Baghdad, Iraq – After nearly eight months of the Iraqi parliament’s repeated failure to form a government, influential Shia religious leader – and the biggest winner of Iraq’s October parliamentary elections – Muqtada al-Sadr decided enough was enough.
On Sunday, he ordered the Sadrist Movement bloc, 73 members of parliament, to submit its resignation – which it duly did.
If, and when, the resignations are finalised, they will allow the second-place vote winner from October’s elections in each vacated district to take the empty seat.
The question now is – why has al-Sadr chosen to go down this route, and what will happen next
According to analysts, the resignations will not spell an end to Iraq’s political crisis. Instead, the process of refilling the vacant seats will likely lead to a new wave of intense debate, and potentially street protests.
“It will reconfigure the balance of powers, which means that extension of post-election uncertainty period,” said Abbas Kadhim, director of the Iraq Initiative at the Atlantic Council. “Don’t expect a government formed soon.”
For months, al-Sadr, who presents himself as a critic of both Iranian and American influence in Iraq, has tried to form a “national majority government”, essentially placing his Sadrist Movement and its allies as the majority while creating an opposition that would largely consist of Iran-backed political groups.
If it had succeeded, it would have brought about an unprecedented deviation from the current muhasasa (quota-based) arrangement which is built on ethno-sectarian power sharing among Shia, Sunni, and Kurdish groups.
It would also have struck a huge blow to Iran’s political influence in Iraq, as Iran has largely backed Shia groups that have been able to come together with other Shia Muslims and form a majority.
However, despite al-Sadr’s impressive win in the election, which helped his bloc secure 73 out of 329 seats, Iraqi law requires a supermajority, namely two-thirds of the vote, to elect a president.
Al-Sadr’s efforts to create alliances have fallen short of passing that threshold.
“He may have won the most seats in 2021, but it is not the most we have seen in the past and those with seats in the 90s range have struggled to form a government,” said Hamzeh Hadad, a visiting fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations.
Al-Sadr is not going away
On the surface, al-Sadr’s withdrawal signals that he has given up on participating in Iraq’s increasingly complex politics, as he threatened to do in the past. However, the reality is that al-Sadr will remain politically influential, whether his supporters are in or out of parliament.
Should the withdrawal materialise, the ball will be in the court of the Coordination Framework Alliance (CFA), al-Sadr’s main opponent during the government formation process.
Many of the seats vacated by the Sadrists will be filled by the Shia parties in the CFA, such as former Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s State of Law and the Fatah Alliance, the political wing of the Iran-backed Popular Mobilisation Forces, or Hashd, militia.
Yet their trajectory in Iraqi politics will not be as rosy as it may seem.
By quitting the parliament, one of al-Sadr’s goals is to delegitimise his more sectarian rivals, according to Thanassis Cambanis, director of the Century Foundation’s Center for International Research and Policy, a New York-based think tank.
“With no Sadrist in Parliament, rivals cannot claim [to] represent [the] entire Shia house … legitimacy further erodes [because of the] optics of a losing minority taking overwhelming power,” he wrote on Twitter.
Al-Sadr’s visible effort to break the gridlock and align with Sunni parties and the Kurdish Democratic Party (KDP), which stands in contrast with the Iran-backed groups in the Coordination Framework, will also be used by al-Sadr to claim that he “went the further out of any party to break this form of [consensus] government,” according to Hadad.
As the political showdown drags on, al-Sadr can use this round of resignations to showcase that he is committed to democratic and majority rule, but that it had only been hindered by the tight grip of other political parties on power under the muhasasa arrangement.
A potential government without the biggest winner in the parliamentary election might lead to a few scenarios, according to Kadhim, including another round of elections if parliament decides to dissolve itself, or a compromise government that will be tasked with holding an early election.
“A new election is always on the table, whether it happens now by not being able to form a government, or … after a government is finally formed,” said Hadad.
Mass grassroots protests might also occur as the Iraqi political landscape scrambles to fully understand what this means and how to properly handle al-Sadr’s withdrawal.
“Even groups who don’t trust Sadr will join against [the] corrupt and broken system,” Cambanis said. “By defecting from [the] system, Sadr escapes responsibility while retaining [a] network of state bureaucrats.”
As for the people Iraqi politicians are supposed to represent, many are even more frustrated, especially those who participated in the Tishreen mass demonstrations in 2019 that eventually brought down the former prime minister, Adil Abdul-Mahdi.
The systematic change the protesters demanded has not occurred and now, as Iraq enters its deadly hot summer, anger at the lack of government services is exacerbated by what many describe as a “political game”.
“Sadr and his foes could play all the games they want, but the Iraqi people are continuing to suffer from heat and sandstorms,” said Ali Mohammed, a 24-year-old from Baghdad. “They only care about their political gains and losses.”