Iraq’s newly elected parliament held its first session on Monday as two rival blocs, both claiming to hold the most seats, vied for the right to form a new government.
The parliament meeting followed more than three months after the May 12 polls, the first since Iraq declared victory over the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL, also known as ISIS) group late last year.
With 54 seats, Sadr’s Sairoon coalition had won the elections, while Abadi’s al-Nasr coalition came in third with 42 seats. However, no electoral coalition secured a clear majority in the polls.
The new bloc includes religious and ethnic groups, such as Shia and Sunni Arabs and Turkmen, as well as Yazidi and Christian minorities.
A total of 166 MPs are required to form a coalition in the 329-seat parliament, which in turn would form the country’s new government and name the new prime minister.
The Sadr-Abadi alliance claimed it had a majority of the seats, which was contested by former Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, who formed an alliance with militia commander Hadi al-Ameri.
Neither alliance included the two main Kurdish parties, placing them to reprise the kingmaker role they have historically played, as their combined 43 seats would give whichever alliance they join a sizable numerical advantage.
I don't think the Americans will accept any role for the Iranians in Iraq.
Ahmed Rushdi, a former parliamentary speaker and a member of the House of Iraqi Expertise Foundation told Al Jazeera that due to these differing claims of majority seats, there is still no clear vision yet as to which bloc will end up forming the government.
“The most important thing is that until now [parliament] still hasn’t managed to [put forward] candidates for the prime minister, president and the parliamentary speaker,” he said.
After the US-led invasion that toppled Saddam Hussein in 2003, the leadership positions are held by Iraq’s three largest ethnic-sectarian components – a Shia, Kurd and Sunni respectively.
Rushdi said that a protracted process in forming a government is likely, pointing out that in the previous 2010 election, it took 11 months for a government to be made.
This time around, however, there are two foreign players on the ground: Iraqi allies and archrivals, the Iranians and the Americans.
“I don’t think the Americans will accept any role for the Iranians in Iraq and have been threatening to use economic blockage if the next Iraqi government will be close to Tehran,” he said.
Al-Ameri and al-Maliki are Iran’s two most prominent allies in Iraq. Abadi is seen as the preferred candidate of the US, while Sadr portrays himself as a nationalist who rejects both American and Iranian influence.
Rebuilding the country
In addition to balancing relations between Iran and the US, the new government will be tasked with rebuilding the country after a three-year war with ISIL.
Furthermore, uncertainty over the composition of the new government has raised tensions at a time when public impatience is growing over poor basic services, high unemployment and the slow pace of reconstruction.
Nader Hashemi, a professor at the University of Denver, told Al Jazeera that there is hope that al-Sadr and al-Maliki’s alliance, as the “most inclusive and representative since the 2003 US invasions” will begin to address these issues.
“Most of the key players have a nationalist political agenda that is geared towards developing Iraq for all of Iraqi citizens not catering to the ethnic or sectarian interest of a particular group,” he said. “So in that sense, there’s a lot to be optimistic about.”
Mamoon Alabbasi, a political analyst focusing on the Middle East and North Africa, was more cautious about just how representative al-Sadr’s alliance would be.
“It is common for Shia-led political alliances to include members of other communities,” he told Al Jazeera.
“How much influence do these members have or what kind of treatment their communities will receive is the real test. Otherwise, the diverse makeup is cosmetic.”
‘Stakes are huge’
Hashemi acknowledged however that whether al-Sadr alliance will be able to address the immense political and socioeconomic challenges that Iraqi society is afflicted with, such as unemployment, corruption, and the delivering of public services, remains to be seen.
“The stakes are huge,” he explained. “Iraq is a failed state. It’s been deeply affected by a sectarian war and by the rise of ISIL – which has been comprehensively crushed but not defeated,” Hashemi added.
Abbasi said that the rebuilding of Sunni-majority provinces, especially Anbar and Nineveh, has taken a backseat.
“Talk of reconstructing these areas was abundant following Iraq’s victory against the ISIL, and it peaked during the donor conference in Kuwait early this year,” he said.
“But now the focus for the current and incoming governments is on dealing with the protests in the Shia-majority south.”
For several months now, tens of thousands of Iraqis, in several provinces such as Basra, Najaf and Karbala, have been demonstrating against the lack of clean drinking water and electricity cuts, but their demands have yet to be met.
“The incoming government will likely start by making short-term fixes for the unemployment and poor services crises,” Abbasi said.
“However, if the government wants to go deeper than merely addressing the symptoms of some of Iraq’s problems, then there will be no escaping the fight to root out corruption.”