Adel Abdul-Mahdi—a former minister of finance, minister of oil, and vice president of Iraq—barely managed to secure a confidence vote for two-thirds of his cabinet on October 25. The former member of the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq (ISCI), a Shia Islamist party, was nominated prime minister on October 2. But he has since nearly failed to launch his government, which will face pressure from a population frustrated by years of failures on security and public services.
The roots of Abdul-Mahdi’s weak government lie in the manner in which the prime minister himself was elected. After he resigned as minister of oil in 2016, Abdul-Mahdi left ISCI to become an independent and did not run in the May 2018 parliamentary elections. However, on May 23 he published a Facebook post explaining why he could not be prime minister because all the reforms he would want to implement would be opposed by many. These included such broad changes as moving away from the rentier state, strengthening state institutions and ensuring their independence from political influence, reining in illegal militia activity, and reducing the influence of tribalism.
This pitch aligned well with the rhetorical vision of populist Shia cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, who has long associated himself with such themes. The political class was focused for much of the summer on the struggle over Haider al-Abadi’s effort to secure a second term. Yet once the fallout over Basra’s massive water pollution crisis ended Abadi’s hopes in early September, Sadr quickly backed Abdul-Mahdi as a replacement, and Barham Salih designated him to head the next government immediately after his own election as president on October 2. Sadr conditioned his support two days later by declaring that he was giving Abdul-Mahdi “a period of one year to prove his success.” This gives Sadr the option to take credit for the government’s success if it does well or turn against it next year if protests over poor public services swell again.
Moreover, the coalition nominating him was unclear and fractured. Although Sadr was the driver behind his nomination, the only figure who actually ran in the election whose approval was essential for Abdul-Mahdi’s candidacy was Hadi al-Ameri—leader of the Badr Organization and head of the Fatah Alliance, which with 48 seats is the second largest in parliament after the 54 for Sadr’s Sairun. The process was so opaque that Iraqi journalists were uncertain which of these blocs had nominated him.
Sadr and Amiri, being political rivals with very different worldviews, also never agreed on a specific policy program or even a method of choosing ministers, with Sairun giving Abdul-Mahdi full discretion to nominate their share of the ministries while Amiri’s Fatah insisted on naming specific ministers. Furthermore, Abdul-Mahdi conducted separate bilateral negotiations for ministerial positions with Nouri al-Maliki’s State of Law Coalition (SLC) and the Sunni Arab National Axis Alliance, even though they were technically both part of Amiri’s Construction Bloc (Bina). Without agreements with both parties, they likely would have blocked passage of his cabinet, but this situation also underlines Abdul-Mahdi’s lack of a unified coalition. His bilateral agreements with parties do nothing to bind them to each other into a working majority capable of passing legislation or approving executive appointments.
The lack of a real coalition behind the new government became evident when parliament met to approve the proposed cabinet on October 24. Abdul-Mahdi got off on the wrong foot during his speech presenting his government program by failing to make more than passing reference to the demands of Sunni Arab MPs—such as reconstruction and the return of Sunni provinces’ displaced citizens. This led Speaker Mohamed al-Halbousi of Anbar to push through a motion to incorporate a list of Sunni demands into Abdul-Mahdi’s prepared text regarding the government’s program, holding a vote to approve his statement before the body could proceed to consider ministers.
As Speaker Halbousi then moved to hold votes approve individual ministers, Sadr’s Sairun bloc, putatively his biggest supporter, declared that they objected to several of the ministerial nominees from other blocs, such as the outgoing Hashd militia leader Falih al-Fayyad’s nomination as minister of interior. They alleged that some were former Baath members and others face corruption or other criminal charges, and thus parliament could not go forward with their confirmation. The problem is, having negotiated the ministerial appointments bilaterally with each bloc right up until that afternoon, Abdul-Mahdi had not provided blocs with the names of his nominees until about five hours before the meeting.
Parliament took what was supposed to be a 30-minute break that went on for much longer, and near midnight it appeared Abdul-Mahdi would fail. Bloc leaders then emerged with a compromise to pass just 14 of the 21 ministers originally submitted. The most important of those approved included Minister of Foreign Affairs Muhammad Ali al-Hakim, Minister of Oil Thamir al-Ghadhban, Minister of Finance Fuad Hussein, and Minister of Electricity Luay al-Khatteeb. All passed on a voice vote, and the passage of the majority of the cabinet allowed Abdul-Mahdi to take the oath of office in the early morning of October 25. However, among the important positions left unfilled were the minister of interior, the minister of defense, and the minister of justice.
Amiri’s Iran-aligned Fatah Alliance and their Sunni allies obtained some lesser ministries, and so were not entirely empty-handed. But they failed in their most important goal, which was to get Fayyad confirmed as minister of interior. Likewise, they failed to have Asma Salim Sadiq, an otherwise unknown figure whose brother heads the pro-Iran Chaldean Babilyon Brigades, as minister of justice. Aside from leaving the position unfilled, her rejection meant that there are no women in the cabinet. Meanwhile, Sadr was able to show that his bloc was able to veto the prime minister and prevented the election of the Fatah-aligned ministers to which he most strongly objected.
Abdul-Mahdi’s effort to fill his cabinet continues to face resistance. Parliament was scheduled to hold a vote on new nominations on November 6, but despite predictions that at least a few ministers would pass, parliament did not consider any of them, and has not yet scheduled a further vote on nominees. In addition, reports indicate that between two and four of the fourteen ministers approved on October 25 face imminent impeachment threats. The grounds for impeachment include allegations of unresolved corruption charges, former membership in the Baath Party, and even an accusation that Minister of Sports Ahmad al-Obeidi is wanted for a murder committed in 2004.
Without a strong coalition backing him, Abdul-Mahdi is already facing his first policy crisis over the passage of the 2019 budget. He was moving forward with an amended version of the one drafted by the outgoing ministry of finance, expecting to have it introduced into parliament on November 6 despite objections from both Sunni Arab and Kurdish MPs. The Sunni criticism focused on the large disparity in capital spending for Shia-majority provinces versus Sunni-majority provinces, which have traditionally received the same amounts per capita. During the session, instead of conducting a formal “first reading” of the bill to be followed by debate, MPs launched into a two-hour long tirade in which every major bloc, particularly the Sunnis but also the Sadrists, strongly criticized the bill as inadequate. Parliament voted to wait for the government to agree to amendments before proceeding.
At a time when Iraq needs a strong government with a clear policy program for addressing the nation’s challenges, the new premier is already struggling. With no popular mandate and no stable coalition, Abdul-Mahdi seems set to face an uphill battle each time he wants legislation passed or a nominee approved.
Kirk H. Sowell is the proprietor of Utica Risk Services, a Middle East-focused risk consultancy. Follow him on Twitter @uticarisk.