Iraq’s legislators have voted in a new president, breaking a year-long deadlock that has gripped the politically fragile nation since the last nationwide elections were held.
As rockets pummelled Baghdad’s heavily fortified green zone on Thursday, Abdul Latif Rashid, 78, a veteran Kurdish politician and former minister, defeated the incumbent president Barham Salih in a second round of voting by secret ballot. Rashid immediately appointed Muhammed Shia’ al-Sudani as prime minister, paving the way for a government to be formed within the constitutionally mandated 30-day period.
For many Iraqis, it was welcome news following a year of turbulence and instability, rooted in a bitter political feud between Shia cleric Moqtada al-Sadr and his Iran-backed rivals — known as the Co-ordination Framework — who had failed to agree on the composition of a government.
The protracted stand-off plunged Iraq into one of its worst crises since the US-led invasion toppled Saddam Hussein in 2003 and marked the longest period of time the country had been without a functioning government since the first US-backed elections in 2005.
The feud spilt out on to the streets this summer, as supporters of both factions held sit-ins in central Baghdad, taking over government buildings and blocking roads. Then came the worst street fighting the capital had seen in years, triggered when Sadr — whose political movement had won the largest number of seats in last October’s election — decided to withdraw from politics and had his 73 parliamentarians resign.
The mercurial cleric then called for the dissolution of parliament and for new elections, a gambit that failed and led to bloodshed. Dozens of people were killed in the clashes until Sadr pulled his loyalists off the streets, leaving him politically weakened. His rivals, now the largest bloc in parliament with the power to appoint the premier, seized on his diminished stature — a strategy which finally bore fruit on Thursday.
Sudani, an MP who later served as water resources minister, then labour and human rights minister, is a close ally of former prime minister Nouri al-Maliki, one of the main players in the Co-ordination Framework. Analysts cautioned that the Iran-backed alliance’s victory would be a setback for Washington, which had tacitly been backing a Sadr-led government.
Sudani’s backers say his proven record in local and federal government mean he can assemble a competent government capable of addressing some of oil-rich Iraq’s ills, chief among them rampant corruption and crumbling public infrastructure.
But others caution that his nomination is a breakthrough in name only: Iraq’s political system is designed around sectarian power-sharing, in which the president is a Kurd, the prime minister a Shia Muslim and the speaker of parliament a Sunni Muslim. Because of its reliance on consensus, it leads to constant horse-trading between factions competing for top government jobs and sources of patronage.
“Just because they’ve managed to bring together Sunni, Shia and Kurdish leaders to form a government — [this] doesn’t address the deep political tensions in the country. And it doesn’t address the deep sense of alienation of the Iraqi people from the political elite,” said Renad Mansour, Iraq initiative director at Chatham House.
Indeed, only 40% of Iraqis turned out to vote in last October’s election, with many decrying the country’s broken political system and corrupt elite.
“Today is being heralded as a breakthrough for the stalemate. But we’re still seeing the same cast of characters dominating the political scene since 2003, who have stifled reform and sanctioned political corruption which harms Iraqis every day,” Mansour said.
Thursday’s vote was the fourth attempt to elect a president this year and took place shortly after a volley of nine rockets hit the capital’s green zone, which houses government buildings and foreign embassies. No one had taken credit for the attack by nightfall. At least 10 people were injured, including members of the security forces, a statement from the military said.