Almost three months after the early general elections in Iraq, the first session of the newly elected legislature was held last Sunday.
The session was broadcast by various satellite TV channels, and at first glance it looked like a show. Members of the Sadrist Bloc were putting shrouds on their clothing as if to say they were ready to die to achieve their goals. The Imtidad Bloc that represents the October 2019 protesters came to the building by tok-tok, a vehicle used by the protesters to evacuate killed and wounded demonstrators.
Mohamed Al-Zayadi, a newly elected lawmaker from the Muthana governorate 289 km south of Baghdad, came wearing a torn dishdasha (traditional Iraqi dress) to express the poverty in his province, for the last two decades the poorest in Iraq.
The session was also postponed from 11 am to 3 pm because some blocs had meetings, but every bloc attended, especially the Coordinating Framework that consists of the Shia parties that lost some of their seats in the last elections, and the State of Law Bloc of former prime minister Nuri Al-Maliki, that won more seats than in previous elections.
The session was due to elect the speaker and his two deputies and was chaired by Mahmoud Al-Mashhadani, the oldest MP and former speaker, according to the Iraqi Constitution and the parliament’s rules of procedure.
It was going to plan until a MP from the Coordinating Framework asked the chair to accept its request as the largest bloc in parliament, according to the constitution, that it should nominate the incoming prime minister. The result was chaos, and Al-Mashhadani was taken to hospital suffering from an unidentified illness. Some said he had been attacked when he said that he is going to review the names and number of the MPs.
Third-oldest MP Khaled Al-Daraji then chaired the session, and the members of the Coordinating Framework withdrew. Mohamed Al-Halbousi (Taqadum and Azem Alliance), a former speaker (2018-2021) was re-elected with 200 votes as the new speaker of parliament, and Hakim Al-Zamily, a Sadrist, and Shakhwan Abdullah (Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP)) were elected as the first and the second deputy speakers, with Al-Mashhadani, also standing, receiving only 14 votes.
Celebrations then took place in many Iraqi provinces to mark the first step in forming a new government. However, the Coordinating Framework refused the outcomes of the session, insisting that they be taken to the Iraqi Constitutional Court. When Al-Halbousi and his two deputies chaired the first session of parliament, the Sadrist Bloc submitted a list of names to Al-Halbousi to have itself registered as the largest bloc.
Some political analysts say that Muqtada Al-Sadr, whose bloc has 76 seats in the new parliament, achieved his goal of a national alliance that does not depend on the sectarian power-sharing policy in Iraq, because the Sadrists (Shia) and the Kurds voted for Al-Halbousi, a Sunni Muslim. However, others said that regional countries had been backing Al-Halbousi and had succeeded in splitting the unity of the Shia blocs.
MPs who voted for Al-Halbousi said that nobody had attacked Al-Mashhadani, while others from the Coordinating Framework said that he had been attacked.
The first session of the parliament was adjourned by Al-Halbousi after he had asked the blocs to nominate their candidates for the position of president of Iraq, with the election for the position taking place in parliament on 15 February. The elected president will then ask the largest Shia bloc in parliament to nominate the new prime minister.
Abdel-Ameer Majer, a political analyst, told Al-Ahram Weekly that the formation of the new government would be easier than for previous governments because “what happened in the inauguration session indicated that there is a hidden alliance among the three largest forces, the Sadrists, Sunnis and Kurds.” The Sadrists’ 76 seats, the largest among the Shia blocs, are followed by the Taqadum and Azem Alliance with 34 seats, the largest Sunni bloc, and the KDP with 34 seats, the largest of the Kurdish parties.
Majer said that these three blocs, along with independent MPs, are looking forward to getting rid of the trap of sectarianism in Iraq, adding that “this goal achieved 200 votes for Al-Halbousi and might show that the largest bloc has actually been achieved, not necessarily under a single name, but with a largely unified vision.”
“The US and some influential Arab countries and Turkey were pushing in this direction in order to extract Iraq from the grip of Iran,” he said, adding that the undeclared quartet of Al-Sadr, Al-Halbousi, and the independents, supported on general lines by the KDP, would outline the programmes of the new parliament and the coming government, which means leaving sectarian sharing-power to a large bloc that is already sharing power.
Many analysts described the election of the speaker as a democratic step that would ease the formation of the new government. Mohamed Al-Shaboot, a journalist and former head of the Iraqi Media Network, labelled what happened last Sunday as “black Sunday,” however, being unconvinced that it represented a step forward.
He told the Weekly that for years he had been saying that Iraqi democracy is fragile and reversible, “because it is a democracy without democrats.” He added that the “people and parties who took control after 2003 did not believe in democracy, because they were either graduates of ideological schools that did not accept democracy, considering it a Western and colonial system, or because they were the children of the illiberal ideology imposed by the Baath Party regime from 1968 to 2003.”
“Reports by the [UK] Economist Intelligence Unit have validated my predictions regarding Iraqi democracy, which has continued declining from a ‘flawed democracy’ to a ‘hybrid regime’ and finally an ‘authoritarian regime’,” he said.
“What is happening in Iraq is a rapid descent and a decline in the requirements of the modern state in favour of a factional populism centred around one person with a mixture of religious feeling and a personality cult. It is a phenomenon that the Iraqi people became accustomed to during the years of [former president] Saddam Hussein (1979-2003), and they do not find it difficult to see it again in the personality of a political or religious leader or both. A political situation with these characteristics cannot produce a modern democratic state.”
A former MP also told the Weekly on condition of anonymity that the formation of the new government would see two possibilities: either a four-year coalition government or a one-year majority government.
The coalition would be between the Sadrist Bloc and the Coordinating Framework, since if one formed a government at the expense of the other, the other would go into opposition and obstruct government work.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 13 January, 2022 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.