|Pres Salah, Speaker Halbusi, PM Designate Mahdi (Al Masalah)|
October 2, 2018 Iraq took a big step towards forming a new government five months after elections. First, Barham Salah, who recently rejoined the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) was elected the country’s new president. He immediately named Adel Abdul Mahdi as his pick to be the next prime minister. This is the first time since 2005 a Dawa member will not be holding the top office. Mahdi was selected by Moqtada al-Sadr and had the backing of Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani. Mahdi now has 30 days to form a cabinet. The selection of these two candidates broke rules and precedent.
The election of Salah reflected the divisions within the Kurdish bloc. Since 2005 the presidency has not only been a Kurd but come from the PUK. That party has been facing internal divisions since the death of its founder former President Jalal Talabani. That led the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) to make its own nomination for the office Fuad Hussein. The KDP attempted to make a deal with the PUK, including a last minute meeting on October 2, but failed to find consensus. That led Massoud Barzani to criticize the vote saying it didn’t follow norms of the president coming from the Kurdish bloc. The two parties have been moving apart since the September 2017 independence referendum and the federal government’s move back into the disputed territories. The two maintain a political alliance, but it’s obvious that it has its limits.
More importantly the nomination of Mahdi violated the rules of how a government is to be formed. After an election, the winning parties are to form the largest bloc and have the right to name the next prime minister to form a new administration. This year the Shiite parties are split between one led by Moqtada al-Sadr and the other by Hadi Amiri. Each has brought other parties and individual parliamentarians into two major blocs and claim that they are the biggest. This has not been resolved, but the two agreed to back Mahdi. Sadr even sent out a message that “Iraq is bigger than the largest bloc.” Iraq is known for having weak rule of law, but this was taking it to a new level. Just as important Mahdi is an independent, and if he doesn’t have an alliance standing behind him his job will be extra difficult as he has no base. Will he be at the whim of two competing parties? Will he be able to play one off the other? What happens if there is a political crisis or Mahdi is removed or steps down, where will the next premier come from? Perhaps Sadr and Amiri will eventually come together and this will all take care of itself, but it shows that they are taking political expediency over following the rules, which shows that the elite can manipulate the system when they want.
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