allawi has withdrawn his candidacy for the post earlier this month (March 1st), citing political blocs' intransigence and pursuit of narrow interests by blocking parliament quorum needed to vote on the government. One day after Allawi announced his withdrawal, caretaker Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mahdi threatened to resort to "voluntary absence" to further complicate the crisis, while political blocs remain unable to agree on a candidate who can fill the political vacuum and calm an angry street.

Why Allawi Failed?

It appears that forming a transitional government was something beyond the capacity of Mohammed Tawfiq Allawi. The man has failed to deal with the complexities of an ethnic-sectarian political scene or break a 16-year-old political system based on sectarian quotas. To make things worse, Allawi was also unable to win the support of the protesters and invest their movement, which entered its sixth month, in pressuring the centers of power and pushing them to make concessions commensurate with the gravity of the situation. On the contrary, his repeated allegations of being a protest movement candidate exacerbated discontent among the protesters and sent uneasy signals of his political integrity and his willingness to lie and be evasive in order to preserve his position. In addition to the above, the following reasons my help understand why the man failed in his mission:

  1. Political Parties’ Interests: There is no one who can doubt that the refusal to endorse Allawi’s cabinet was not driven by the fact it included no independents or included incompetent or corrupt names or its failure to meet the protesters' demands as claimed by the “Sunni” and “Kurdish” blocs and some "Shiite" parties. In fact, the real reason is that fact that these blocs are accustomed to a certain pattern of power-sharing in Iraq that they cannot abandon, at a time when Allawi was contradicting himself by talking about the limitations of his temporary job and introducing an ambitious government program that requires a permanent and full-fledged government. This has raised concerns among political blocs that there was a plan to exclude them from decision-making in favor of one party, the Alliance Towards Reforms or Marching Towards Reform (also known by its Arabic short form Saairun) and its main sponsor, the Sadrist Movement. Noteworthy here, Muqtada al-Sadr did not stop acting as the political reference authority for the PM-designate, and the chief architect of Allawi's secret movements and the firewall against the latter's communication with other political parties.
  2. Fractured Cabinet Lineup: The first cabinet that Allawi presented was surprising to the public, not only because it was not independent as it was promoted, but because it included a number of figures known to be close to some parties. Further, it included names seen as incompetent to run the ministries assigned to them, as well as the old age of most of the proposed cabinet members. The amendments he introduced later to his cabinet added insult to an already inflamed injury after the new cabinet appeared devoid of the ministries designated for the “Sunni” and “Kurdish” components. These developments have given ground for reports that he had succumbed to political parties demands in one way or another. Still, these political parties considered the amendments a "late call" that will not satisfy their needs in the long run, especially since the ministries are only a small part of key positions that are supposed to be shared in the various civil and military institutions of the state.
  3. Ignoring the Protesters: Since Allawi lacked supportive political blocs in parliament, the demonstrators were the only force capable of protecting him from the bickering of political parties. However, he did not seriously attempt to attract them to shield him and his government, and merely communicated with some civil activists and bloggers who are known to have been close to former prime ministers. This was evident by the fact his cabinet included no young independent figures from within the protest movement, in addition to the continued repression, violence, kidnapping and torture against them by the security forces.
  4. Internal Shiite Polarization: Although the nomination of Allawi was one of the provisions of the agreements between Muqtada Al-Sadr and Hadi Al-Amiri, which were concluded with the blessing of Iran and its Iraqi loyalist factions, following the assassination of Qassem Soleimani and Abu Mahdi Al-Muhandis, the Fatah Alliance, Al-Binaa Alliance and the State of Law led by former prime minister Nuri al-Maliki were concerned that Al-Sadr would use the Allawi's government to impose a patriarchy on the Iraqi political scene in general and the Shiites in particular. This was evidently clear in an interview with the Al-Sharqiya satellite channel on February 24th, during which Al-Sadr spoke with a strong tone introducing himself as the man who has the final say on any candidate PM. This has undermined his agreements with the Fatah Alliance, where were seen an immediate way out of the popular protests crisis and a relatively safe haven from U.S. threats as well as a guarantee that "Shiite Islamists" will not lose the prime minister post in favor of other political forces.
  5. The Position of the Supreme Religious Authority: The vague - if not cold - position taken by top Shiite cleric in the country, Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, on the nomination of Mohammed Allawi, who failed the conditions set by Sistani in a Friday sermon, foremost of which is that the PM designate should not be a controversial figure, has also weakened the PM designate’s position and left him without a religious or grassroots cover.
  6. Iran’s Preoccupation with its Internal Crises, especially after the killing of the “Quds Force” commander Qassem Soleimani at the beginning of this year, and its inability to find a suitable alternative to manage the Iraqi affair in the same decisive way that Soleimani was using.

Abdul Mahdi’s Staying in Office Sparks Legal Debate

As soon as Allawi’s candidacy came to an end earlier this month, caretaker Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mahdi sent a message to the President of the Republic and Speaker of the Parliament that included a threat to resort to “voluntary absence” if the country's political parties could not find an alternative for him. Experts in Iraqi law agree that the term "voluntary absence" does not exist in the law, in the constitution, or even in the bylaw of the Council of Ministers, but there is divergence between the political parties regarding the position on Abdul-Mahdi remaining in power, as follows:

  1. Opponents: Al-Nasr, Al-Hikmah, and the State of Law blocs, in addition to some members of the Iraqi Forces Coalition, believe that the prime minister's staying in office after 60 days of his resignation is a violation of the constitution.
  2. Proponents: This team supports the possibility of keeping Abdul Mahdi at the head of the caretaker government or one of his deputies, namely Finance Minister Fouad Hussein or Oil Minister Thamer Al-Ghadban to manage cabinet sessions. In the absence of the three, the President of the Republic must assume the presidency of the Council of Ministers. Among the most prominent blocs of this team are Al-Fatah, the Iraqi Decision Bloc, and the Kurdistan Democratic Party.

As a result, Iraq is in the midst of political and legal fiasco, as there is no text in the Iraqi constitution indicating how to deal with such a crisis, because Article (76) of the fifth paragraph of the constitution indicates that "the President of the Republic shall assign another candidate to form the cabinet, within fifteen days." But this matter depends on Adel Abdul Mahdi continuing to head the caretaker government, but if he abandons the position, the constitution suggests recourse to Article (81) which states that “the President of the Republic shall act as the Prime Minister, when the position is vacated for any reason whatsoever.” This means that the President of the Republic can occupy the position of Prime Minister for a period not exceeding 45 days, and that this article is considered the last resort if the President of the Republic is unable to appoint a candidate during it.

Alternatives to Abdul Mahdi

The meetings and talks the leaders of the political blocs have been holding over the past few days, under the aegis of the President of the Republic Barham Saleh, revealed progress towards a one-year transitional government, which is envisaged to have the authority to conduct early elections, pass the 2020 budget, which is still being prepared, negotiate with the protesters and respond to their immediate demands. 

However, differences still exist on the level of candidates. The most prominent names put on the table include the following: The political adviser to the leader of the Sadrist movement, Ali al-Shukri, the deputy for the Al-Nasr coalition and former governor of Najaf, Adnan al-Zarfi, the head of the intelligence service, Mustafa al-Kadhemi, and the governor of Basra, Asad al-Aidani, who is affiliated with the "Iraqi National Congress," and the minister of education, Qusay al-Suhail, who represents the "State of Law" coalition. In addition to these names, Iraqi politician and economist Mazen Abdul Mahdi Al-Ashiker announced that he had submitted a request to the President of the Republic to nominate him as an independent politician who meets the required conditions.

It seems that there is a push towards nominating intelligence chief Mustafa Al-Kadhemi, who is independent, not affiliated with any party or political bloc, and has good relations with most of the political forces, as well as being the only one whom the protesters have not blacklisted so far. Likewise, Al-Sadr had no objection to Al-Kadhemi's candidacy, and he was in favor of that option even before Allawi was chosen, but reservations by other Shiite political forces aborted this bid. It is noticeable that Al-Kadhemi has good relations with the “Sunni” and “Kurdish” blocs, which enable him to obtain the confidence of Parliament if he is named prime minister. On the other hand, the pro-Iranian parties in the "Al-Fatah" continue to voice reservations over the Al-Kadhemi's nomination, especially since he has sufficient information about the movements of these parties' militias, which sparked a systematic attack against him. The Hezbollah Brigades threatened to "burn the rest of Iraq’s security" if Al-Kadhemi was nominated, accusing him of helping “the American enemy to carry out the assassination of the Al-Nasr leaders.” On the other side, the "State of Law" coalition is showing enthusiasm towards naming Basra Governor Asad al-Aidani as new prime minister. This was publicly expressed by one of the coalition’s representative in the parliament, Kadhem Al-Sayyadi, saying that “the stage needs a strong prime minister who can pass through Parliament, and this is what applies to Al-Aidani.”

Noteworthy, Al-Aidani ran and won in the 2018 parliamentary elections in Iraq representing the Al-Nasr coalition led by former Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi, before he split and joined the Iran-affiliated coalition. He even refused to be sworn in as deputy because he wanted to keep the governor of Basra job, exploiting the fact there is no text that obliges the deputy to take the constitutional oath. His name was previously proposed by the "Al-Binaa" coalition, but the president of the republic then refused to task him.

 Prime Minister Designation: Future Scenarios

First Scenario: Choosing a Figure Who Commits to Partisan Agreements. This scenario assumes the failure of political parties to choose a (Shiite) figure who guarantees the interests of other political parties, in exchange for providing a cabinet lineup of figures that appear to be independent in order to mislead the public opinion. There are several reasons underpinning this scenario, most notably:

  1. The “Kurdish” and “Sunni” positions rejecting any government that does not take into account their own interests. This is confirmed by Kurdish politician Kifah Mahmoud, saying: "The Kurdish delegation is searching for a candidate who meets the desire of the protesting Shiite public in Baghdad, the center and the south, and respects the special constitutional status of the Kurdistan region and its political entity and does not marginalize the Sunni component because it is very active in the political process." The failure of Saairun and Al-Fatah, which have 101 MPs, and the Salvation Front led by Osama al-Nujaifi, to collect a quorum for a confidence-giving session (the session was attended by 108 deputies out of 329 deputies in the absence of the Kurdish and Sunni blocs and the State of Law coalition led by Al-Maliki and the Al-Nasr bloc led by al-Abadi), illustrates the picture in the Iraqi parliament and the real weight of those blocs and underlines the need for agreement with the other blocs to endorse the prime minister.
  2. The pressure exerted by the President of the Republic to reach an agreement, especially since time is short and they have no more than 45 days to complete the mission, otherwise Iraq will fall into a legal vacuum.
  3. Reaching an agreement stipulating that the duration of the government be one year until elections are held, can be a positive factor in passing a cabinet, as long as it has incomplete powers and will not have an opportunity to bring about structural changes to the political process.
  4. The novel coronavirus crisis that threatens the country with a real epidemic, in light of the collapse of health institutions and the absence of preventive measures. Further, the country is threatened by a large scale outbreak of the disease, threatening the workers of foreign oil companies operating in Iraq. This is in addition to the expected economic crisis due to the decline in oil imports as a result of the decline in global demand for the same reason.

Second Scenario: The Constitutional Vacuum Continuing for a Long Time. This scenario assumes that the political blocs fail to reach an agreement on a candidate that satisfies all parties, and therefore they have no choice but to go to the constitutional option in Article (81), which requires that the President of the Republic run the government for a period of 30 days. During this period, the parties may be able to reach a consensual option between the “Shiite”, “Sunni” and “Kurdish” blocs. It is possible that the parties will not be able to form a government according to the constitutional contexts for the same reasons that undermined the Allawi government. In addition, the formation of such government is inconsistent with the religious authority's and the protesters’ demand for early elections because its completion will not be achieved at best before the end of this month. This limits the chances of holding elections before the end of 2020 due to the limited time required to submit the draft budget, as well as technical details regarding the elections. This is in addition to the possibility of security disturbances, such as the assassination of an important person or an outbreak of the novel coronavirus, going to the formation of a national accord government such as that which Iraq has been accustomed to since 2005, or the occurrence of external interference that leads to the formation of a "national salvation" government.

Third Scenario: Keeping Resigned Prime Minister in Office or Tasking him with Forming a New Government According to the Electoral Merit until Holding Parliamentary Elections. This scenario assumes that Adel Abdul Mahdi will remain in office with the creation of a legal adjustment to pass the annual budget and create the atmosphere for early elections. This assumption is underpinned by several considerations, the most important of which are:

  1. This scenario will be regarded as "de facto" if the political parties fail to agree to break the political deadlock that the country is going through and insist that time is short to agree on an alternative figure.
  2. If there is political support, specifically from "Kurdish" and "Sunni" blocs, as well as from pro-Iran factions, to keep Abdul Mahdi in office. This was confirmed by prominent figure of the "Patriotic Union of Kurdistan", Mahmoud Khoshnaw, saying: "We have no objection to reassigning the outgoing Prime Minister, Adel Abdul Mahdi."
  3. Legally speaking, Abdul Mahdi does not need to be reassigned again, but rather to extend the term of his tenure, provided that the parliament votes by a half plus one majority. The extension decision finds its legitimacy in the text of Article (82) of the second paragraph of the constitution, which "allows for the extension of the Prime Minister in emergency situations until voting on another person."
  4. The novel coronavirus crisis threatens the continuation of the protest movement, which means the possibility of keeping Abdul Mahdi in office without fear of the protest movement sliding into serious violence. This is in addition to the psychological willingness of the silent majority, terrified by the spread of the virus to support this exit as inevitable option in light of the epidemic threat.

However, this option could run counter to the desire of the religious authority, which recommended that the parliament should reconsider its options in a veiled reference to the formation of a new government. This is in addition to the demonstrators who previously confirmed that they will escalate the situation if the first suspect in their killing is kept in office. It is also possible that the leader of the Sadrist movement, Muqtada al-Sadr, might try to restore his popular influence, which has been severely eroded since he aligned with Tehran after the killing of Qassem Soleimani, and his attempt to impose the nomination of Mohammed Tawfiq Allawi on the demonstrators with violence, which opens the door for the country to slide into civil war.


Latest Scenarios