On 24 June 2019, eight months after Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mahdi was appointed, Iraq’s parliament approved three new ministers to head the defence, interior and justice ministries.
The post of education minister is still vacant, but the recent appointments have eased national and international concerns over the future of the country as stability teetered and Shia cleric and political leader Muqtada al-Sadr threatened to withdraw his confidence in the government.
The current situation comes after the May 2018 election that saw several coalitions vying for control. President Barham Salih, elected at the beginning of October, nominated Abdul Mahdi as prime minister within two hours of his own election.
Under an ethno-sectarian system known locally as muassasah that dates back to the overthrow of Saddam Hussein in 2003, the government formation process involves identifying the largest bloc in parliament. The position of president is then given to a Kurd, while the prime minister is Shia and the parliament speaker is Sunni. Abdul Mahdi, who is considered adequately independent while also having the backing of both Washington and Tehran – key international allies – was tasked with assembling the government.
He put forward 22 cabinet nominees, but lawmakers only confirmed 14, leaving eight posts unfilled. Although there were enough confirmed posts to convene a government, important ministries including defence, justice and the interior remained empty and were held temporarily by the prime minister – himself a former oil and finance minister – until the respective officials were sworn in.
As Abbas Kadhim from the Atlantic Council’s Iraq Initiative told Fanack, “Iraq is a different system from your garden variety parliamentary system…. In Iraq, everybody gets a piece of the government.”
As a multi-party system, the prime minister is technically the chair of the Council of Ministers and only has one vote in the cabinet, each cabinet minister is voted in, voted out or denied confidence to speak, Kadhim explained.
The 2018 elections did not result in a single party or bloc winning a majority, which has resulted in political bargaining and horse trading for posts. “If you vote for my camp, then I will vote for yours. And that’s how it works,” said Kadhim, adding that it ultimately boils down to political rivalries.
Renad Mansour, a research fellow at Chatham House, previously told the Arab Weekly that the unfilled posts illustrated the “fragmentation” within previously cohesive parliamentary blocs. One of them is Binaa, a Shia bloc led by Hadi al-Amiri, which nominated Falih al-Fayyadh, former leader of the Popular Mobilisation Forces (PMF), as interior minister. He failed to get the votes, partly because of the PMF’s association with certain groups accused of human rights violations. Al-Fayyadh’s nomination was a sticking point that prevented the post of interior minister from being filled, until parliament approved Yassin al-Yasiri in June.
The two other names approved that day were Najah al-Shammari as defence minister and Farouq Amin Othman as justice minister. No women have yet been appointed.
The near-finalisation of the appointments will be a relief to many in the international community who expressed concern that the delay was preventing the government from addressing citizens’ immediate needs. While Islamic State has largely been crushed, the extremist group continues to pose a security threat across the region, according to Jeanine Hennis-Plasschaert, Special Representative of the Secretary-General for Iraq and Head of the United Nations Assistance Mission for Iraq.
Ideally, the country would be run with a complete government, Kadhim said. In practice, however, even the ministries that have been without a head since October have not suffered excessively. In the case of the Ministry of Defence, for instance, it is mainly a logistics coordinator, Kadhim explained, whereas the “actual decision-making on operations and command goes directly from the commander in chief to the field commands.”
He added: “When the government was missing eight ministers, that was a lot. Not only that. The ministries weren’t properly staffed [and] the government was on very shaky ground, because if only two ministers were to resign then the government would collapse, whereas now there is a comfortable margin to safeguard that from happening.”
In addition, the ministries that arguably have the greatest impact on everyday life – finance, energy, health, water resources – had their ministers confirmed almost immediately.
Some analysts believe trust in the muassasah system is at a particularly low point, and protests against corruption, lack of services and underfunded utilities are a regular occurrence. In a further indication of fatigue with the political status quo, al-Sadr himself called for changes that would see sectarian appointments replaced by technocrats for certain ministerial positions.
Despite the drawn-out process, Iraqis are largely positive about this government when compared to past governments, according to Kadhim, and coordination between the president, prime minister and speaker has largely been smooth, which is not a given. However, he noted that it is early days and a key measure will be the government’s actions regarding electricity.
“In Iraq, especially now in the summer months, nothing is on people’s minds more than electricity and for their air conditioners to be working.”
The economy and job creation are also prominent issues. In January 2019, the government revealed a spending plan of $112 billion – one of the largest since 2003 – half of which will reportedly cover civil servant salaries. Meanwhile, the amounts allocated to infrastructure, reconstruction and electricity are far below what is considered necessary. A $200 billion World Bank project, announced in May, which promises to deliver improved electricity services to the shortage-prone areas of Basra, al-Muthanna, Thi Qar and Missan, could compensate for some of this shortfall.
The budget is also highly reliant on the oil sector, which is subject to variances, putting both the budget and the government’s credibility at risk.
In essence, the slow formation of the government could have been its demise. While it may be on safe ground for now, critical tests are yet to come and sectarian and political differences have not disappeared. This could eventually lead to a loss of public trust if citizens’ concerns are not taken into account.