Iraq’s protracted political crisis has deepened due to parliament’s suspension of a vote on a new president, delaying the formation of a government.
Four months after an election that transformed the balance of power in the 329-member assembly by giving the bloc headed by nationalist cleric Muqtada al-Sadr the most seats, the majority of deputies boycotted Monday’s session, at which a president was to be elected.
The boycott reduced the attendance to 60, leaving the parliament well short of the two-thirds quorum.
The postponement was precipitated by lack of agreement between the Kurds on a presidential nominee, who must be a Kurd according to Iraq’s ethno-sectarian constitution adopted during the US occupation.
This post was previously uncontested due to an agreement that the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) would hold the mainly ceremonial presidency and the Kurdish Democratic Party (KDP) would have the premiership of the Kurdish autonomous region.
Although sitting president Barham Saleh of the PUK was frontrunner in a field of 25, the KDP broke the arrangement by proposing Hoshayr Zebari, a serious rival whose candidacy was temporarily paused by the supreme court due to corruption charges against him. Accused of appropriating $1.8 million for security guards for himself and his family during his two years as finance minister and 10 years as foreign minister, Mr Zebari was forced to resign.
While the parliamentary session will remain open until the court decides his case, a consensus candidate may be chosen to regain momentum in the process of government formation.
Despite the Sadrist-KDP alliance, Sadrist deputy Hassan al-Izari said: "Our withdrawal is a message to the Kurds, in particular to the KDP, for them to agree on a single candidate."
The Sadrists expected to be charged with forming a government as the party, with 73 seats, is the largest. With the backing of the KDP, a Sunni alliance, one or two small factions and independents, the Sadrists could secure the majority for a “national majority government” excluding pro-Iran ex-militia chiefs – although this could change in Iraq’s uncertain political climate.
The rival Iranian-affiliated Shia Co-ordination Framework, which lost seats in the election, claims it could muster support for another coalition. This bloc rejects being forced into opposition, thereby losing the prerogatives, perks and power enjoyed by ministers.
The delay amounts to a serious setback in the government formation process, which begins with the election of a Sunni speaker at the first session of parliament a month after the results of the election are declared, followed by presidential selection and appointment of a Shia prime minister. Following the 2010 election, it took 289 days to achieve this objective.
Meanwhile, the caretaker government under Mustafa al-Kadhimi will provide continuity but he does not have the authority to propose a budget or tackle the country’s economic meltdown and political turbulence.