Even by recent standards, Iraq’s parliament is facing an unprecedented crisis. The parliament’s speaker, Salim al-Jabouri, was voted out in an extraordinary session chaired by MP Adnan al-Janabi. This followed a debate that ended with physical fights and the throwing of water bottles. However, the legality of Jabouri’s sacking is in question, leaving most Iraqis, citizens and politicians alike, wondering what is going on with their representatives.

The Idea of Technocracy in Iraq

The parliamentary crisis stems from Abadi’s two failed attempts to pass a list of candidates for a new cabinet of so-called technocrats. This is not, however, a new idea. It has been discussed around Baghdad since as early as 2008 by both sincere reformists and authoritarian leaders alike. The movement to bring technocracy opposes the current system, under which all cabinets are tailored along party-quota lines with little attention to the necessary qualifications and the prime minister has little room to replace any minister, each of whom has been protected by an ethnic or communal bloc that conceives of the post as legitimate communal property. It calls for an end to politics based on communal quotas or muhasasa Ta’ifia in Arabic.

In Iraq, political bloc-affiliated personalities are stronger than institutions. As such, the post-2003 political environment has facilitated a game of musical chairs among this set of elites who have taken on different roles at different times to remain powerful. Shia leader Hussein Shahristani, for instance, has served as minister of higher education, deputy prime minister, minister of foreign affairs, and minister of energy. Shia leader Ibrahim Jaafari served first as prime minister, then vice president, and then as minister of foreign affairs. Kurdish leader Hoshyar Zebari has served as foreign minister, finance minister, and deputy prime minister.

The current drive for technocracy aims to, for the first time in post-2003 Iraq, appoint independent, politically weak, but qualified personalities to the cabinet; the idea being to strengthen the institutions rather than the individuals who inhabit the posts.

All proponents of technocratic alternatives nonetheless admit that progress can only be achieved if the technocrats are protected from loose paramilitaries and militias. More importantly, they must be given free reign to choose their own undersecretaries and advisors. This may well affect the status of some 8,000 or so incumbent bureaucrats who are politically appointed, mostly from the governing Dawa Party.

The Attempt to Implement Technocracy

The drive for technocracy, which had been on Abadi’s mind for some time, received a boost as of late by a protest movement that took shape in late July of last year. Then, last month, Shia cleric Muqtada al-Sadr reemerged into the spotlight and moved the protest movement from the streets of Baghdad’s Tahrir square, to the Green Zone, and eventually into parliament.

As such, when Abadi announced his technocratic cabinet reshuffle, it was both a deliverance on a promise and a submission to an ultimatum from Sadr, who carefully watched only a few kilometers away from a makeshift tent inside the Green Zone. His message of anti-corruption and general reform in part catalyzed the cabinet reshuffle.

Immediately following Abadi’s first announcement of the list of names, Sadr, sitting alone in his tent at a small table covered by the Iraqi flag, gave a fiery speech. Even though the list of candidates that Abadi proposed only included three from Sadr’s recommendations, he seemed satisfied and willing to endorse the list because it represented a leap from the previously exclusively personality-based politics that marred Iraqi governance. Sadr’s message, at this point, was of institutional change rather than personal advancement. He gave the prime minister ten days to ratify the candidates, otherwise he would return to the Green Zone, withdraw his candidates, and begin the proceedings for a no-confidence motion.

Some ten days later, when Abadi failed to acquire parliamentary approval, Sadr did not reenter the Green Zone but instructed his parliamentarians, the al-Ahrar bloc, to stage a sit-in inside the Iraqi parliament and demand that Abadi stick to a genuine reshuffle, resulting in a truly technocratic cabinet. He continued to threaten the political establishment in its own backyard. MPs from other political blocs that expressed disappointment at the parliamentary stalemate joined the sit-in. This group, which includes members from the Sadr bloc, some of the Sunni Itihad al-Qiwa, the secular Allawi bloc, the Kurdish Gorran opposition party, and even a few of Abadi’s own State of Law parliamentary coalition, eventually voted to oust the parliamentary speaker Salim al-Jabouri when he delayed voting on the technocratic cabinet by adjourning a session that devolved into physical altercations.

The new proposed cabinets retain none of the former ministers with the exception of two of the more sensitive portfolios, defense and interior. Abadi has also retained his premiership. Keeping the defense and interior ministers is important to maintaining the current momentum against the self-proclaimed Islamic State. The removal of the interior minister, moreover, could cause an upheaval, given his affiliation to Badr Organization, led by Hadi al-Ameri, who is a senior official of the Popular Mobilization Units (al-hashd al-shaabi) and as such leading the charge against the Islamic State. Despite this, Ameri shares a tense relationship with Abadi, who decided not to give the paramilitary leader the position of defense minister.

To what extent the new cabinet is sensitive to the ethno-communal and regional representative equilibrium is anyone’s guess. The resumes of the entire list of nominees are not published yet; however they reflect a balancing act between three Shia power centers, which represent the main competing political forces in Iraq. The first is Sadr, who sent some 90 names (around three per ministry); the second is Abadi, who employed entrusted veterans to maintain his influence against strong foes. The third is former Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, who remains very influential in Baghdad today and endeavored tirelessly to exert influence over the formation of the new cabinet. Abadi indeed faces a juggling act between Sadr and Maliki.

Prospects for Abadi’s Gamble

Abadi’s gamble sought to take advantage of the protest movement to bring about change, but the prime minister made a major miscalculation: he announced the list to the parliament without first ensuring a guaranteed majority to support his move. As a result, and even though the names were only moderately objectionable, the major blocs began to contest Abadi’s move. The Kurdistan List, lead primarily by Masoud Barzani’s KDP, forced the proposed technocratic Kurdish oil minister, Nizar Saleem Numan, to capitulate. This instigated a domino effect with others yielding their candidacy, forcing Abadi to come up with a second list of names. As one MP told the author, “if the first list of names was objectionable, the second list was horrible.” It had Maliki’s fingerprints all over it, and as such, was fiercely rejected. A furious protest movement soon reached parliament, where angry MPs did not grant Abadi any approval for the second list of cabinet names–setting the scene for chaos including fistfights and water bottle throwing.

The question, then, is: will Abadi’s gamble will pay off? In a speech following the chaotic developments in parliament and the vote against Jabouri, he criticized the state of the parliament and called for institutional order and the restoration of the speaker. Abadi’s gamble has seemingly made him several enemies: the protest movement is unhappy with his inability to move forward with technocracy and the major parliamentary blocs are unhappy with his unwillingness to consult with them. As a result, internal opponents who have been calling for a change at the top now have the voice to present a serious challenge.

Despite these serious domestic challenges, a bizarre US-Iranian alliance has come out in support of Abadi. Washington and Tehran believe that the political crisis weakens the war effort against the Islamic State. Similarly, Abadi uses this argument to convince those instigating the current parliamentary crisis that it is not the right time. Yet, most of the protestors believe that reform would serve the war against the Islamic State. At the very least, the corrupt figures and structure may hold for some time, but the current political crisis shows that it can never be the same again.