A Minor Chance for a Majority Government: Iraq’s Electoral Outlook
In the final days before Iraq’s Oct. 10 parliamentary elections, much speculation has focused not merely on who will win, but on whether the country can then form a majority government. The alternative is another disappointing national unity government under Iraq’s muhassasa system, in which offices are allocated to all political parties in proportion to their share of seats in parliament. This outcome would maximize opportunities for corruption and minimize opportunities for reform, thereby laying the groundwork for further despair, deeper poverty, and even eventual state collapse.
There are a number of factors that will determine whether forming a majority government is possible: the new political environment, the power distribution within Iraq’s three main ethno-sectarian communities, and the political process through which the government is formed. An examination of these factors suggests that while it remains unlikely, there is at least an outside chance that a majority system might emerge that could create a responsible government and begin to rebuild Iraq’s fragile state.
The Political Environment
Despite all of Iraq’s problems, the very fact that the country anticipates a peaceful transfer of power should be acknowledged as relatively unique in the Arab world, particularly as Tunisia and Lebanon appear to lose their luster. This is all the more true given that Iraq is still emerging from a dramatic two years since the beginning of the Oct. 2019 — or “Tishreen” — protests that eventually led to the fall of the Adel Abdul-Madhi government which was elected in 2018. These protests helped set off a chain of events that ended in the targeted killings of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps Quds Force Cmdr. Qassim Suleimani and the de facto leader of Iraq’s Hashd, or militia forces, Abu Mahdi al Mohandas. COVID-19 has also impacted the Iraqi state — with few vaccines, the country appears likely to reach herd immunity via mass infection. The government of the new, post-protest prime minister — former activist and spy chief Mustafa Kadhimi — will go into caretaker status on Oct. 9 to permit the Oct. 10 elections. These elections will be held earlier than would otherwise be the case following the constitutionally imposed four-year cycle, a nominal concession to the Tishreen protesters seeking an alternative to Iraq’s dysfunctional status quo.
There has been a considerable decrease in ethno-sectarian tension between Sunnis and Shiites over the past few years. But in spite of this, political power remains frozen in the ethno-sectarian system created in 2005. So, while ethno-sectarian categories become less important socially and sociologically, they remain critical to the political system in any election, though less so in the government formation process. Or, in other words, the initial power after elections is distributed via ethno-sectarian parties, but the final government is not.
Another factor shaping the environment is that the level of political activity in elite civil society — comprising party leaders, former ministers, former and current parliamentarians, and senior civil servants — is at an all-time high. Virtually every politician not tightly affiliated with one of the parties has a political project of some kind. Centers for dialogue, policy, and sovereignty, though light on Internet presence, are ubiquitous in a way not before seen. It is unclear what — if any — effect this might have on both government formation and policy, but it is still quite notable. Iraqi elites — themselves members of the status quo — are dedicating precious time to work on reform-based concepts for the public good as elections draw near. There does appear to be an acknowledgment by these elites that the system could collapse if reforms are not forthcoming.
But this elite activity must be contrasted with what is widely expected to be either active boycott or passive nonparticipation at the popular level. Turnout was only 44.5 percent in 2018 and is projected to be even lower this cycle. While the effect of lower turnout is a “known unknown,” few expect it to be a positive for more Western-friendly parties as well as those focused on state-building. The younger, more progressive, more reform-minded citizens are also those most likely to choose not to vote, whether as a deliberate act of protest or simply through passive apathy toward the system. Finally, while Grand Ayatollah Sistani did give a more forceful fatwa this year that encouraged voting, it is not clear whether his voice will speak to this demographic.
Iraq’s new electoral also law puts a wrinkle into traditional strategies and projections alike. All previous elections were run with each province as a single constituency on party lists, using a variation of the Sainte-Laguë method to then allocate seats based on vote totals. The new electoral law creates smaller districts in which the top four individual vote-getters will win seats (with the caveat that one of the four must be a woman to maintain the 25 percent parliamentary quota). Again, it is unclear just which parties this new law will favor, though, when in Baghdad in early September, I consistently heard that both the Sadrists and the Speaker of the Parliament Mohamed al Halbousi had considerable influence over the drawing of these new districts. I also heard interlocutors passionately explain why this law would favor the Sadrists and others explain with equal passion how it would disadvantage them. Theories abound, but it is impossible to know how the new law will interact with actual voter behavior — and whether parties can learn quickly how to game the system.
The Sectarian Framework
Even as the electoral system has changed, voters must still select from parties that retain their ethno-sectarian orientations. While the 2018 elections featured some limited cross-sectarian parties, those have largely disappeared in 2021. Each of the three major ethno-sectarian groups — Arab Shiite, Arab Sunni, and the Kurds (mostly Sunni) — is in a unique political position this time around.
Comprising anywhere between 55 percent and 65 percent of the population — there has been no serious census in decades — the Arab Shiite continue to be the numerical majority in Iraq. But their politics are in transition. While reliable polling is still rare to nonexistent, anecdotal evidence suggests the upcoming elections will be characterized by two new trends. First is the decline of the older, more established parties such as Badr and Dawa that have been the bedrock of Iraqi politics since 2003. (The Sadrists, by contrast, seem to have maintained their popularity.) This expected decline reduces the major divisions in the “Shiite house” from five in 2018 to just three this year. So to personalize it, expect the negotiation surrounding government formation to be between Hikma party head Amar al Hakim, Muqtada al Sadr, and whomever emerges as the leader of the Fatah alliance.
The second trend is the rise of independent candidates within the Shiite community. The new election law empowers candidates with geographically concentrated personal followings, as they can conduct door-to-door, individual-level campaigning independent of any political party. These independents usually have some characteristic that allows them this freedom and gives them name recognition such as tribal connections, business money, a combat record with the Hashd, and/or former associations with a major party. Should these independents win seats, they will eventually end up in the orbit (whether close or distant) of one of the three major political factions. But they will have to be recruited, one at a time, and will inevitably demand concessions. The projected presence of these independents means that even if we clearly understand which of the three major parties has the most seats on election day, there will be a second campaign focused on pulling independents into alliances. This second campaign could drag out the government formation process by months.
Two years ago, many had hoped that there would be a third trend — a rise in parties that represented the Tishreen protestors and promoted a more liberal, entrepreneurial, and anti-corruption platform of political accountability. However, while there are parties associated with the protest movement, they are not expected to be a major force in these elections, with the consensus being they will be fortunate to get 10 seats. Perversely, the early elections in 2021 have deprived these new parties of time to properly organize. One can hope that as Iraq’s “youth bulge” reaches adulthood these forces will gain power in future elections. At best, gaining a few seats this electoral cycle will help pro-reform parties gain experience and better channel the youth and reform vote in the future. But few expect them to have significant influence in 2021.
The Sunni community stands in stark contrast to the Shiite community in this electoral cycle. While the Shiite political system is incredibly fractured, Iraq’s Sunnis have split into two clear camps with only a few independent parties and candidates outside this system. Most candidates are either aligned with current speaker of the parliament, and former Anbar governor, Mohamed al Halbousi and his Moving Forward party, or alternatively with candidates sponsored by businessman Khamis al Kanjar in the opposing al-Azm bloc. This division mirrors the larger division in the Sunni Arab world and among members of the Gulf Cooperation Council: it is widely assumed (though not proven) that al Halbousi is aligned with the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia, while al Kanjar is similarly said to be aligned with Qatar and Turkey.
While it remains unclear which of these two blocs will gain more seats, the centralized nature of the contest means that once results are announced, it will be very quickly clear which side has the “pole position” among the Sunnis. This does not mean, of course, that the losing side could not end up being selected as the preferred partner in a majority government by the winning Shiite and Kurdish parties — coalition formation in multiparty systems is complicated. But the relative strengths of the Halbousi and Kanjar camps should be known in short order.
The normally calm, if authoritarian, politics of the provinces of the Kurdistan Region of Iraq have been decisively disrupted in recent months. This is especially true in the east of the region, where the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan has let its internal tensions spill out into public view. Party co-President (and U.S. favorite) Lahur Talabani was ousted from his positions in both the government and the party by his cousin and co-President Baufel Talabani, the oldest son of the late party President Jalal Talabani. Politics in Kurdistan is emphatically a family affair.
Lahur was accused of attempting to poison Baufel and his family, a charge that Lahur vehemently denies. Baufel is supported by most senior Patriotic Union of Kurdistan leadership including, critically, his younger brother and Kurdistan Regional Government Deputy Prime Minister, Qubad Talabani (also a U.S. favorite). While Baufel is in firm control of the party, it is very unclear how much support Lahur may still have among the grassroots and how this could affect the party in the elections. It is certainly foreseeable that in competitive districts the party might lose seats to Arab or Turkomen parties, or even its rival, the Kurdistan Democratic Party .
Electorally, the Kurdistan Democratic Party has few concerns, and its bases in Irbil and Dohuk remain uncontested. The party remains — along with the Sadrists — the most effective political machine in Iraq and will certainly deliver its traditional 25 or so seats in the parliament. The Kurdistan Democratic Party also appears to have improved its relations with the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, and it is widely expected that the two major parties will move in lockstep in this electoral cycle.
The constitutional procedures to form a new government are clear. The parliament meets within 15 calendar days of the ratification of the election results and elects a speaker by majority vote. The speaker, who by unwritten understanding is a Sunni Arab, then presides over the election of a president (who is understood to be a Kurd) by a two-thirds majority vote. The president then has 15 calendar days to charge the nominee of the largest bloc in parliament to form a government as the prime minister. That nominee for prime minister has 30 calendar days to come back to the parliament for approval of his slate of nominees. Parliament must then approve a majority of the ministerial nominees to create a working government.
These constitutional procedures, however, very seldom take place in sequential order. Instead, backroom deals will almost always pre-bake the entire slate before the process begins. The constitutional timelines can be avoided by delaying ratification of the results. It will be very easy for Iraq’s elite class to keep final ratification tied up until the politics are sorted out and the relevant elites have agreed exactly who will be the speaker, president, and prime minister.
Picking A President
Because a two-thirds vote is required, the election of the president is the most contested part of the process. Current President Barham Sali is a member of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, and it is widely rumored that Masoud Barzani of the Kurdistan Democratic Party very much wants one of his party members in the office. Given the drama roiling the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan — and the recent détente between the two parties — it is unclear that there will be sufficient force to push back against Barzani’s preference.
However, as the old political mantra has it, “you can’t beat somebody with nobody.” The Kurdistan Democratic Party’s difficulty is that it does not seem to have a viable candidate to put forward. Traditional party stalwarts such as Fuad Hussein and Hoshrar Zebari were much too vocal about the 2017 Kurdish independence referendum for Arabs to easily accept them as the president of a country they supported dismantling. This leaves only one potential candidate of sufficient stature, Nechirvan Barzani. Nechirvan is Masoud Barzani’s nephew and current president of the Kurdistan Regional Government. He has one serious drawback though. Despite speaking fluent Kurdish, English, and Farsi, Nechirvan speaks Arabic poorly. It is also unclear whether Nechirvan is willing to make this jump, even if pushed. This may give Barham Salih a real chance for a second term — his performance in the job is generally praised, he has very high international standing, and he perhaps better than any other Iraqi politician is able to balance good relations with both the United States and Iran.
Picking a Prime Minister
The government that the president sets in motion will take one of two forms. It is generally conceded — particularly by the reform-minded elites — that it would be best to form a majority government. This has been the intent of the Iraqi political class since Nouri al Maliki began talking about a majority government for his (unrealized) third term in 2014. But while the aspiration to form this majority government is real, the question remains whether the elites have the will and the proper distribution of parliamentary seats to actually pull it off. Should this majority government be formed, it would consist of two of the three Shiite blocs, plus one of the two Sunni factions and an unspecified number of Kurds. In this case there would be one Shiite bloc, one Sunni faction, and perhaps some Kurds left outside the government to be in opposition. The default solution would be to again — as in 2014 and 2018 — form a national unity government in which all parties participate and hold ministries.
So who will be the Arab Shiite prime minister? Consensus seems to be that Mustafa Kadhimi is not especially likely to return for a second term. But unless a majority government is formed — in which case the prime minister would be from the majority Shiite party and almost certainly not Kadhimi — the prime minister will have certain characteristics. He will not be a formal member of any political party. He will have to be acceptable to Washington, Tehran, and the Iraqi Shiite religious establishment. He will need to be strong enough to perform the duties of his office, but not strong enough to truly threaten the parties that control the government. So, in other words, if it is not Kadhimi it will be someone who strongly resembles him and the characteristics that brought him to office.
Ultimately, the most important aspect of the Iraqi government will not be the faces leading it but rather the system they are leading. Is there a majority government with a clear program? Is that program Western-oriented? Is the government serious about executing infrastructure projects rather than dispensing patronage to parties and tribes? Can interests that do not have guns — those associated with the Tishreen protestors in particular — express their political preferences safely?
We are unlikely to know in the days immediately following the elections. The expected number of independent candidates who must be courted could easily drag the government formation process well into 2022. It may not be until early next year that it is clear who forms the largest bloc, which parties are working together, and who — if anyone — will not be in the government. These elections will require an extra measure of patience as observers — both in Iraq and elsewhere — attempt to discern what is happening in Iraq’s version of smoke-filled backrooms.
One thing is clear, however. Anyone concerned about the future of Iraq should be hoping for a majority government. If Iraq can begin the process of reform, start to build infrastructure, and gradually develop a non-oil economy, it would then have a fighting chance against the very real problems that the country’s elite has — to date — avoided confronting. Conversely, if Iraq’s politicians attempt to again muddle through and avoid making hard choices about Iraq’s path forward, then conditions could quickly worsen. Iraq’s elites may try to just keep playing the same game, but the chess board is crumbling beneath them.
Douglas Ollivant served as National Security Council Director for Iraq during the Bush and Obama administrations. He is a senior fellow at New America and the Foreign Policy Research Institute. He is a managing partner of Mantid International, a strategic consulting firm with offices in Washington, Beirut, Baghdad, and Guam, and a senior editor at War on the Rocks. Mantid International advises clients working in Federal Iraq.
Image: Xinhua (Photo by Meng Tao)