by Raad Alkadiri
Najaf takes a stand
Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani and the Marjaiʻyah in Najaf have largely kept their powder dry since the 12 May elections, refraining from any overt interference in the government-formation process. Not so any more.
In his Friday sermon on 27 July, delivered in Karbala by one of his most senior representatives, Abd al-Mahdi al-Karbalai, Sistani was damning in his condemnation of Iraq’s political leaders, criticising them for their failure to tackle corruption and improve services, and accusing them of putting personal and party concerns ahead of public interest.
He called on the current caretaker government to take appropriate measures to begin to meet the demands of protestors while urging the rapid formation of a new coalition. This new government, Sistani said, should be selected on the basis of competence and expertise, and led by a prime minister brave and determined enough to battle administrative and financial corruption. The government’s performance must be the full responsibility of the next premier; if it did not deliver tangible results, Sistani warned, Iraqis would have no option but to escalate peaceful protests.
Sistani’s ‘reform or else’ broadside was unambiguous, putting the Marjaiʻyah firmly on the side of the protests that have spread across southern Iraq over the past few weeks. It also stripped Islamist Shiʻa leaders – who have dominated government since 2003 – of any remaining claim to Najaf’s unequivocal backing. Stripped of this veneer of legitimacy, these parties are left as discredited among their constituency as their Kurdish and Sunni counterparts are among theirs.
New urgency for government formation
The most immediate impact of Sistani’s sermon is likely to be on government formation. Pressure to conclude the ongoing manual recount will increase, with most of the main parties having signaled that they will not challenge the results; the PUK remains the most notable exception (it could be joined by others depending on the outcome). In the meantime, discussions among the political factions over power-sharing will take on new resolve.
But Sistani’s speech complicates the process by making it clear that results not inclusiveness are the Marjaiʻyah’s priorities. Najaf will not support a ‘big-tent’ coalition that includes all of Iraq’s big parties just so that these factions can protect their own interests (which is exactly what Iraq’s leaders are in the process of agreeing). Ethno-sectarian balance and factional inclusiveness are not priorities for Najaf; it wants to see reform, and it will back a majority government so long as it is formed on the basis of an agreed set of policy goals.
The Marjaiʻyah’s interjection potentially alters the balance of power among Iraq’s competing factions. Having lost ground since the election results were announced to rivals wedded to the status-quo, Muqtada al-Sadr’s Saairun list – which won a plurality of seats in the new Council of Representatives by championing reform – may regain the initiative as it is the only faction that can credibly claim to represent Sistani’s agenda. As such, it could now set the terms for the alliances it needs to form a parliamentary bloc big enough to have the first shot at forming a government.
Saairun will still face tough competition from the other big Islamist Shiʻa parties, which will seek to link themselves to Sistani’s call for change. But with the possible exception of Ammar al-Hakim’s Wisdom Movement (al-Hikma), they now have a credibility problem: as the guardians of the state since 2003, there is no doubt that the Marjaiʻyah’s criticism was aimed directly at them. Sistani’s sermon could also damage the interests of non-Shiʻa factions, including the two main Kurdish parties, the KDP and PUK. Both are dogged proponents of the post-2003 ethno-sectarian formula, and insist that a new government, and its policies, must be based on the principle of consensus among all. An issues-driven, majority government may run against this agenda, and while it is unlikely that a coalition will be devoid of any Kurdish representation (although that happened in 2014), Najaf’s message has robbed the KDP and PUK of some of their political leverage.
Sistani’s sermon is also a blow to Abadi’s hopes of a second term. Although the Prime Minister’s immediate response was to align himself with the Marjaiʻyah’s call and to suspend his Minister of Electricity, it is hard not to interpret the speech as an implicit criticism of Abadi and his performance. His failure to seize past opportunities to implement reform, despite their support for such efforts.
Will Sistani’s comments change anything?
However, unless Najaf is willing to actively dictate the make-up of a new government (which it has refused to do in the past), its eventual influence on the process could be limited. Sistani’s sermon was something of a ‘last chance’ message, but it is not clear that the major factions – other than Saairun and al-Hikma – will change course because of it. After all, Najaf has not proposed a list of preferred candidates for the premiership and the cabinet nor will it. The decision is still being left up to the parties themselves.
Consequently, the rhetoric and speed of government formation may alter, but faced with a direct challenge to their interests, the major factions – Shiʻa, Kurdish and Sunni – may seek to act in concert to protect their prerogatives by defying Sistani and forming another ‘big tent’ administration. There will be the promise of reform, but measures will be thin on the ground. Abadi may be sacrificed, although he is clearly mounting a rear-guard action and could yet emerge as a compromise least-worst alternative.
The reality is that, while Sistani’s critique damages their popular legitimacy, few – if any – among the political elite are worried about accountability. Just as they brushed aside the messages of the elections and the protests, senior party figures may ignore the hubbub caused by the Marjaiʻyah’s comments and hope it will subside. Put simply, Iraq’s leaders appear to believe that they can contain demonstrations through promises and repression, especially as protestors lack cohesion and national organisation. Moreover, the Islamist Shiʻa parties know that Najaf’s support for them has been waning for some time.
The consequences of preserving the political status quo could be profound. A government modeled on past political deals is unlikely to begin implementing the types of reform that Iraq needs to improve administration and tackle corruption. It is more likely to focus on short-term fixes that increase the burden on the public sector and state finances rather than introducing a structural reform agenda. In the meantime, it will continue to preserve the interests and prerogatives of the political parties that make it up. In other words, the current ‘Green Zone system’ will be perpetuated.
This approach will test the prevailing assumption that protests can be contained and will not develop a national organisational structure. Moreover, it will likely add fuel to the fire to demands for greater decentralisation similar to the ones that have recently reemerged in Basra, where calls for making the provinces a KRG-style region have been revived in the wake of the protests.
Baghdad has been able to fend off such calls in the past, and it has been able to use its control over the national purse strings to its advantage. However, there are now clear signs of a population and local government that are willing to challenge the federal government’s monopoly over power. If this pattern continues, and the new government is not able to introduce meaningful change, the consequences are likely to be heightened instability and growing threats to political authority across Iraq.