Iraq’s Leader Is Betting on a Hung Parliament to Retain Power
(Bloomberg Opinion) -- Days ahead of Iraq’s general election, Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi claims he has no skin in the game. Since he is keeping his pledge not to run for parliament, this will be the first time, Kadhimi boasted in a tweet, that a sitting prime minister will not be standing in the election.
But this is no more than a piece of political kabuki. Kadhimi may not be a candidate for parliament but he is definitely running to remain prime minister.
He’s counting on Sunday’s vote to produce yet another hung parliament, leading to a repetition of the last go-around, when none of the heads of the major blocs was able to stake a claim to leading the government. After a great deal of wrangling among themselves, they settled on a compromise candidate, the political lightweight Adel Abdul Mahdi. Two years later, after anti-government street protests forced Abdul Mahdi to resign, the grandees went through another pointless tug-of-war before elevating Kadhimi, a flyweight, to the role.
This time, Kadhimi is signaling through his proxies, they should save themselves and the country a great deal of aggravation and simply keep him on. Most analysts agree a hung parliament is the likeliest outcome. So Kadhimi’s decision not to run may give the impression of crafty statesmanship. In truth, it is his only play.
The prime minister has no political organization of his own, and has done little in the past two years to build a significant following among voters. Had he stood for election without the backing of a major coalition, there is a not-negligible chance he’d have lost. Staying out saves him that embarrassment, and staying neutral makes him acceptable to all blocs.
For the dominant Shiite factions — one pro-Iranian the other Iraqi-nationalist — it may suffice that Kadhimi is from the majority sect. Sunni and Kurdish parties will take satisfaction from the fact that his outlook is for the most part secular.
Kadhimi’s candidature will likely be endorsed by the main foreign actors in the theater of Iraqi politics. As prime minister, he has managed to maintain a balance between the U.S. and Iran. In recent weeks, he has made trips to Washington, where he and President Joe Biden agreed to a deal to end American combat operations in Iraq, and to Tehran, where he was the first foreign leader to meet the new president, Ebrahim Raisi.
He has also made himself useful to the Gulf Arab states as an intermediary in their long-standing dispute with the Islamic Republic. By hosting Arab-Iranian talks in Baghdad, Kadhimi has earned brownie points with the leaders of Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, the crown princes Mohammed bin Salman and Mohammed bin Zayed, respectively. He has even managed to make nice with Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan over their mutual concern about militant groups in Iraqi Kurdistan.
These leaders, who will not be voting in Sunday’s election, will be satisfied with the outcome if Kadhimi stays in his job. But if things pan out the way Kadhimi hopes they will, those who do show up to the polling booth will have no say in who leads the next government.
It is doubly a shame because there was some hope that this election might go differently from the five that went before. Thanks to a new electoral law, Iraqis will this time vote for individual candidates rather than party slates. Under the previous system, members of parliament were entirely beholden to their parties; the new rules are designed to make them responsible for specific constituencies and therefore answerable to those who elected them.
That should also make it easier for non-aligned candidates to stand up to the might of the parties. Yet the country’s most prominent independent politician — its prime minister — doesn’t care to be answerable to voters, or dare to challenge the old order.
Unsurprisingly, polls suggest voters are already deeply disillusioned with the process. Young Iraqis are especially pessimistic about the prospects of change, and may be inclined to heed calls for a boycott of the election. As a result, the turnout may not even match the 44% recorded five years ago.
This may not matter much to the prime minister and those rooting for him from foreign capitals. But it augurs ill for Iraqi democracy.
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.
Bobby Ghosh is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist. He writes on foreign affairs, with a special focus on the Middle East and Africa.
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