Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Political Deadlock Frustrates Iraq

Economy, security and services affected by five-month stalemate over government formation.
By Abeer Mohammed

Iraq's political class is drawing increasing criticism from both the public and its own ranks as a frustrated nation endures its fifth month without a working government.

The conspicuously slow pace of negotiations has led some observers to accuse politicians of putting personal agendas ahead of the public good. Experts say the political paralysis is holding up development across the board, and has left the country vulnerable to insurgent attacks.

“All public sectors are frozen – economic, cultural, health, social, agricultural. There is no government to handle these responsibilities,” said Jamal al-Batekh, a senior official in the Iraqiya bloc, led by the secularist Ayad Allawi.

The stalemate is widely blamed on deadlocked negotiations over the prime minister’s post, with Nuri al-Maliki, the current premier, and Allawi considered the two top contenders.

Iraqiya won the March parliamentary election by a two-vote margin over Maliki’s Shia-led State of Law bloc, but neither has enough seats to form a government, leaving both searching for allies.

The Shia Iraqi National Alliance announced on July 31 that it had called off negotiations to form a coalition with State of Law until the bloc nominates a new candidate, dealing a blow to Maliki’s re-election bid. The merger would have created a powerful Shia alliance that could have formed a government without Iraqiya, which includes many senior Sunni leaders.

Speaking on state-run television two days after the announcement, Maliki denied that his re-election had stalled the formation of the government and asked Iraqis “to show a bit more patience to prevent anyone from taking the country into sectarian war and destruction”.

The Iraqi government reported that 535 Iraqis were killed last month, making July the deadliest month for casualties since May 2008. The United States military has disputed the figure, placing the death toll at 222.

The United Nations Security Council this week urged Iraqi politicians to agree as soon as possible on a new government so as to prevent those who opposed Iraq’s transition to democracy from exploiting the situation.

Analysts and politicians are also predicting that the political impasse will further destabilise Iraq as the US prepares to withdraw its troops.

“The current political deadlock creates a vacuum which can probably be exploited by al-Qaeda and terrorists to undermine security as the withdrawal approaches,” said Adil Barwari, a Maliki adviser.

Ibrahim al-Sumaidai, a Baghdad-based analyst, said the political deadlock “shows [insurgents] that the political and therefore the security situation is fragile, so this is their chance. The US withdrawal is another factor that encourages [them]”.

“The recent attacks are a message: ‘we are still here while you’re arguing about forming the government, and we can even beat you in your own house’,” he said, in reference to recent mortar fire on the capital’s heavily-fortified Green Zone.

Maliki is continuing to serve as prime minister and is presiding over a caretaker government until a new premier is chosen. But the political deadlock has frozen policy-making and left state institutions largely ineffective.

Security is not the only concern. Public anger over crumbling services – most notably the country’s dilapidated electricity system – has grown, with citizens taking to the streets to protest the lack of power amid the sweltering summer heat.

In July, Baghdad had an average of five hours of power a day – an issue that could be better addressed if the government was in place, observers say.

Abdul Hadi al-Hassani, a senior State of Law leader, said Iraqis “are the victims of the delay in the government formation. They deserve better services, but [development] is being put off because politicians are not willing to make sacrifices in the interest of Iraq”.

In addition, he said foreign companies, which are seen as critical to shoring up Iraq’s fragile economy, are unwilling to invest in the country until a government is in place.

Maliki has promised not to make any key decisions before a new government is formed. But some are especially troubled by the lack of checks and balances, and believe the deadlock will leave a stain on Iraq’s fledgling democracy.

“The most important consequence of the delay is not international embarrassment or poor security or anything else - it is the absence of oversight,” said Hamid Fadhil, a political sciences professor at Baghdad University. “We have a government with no parliament; we have an executive authority with no legislative authority, with no monitoring or oversight.”

With no end to the political impasse in sight, political leaders and analysts are predicting that the government will not be formed until mid-September, when the month of Ramadan ends. Parliament, which has so far not convened due to the deadlock, is also not expected to meet until then.

However, Batekh, whose Iraqiya bloc maintains that it has the right to form the government as the top vote-winner, believes the timetable is optimistic. He said the blocs “haven’t made even one step forward” since the election.

“If there was political maturity in Iraq, then we would have been able to form a government after the election results were announced, and we wouldn’t be in this deadlock,” he said. “But political ignorance exists. And we should be honest and admit that no politician is willing to sacrifice his demands.”

Abeer Mohammed is IWPR’s senior local editor in Baghdad. Editing by IWPR Iraq editorial manager Tiare Rath in Erbil.

More IWPR's Global Voices