A few weeks before he was sworn in as Iraq’s new prime minister on October 21, ‘Adel ‘Abdul-Mahdi wrote a commentary saying he would refuse the position because “the right conditions for success [were] not in place.” Even if the political factions supported him, he continued, they would soon reverse course once he started tackling serious problems in a way they deemed harmful to their interests. ‘Abdul-Mahdi specifically mentioned reforms such as moving Iraq away from a rentier to a productive economy, ending the country’s centralized governance system, fighting endemic corruption, developing public institutions, and promoting the rule of law.
Shortly afterward, however, ‘Abdul-Mahdi decided to accept the prime ministership, leaving observers wondering whether the “right conditions” had suddenly appeared, or whether his initial reluctance was part of a political bargaining game. Undoubtedly, ‘Abdul-Mahdi stands out as a respectable figure, making his appointment a suitable accommodation when no coalition secured a clear majority to form a government. Yet, it is exactly because he is a compromise candidate—accepted by all but embraced by nobody, with no clear mandate for his government—that he is poised to face difficult challenges.
This is not first time that a prime minister is chosen as a compromise among competing political groups. Yet this time the compromise is shakier, reflecting the factionalized Iraqi political scene and the clash between the formal rules of the political system and more mutable transactional politics. Constitutional rules were changed to facilitate a deal between the two largest Shi‘a blocs, Muqtada al-Sadr’s Sa’iroun and Hadi al-‘Ameri’s Fatah coalitions, while both sides continued to pursue different agendas and alliances. That is why an Iraqi politician observed that the government was actually formed by three individuals—Walid al-Kremawi, a Sadr aide and his representative, Mohammed al-Hashimi, the Fatah representative and an affiliate of the Supreme Islamic Council of Iraq, and ‘Abdul-Mahdi.
Evidently, the wave of protests in Basra and other southern cities last summer had an impact on the formation of the new government. In May, the low turnout in parliamentary elections tainted by accusations of systematic fraud and other illegalities had already confirmed public disillusionment with the ruling elite. The main threat to the dominant Shi‘a groups is now coming from their presumed constituencies. Facing the same pressure, the Shi’a clerical authorities had threatened to take a harsher line if the political factions failed to quickly form a government that was more effective in providing public services, fighting corruption, and dealing with socioeconomic challenges such as poverty and unemployment.
However, the new government has not seemed to respond to this reality. It is made up of a combination of partisan and independent ministers and is still lacking eight ministers. Although ‘Abdul-Mahdi announced a detailed governmental program, with great emphasis on the economy, there was no major discussion of the program and the government’s proposed policies. Instead, political contestation revolved around the selection of ministers and whether they should be partisan or independent technocrats. Groups such as Sa’iroun and Hikma, led by ‘Ammar al-Hakim, allowed the prime minister more leeway in selecting ministers, while Sunni, Kurdish, and other Shi‘a groups refused to do the same, mostly framing their position as a case of defending the rights of their constituencies.
All parties are represented in ‘Abdul-Mahdi’s government, yet none is going to be held accountable for its policies and actions. Although power sharing among parties is usual in a parliamentary system, the problem in Iraq lies in the nature of those parties. Most Iraqi parties are primarily patrimonial entities, grouped around a dominant figure or family. They tend to use ministries to feed their patronage networks, weakening the possibility of implementing anti-corruption policies. These parties operate in a gray area between formal and informal politics, sometimes using their armed wings to assert themselves when other legal and extralegal means prove insufficient.
Indeed, the notion of political parties as family projects was reasserted in the new government. Two Sunni ministers were chosen because they were related to rising factional leaders, Jamal and Mohammed al-Karbuli of Anbar Governorate and Ahmed al-Jubouri of Salaheddine Governorate.
It will be difficult for ‘Abdul-Mahdi to keep all parties satisfied while trying to adopt serious reforms. But like other prime ministers, he can try to use his office’s power to gain more independence from the parties. He might also exploit pressure from the public to demand a broader mandate, given that most parties fear the further radicalization of street protests. However, making the state more effective is not only about weakening the parties’ clientelist systems, but also about improving the deeply corrupt and dysfunctional public sector and significantly changing public spending patterns, which leave a very small share of the budget for investment.
Furthermore, ‘Abdul-Mahdi’s main political challenge will be to avoid antagonizing the two main groups that put him in office: the Sadrists and Fatah. Sadr has already warned that he might withdraw his support for ‘Abdul-Mahdi if the latter fails to make substantial changes. It is likely that Sadr will continue using his ability to mobilize the crowds to exert pressure on the political elite, perhaps threatening to join any future wave of protests, which could end up paralyzing or even toppling the government. However, while it is true that Sadr’s leverage could strengthen the prime minister’s position vis-à-vis the interest groups tied to political parties, it could also render him a hostage to Sadr’s populist impulses, which are clearly at odds with ‘Abdul-Mahdi’s generally unruffled style.
At the same time, if the 76-year-old prime minister leans further toward Fatah and the pro-Iranian camp, he could provoke the Trump administration and lose Sadr’s support. Yet ‘Abdul-Mahdi also cannot afford to antagonize the Iranians, especially as they are trying to employ their formal and informal connections in Iraq to mitigate the effects of the new U.S. sanctions imposed on Iran. Their main Iraqi ally, the Popular Mobilization Forces—which is practically Fatah’s military wing—is already operating as a parallel state (a term that ‘Abdul-Mahdi used in his inauguration), and there is little the prime minister can do about it. The alliance built by the Iranians to deny the previous prime minister, Haidar al-‘Abadi, a second term in office could well be resurrected to oust ‘Abdul-Mahdi.
The new prime minister will soon discover that the “right conditions” are still not present for the reforms he has promised. To sustain the deal that brought him to power, he will have to constantly balance between conflicting agendas, leaving him with limited space and resources to implement significant reforms. Yet, his strong point is the realization that he might become a scapegoat if he surrenders to the political factions’ “business as usual” attitude. At least, that was the argument he made in his commentary prior to his appointment.