A promising new start for governance in Iraq?

Iraq has seen the appointment of both a new President and Prime Minister-designate over the last few days amid hopes that new leadership will bring about fresh solutions to prevailing issues in the country.

In accordance with Iraq’s post-Ba’athist constitution, confessionalism is the system by which the country’s highest offices are filled; the largely ceremonial role of President must be held by an Iraqi Kurd, the office of Prime Minister held by a Shi’a Arab, and that of the Speaker of the Council of Representatives held by a Sunni Arab.

Widely perceived as a moderate, former Prime Minister of Iraqi Kurdistan and former Vice-President of Iraq, Barham Salih, was earlier this month selected overwhelmingly by Members of the Council of Representatives to become the country’s next President by 219 votes of 273.

Within two hours, Salih had appointed Adel Abdul Mahdi as Prime Minister-designate in a move likely to have been influenced by the support for Abdul Mahdi’s candidacy among dominant Shi’a parties in the Council of Representatives, among whom the two biggest, Saairun and the Fatah Alliance, returned 54 and 48 Members respectively in May’s election.

Salih’s journey to high office has been a fascinating one; tortured in 1979 by the Ba’athist regime for his involvement with the Kurdish national movement, he fled to the UK initially for study at the universities of Cardiff and Liverpool, obtaining a doctorate at the latter, and subsequently went on to become an engineering consultant and overseas advocate for the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan Party, according to his now archived personal website.

Prime Minister-designate Abdul Mahdi similarly spent a number of years in self-imposed exile in France during Ba’athist rule; firstly to pursue doctorate studies in economics, and then for work at a number of think tanks and publishing houses.

On the back of his broadly successful tenure as Minister of Finance, during which he persuaded international creditors to wipe off up to 80% of Iraq’s debts, Abdul Mahdi previously ran for the premiership in 2006 and lost by just one vote. Mahdi also held the role of Vice-President at the time and continued in this capacity until 2011, surviving an apparent attempt on his life in 2006 whilst attending meetings at the Ministry of Public Works, and subsequently became Minister of Oil from 2014 until 2016.

So having got a sense of the faces behind the appointments, what are the main issues they are likely to be prioritising and what are the potential prospects for success?

The prospects for success certainly depend to a great extent on their ability to keep a lid on the political wrangling that delayed their appointments and the implementation of May’s election results, however inexplicit they were.

What might prove to be significant in this context is the fact that both Salih and Mahdi are seen as being able to conciliate the major political forces in the country; Shi’a cleric turned political leader of the country’s now biggest party, Muqtada al Sadr, is said to be supportive of the new direction “conditional on … performance.” However, the cause for hope in this context is significant due to Mahdi not having, as each of his predecessors has done since 2006, developed any affiliation with the Islamic Dawa Party so despised by al-Sadr.

Al-Sadr’s mass appeal and possession of the sort of large party apparatus in the form of Saairun that can be so important for maintaining mass appeal makes him an important ally, particularly if the holder of the office of Prime Minister, as is the case for the independent Mahdi, has no party apparatus of their own behind them.

Similarly significant given the Shi’a majority in Iraq is the reported blessing of Iraq’s influential Shiite cleric Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani of recent developments. Externally too, the President and Prime Minister-designate are on friendly terms with both Iran and the United States; the relationships with whom are among Iraq’s most important.

Beyond the political and international landscape, it will be vital to address some of the underlying issues that culminated in nationwide protest this summer, chief among which are corruption, creaking infrastructure, often poor sanitary conditions and water quality. To take the latter issue for example, the southern Iraqi province of Basra has been particularly affected by water supply issues to the extent that 60,000 people, including a top Baghdadi football team, have been hospitalised due to contaminated water.

Only time will tell as to whether Iraq’s new leadership will gain sufficient traction in moving the country forward, but with the success of initial meetings with key partners such as those between Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan and relatively new Iraqi Speaker Mohammed Rikan Hadeed al-Halbousi which happily concluded with a water supply relief deal, as well as that between Deputy Secretary of State John Sullivan and Prime Minister-designate Abdul Mahdi, who according to latest reports is preparing to submit his final choice of cabinet for approval, the future looks promising.

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