Iraqi leaders vow to move forward after dozens walk out of parliament
BAGHDAD (AP) — Iraqi leaders pledged on Monday to continue efforts to form a government following the shock resignation of 73 lawmakers from parliament during a prolonged political stalemate.
But the unprecedented mass withdrawal of members of the powerful Shia cleric Muqtada al-Sadr’s bloc is radically changing the political landscape, casting further doubt on the government formation talks.
It’s a huge gamble by al-Sadr, one of Iraq’s most influential politicians with a large following, leaving his political movement outside parliament for the first time since 2005.
This surprise decision is an attempt to break a persistent political deadlock eight months after the general elections were held.
Al-Sadr emerged victorious in the October vote, giving him 73 of the 329 seats in parliament. It was also a blow to its Iran-backed Shiite rivals who lost around two-thirds of their seats and rejected the results.
Since then, the two sides have been locked in a bitter competition for power, even as the country faces mounting challenges, including a looming food crisis stemming from a severe drought and war in Ukraine.
Al-Sadr intended to form, with his allies, a majority government that excludes Iranian-backed factions. But he was unable to muster enough lawmakers to secure the two-thirds majority needed to elect Iraq’s next president – a necessary step before appointing the next prime minister and choosing a cabinet.
On Sunday, he ordered his lawmakers to resign, calling it a “sacrifice” he was making for the good of the country. His cousin and candidate for prime minister, Jaafar al-Sadr, withdrew his candidacy on Monday.
“Muqtada’s withdrawal strengthens his political standing and will help him win the sympathy of the Iraqi street disenchanted and tired of politicians and the political process,” said political analyst Ihsan al-Shammari.
“He knows there are going to be street protests, and that will open up channels of communication with the protesters, making him the only survivor,” he added.
The question now is whether the political parties will be able to form a government with al-Sadr in opposition.
With the resignation of Sadrist MPs, Iran-backed groups are now expected to hold a majority in parliament.
According to Iraqi law, if a seat in parliament becomes vacant, the candidate with the second highest number of votes in the constituency takes the seat. In this case, it would be al-Sadr’s opponents of the so-called Coordination Framework, a coalition led by Iran-backed Shia parties and their allies.
“Any government in which Muqtada does not participate will be stillborn,” Shammari said. He also questioned whether Iran-backed parties would be able and willing to negotiate with Kurdish Democratic Party leader Masoud Barzani, with whom there is deep mutual distrust.
The election came several months ahead of schedule, in response to mass protests that erupted in late 2019 that saw tens of thousands rally against rampant corruption, poor services and unemployment.
Speaker of Parliament Mohammed Halbousi said on Monday that efforts to form the government would continue based on some “other political understandings”, without giving further details.
A Shia politician said he expected the political process to continue with the coordination framework, which will have more than 100 seats after al-Sadr steps down, seeking to form the next government.
“Negotiations will continue with the other Sunni and Kurdish blocs,” he said, speaking on condition of anonymity as he was not authorized to make official statements.
He said the next government could face protests or unrest on the streets, especially from al-Sadr supporters, and that its success would depend on the government’s ability to handle it.
A Coordinating Framework lawmaker who declined to be named admitted he was puzzled by al-Sadr’s withdrawal.
“We do not yet know the reasons for Muqtada’s withdrawal. … It was a surprise to all of us,” he said. The lawmaker pointed out that the resignations took place during the parliamentary recess and that there could still be new developments.
“We have a month for Parliament to return and anything is possible this month,” he said.