Can Iraq’s new prime minister solve its old problems?

Adel Abdul Mahdi will have a better chance of forging the political consensus that has eluded his predecessors.

Iraq''s parliament elects Barham Salih as president
Adel Abdul-Mahdi was given a mandate to form the government on October 2, 2018 [Anadolu]

Adel Abdul Mahdi, Iraq’s new prime minister, has embarked on the difficult task of negotiating a new government. After months of post-election deliberations and delays due to intra-Kurdish tensions, he was named premier by the newly elected Iraqi president Barham Salih.

Abdul Mahdi is largely seen as Iraq’s “compromise candidate”, approved by the two rival Shia blocs in parliament. His main challenge ahead would be to manage the competing interests of these camps, while also addressing the demands of the Kurdish parties and Arab Sunni forces.

Most importantly, he will have to face a disgruntled Iraqi public which is increasingly demonstrating its rejection of establishment politics.

Who is Adel Abdul Mahdi?

Abdul Mahdi’s family hails from the Shia landed and clerical elites. In his youth, he was a fervent supporter of the Baathist Party before rejecting its ideology and leaving for France on a self-imposed exile. He settled in Paris where he studied economics and adopted communist views, eventually joining the Iraqi Communist Party (ICP).

Then in the 1980s, Abdul Mahdi went through another political transformation, influenced by the Islamic Revolution in Iran in 1979. He joined the ranks of the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI), which Ayatollah Khomeini had founded as an opposition group aimed at undermining Saddam Hussein’s rule. In the 1990s, Abdul Mahdi was SCIRI’s representative in Iraqi Kurdistan.

As tensions between Washington and Baghdad escalated, SCIRI also started working with the US against the Baathist regime. After the US invasion of Iraq, the organisation renamed itself to the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq (ISCI) and ran in subsequent elections in various coalitions.

In the first elected cabinet, it took the interior ministry, incorporating many of the members of its military wing, the Badr Brigades, into the army and security forces (Badr eventually broke off and formed its own political coalition, headed by Hadi al-Amiri ahead of the 2018 elections).

Abdul Mahdi became the finance minister in Iyad Allawi’s transitional government, installed by the Americans in 2004. In 2010 he was one of the candidates for the premiership, but Nouri al-Maliki was picked over him, and in 2014 he was selected as oil minister in Haider al-Abadi’s cabinet.

In the 2018 elections, Abdul Mahdi ran as independent, as ISCI had disintegrated by then due to internal rivalries.

Given his motley political background, he managed to easily position himself as a neutral figure after election results were announced and it became clear that a compromise would have to be made between the two major Shia blocs over the premiership.

Abdul Mahdi is close to both the Americans and the Iranians. He’s Shia but has also maintained close contacts with prominent Sunni politicians. He is also not antagonistic to the Kurdish region and has in fact supported in the past Erbil’s demand for a referendum on the oil-rich city of Kirkuk going under its jurisdiction.

He also seems to be on good terms with the two major Shia blocs in Iraqi politics – one led by Shia cleric Muqtada al-Sadr and Haider al-Abadi and the other dominated by members of Shia militias and headed by al-Amiri.

The Sadrists ran on a platform of embracing the 2015 street protests and calling for reform, having lobbied al-Abadi in 2016 to forge a technocratic cabinet to curb corruption. Al-Abadi failed in this regard, unable to overcome entrenched political interests.

Given his previous work and ministerial experience and having run as an independent, Abdul Mahdi is able to present himself as a quasi-technocrat. His political background is also appealing to the other side.

While the al-Amiri bloc would have preferred one of their own candidates to become premier, the fact that Abdul Mahdi is neither a Sadrist nor from al-Abadi’s Da’wa party made him an acceptable candidate.

Iraq’s looming crises

Over the next one month, Abdul Mahdi will be negotiating the formation of his government, trying to balance all competing interests in Iraqi politics. 

Given that he’s not a member of the two major Shia blocs in parliament, he cannot be accused of favouring fellow party members in the allocation of posts. Ideally, this will make him more open to Sadrist pressure to allocate more ministerial positions to technocrats with practical expertise, who should be ideally more qualified to deal with Iraq’s numerous social and economic problems.

But beyond the herculean task of forming a government that all political forces approve of, he will also face a number of major challenges, including reconciliation and reconstruction in Sunni-majority regions in the northwest and winning the trust of Iraq’s general public, which has become disillusioned with its political elite, recently expressed in violent protests in the country’s south.

Abdul Mahdi has demonstrated sympathy for Iraq’s Arab Sunnis in the past, recognising the reasons for their discontent. Perhaps he is better fitted to bridging sectarian divides in the country and bringing about reconciliation than his predecessors.

If he’s able to allocate more posts to technocrats and empower them to press forward with reforms, Abdul Mahdi might also be able to resolve some of Iraq’s most pressing socioeconomic problems that are currently inciting the population in Basra.

However, it is important to note that a technocratic cabinet is not a panacea for Iraq’s problems. It will take more than one government to dismantle the country’s entrenched patronage networks embedded in all echelons of the state.

What Abdul Mahdi manages to achieve over the next 30 or more days would define Iraq’s near future and its ability to emerge from its ongoing political and socioeconomic crises. The composition of the cabinet will indicate whether the new premier has been successful in negotiating his way out of conflicting interests and ethno-sectarian politics.

Regardless, the selection of Abdul Mahdi as Iraq’s new prime minister offers some glimmer of hope in addressing these challenges.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.