Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 3 August 2020

Mustafa Al Kadhimi's real work begins ahead of early Iraq elections

Over the next nine months, the Prime Minister needs to preserve the state’s core institutions and make some key advancements along the way

When Mustafa Al Kadhimi was approved by Iraq’s Parliament to serve as its 43rd Prime Minister in May, there was cautious optimism that he would be able to begin the process of restoring peace, stability and eventually prosperity in the country. He has since made many a bold statement and symbolic gesture to demonstrate to the world that he means business.

However, following his announcement on Friday to hold early parliamentary elections on June 6, 2021, it has become evident that Mr Al Kadhimi needs a stronger mandate in order to break the political impasse that paralyses Baghdad, and to counter the foreign interference – particularly from Iran – that has stifled his attempts to enact sweeping reforms on multiple fronts. It is also important to point out that, as frustrating as the previous three months may have been for Mr Al Kadhimi’s government, the next nine are likely to be yet more testing. During this period, the Prime Minister has to deal with several medium-term challenges, including the resurgence of ISIS, the clout of Iranian-backed militia groups and the financial crisis Iraq finds itself in, due in large part to systemic corruption.

A former intelligence chief, Mr Al Kadhimi has already taken steps to build an anti-ISIS coalition. He has also shown a willingness to stand up to pro-Iranian forces both on the floor of Parliament as well as in the streets. His visit last month to the Iraq-Iran border town of Mandali, which he called “a hotbed for corrupt people”, was the clearest signal to Tehran yet that its threat to Iraqi sovereignty – intrinsically linked to the corruption of Baghdad's political class – will not be tolerated.

Mr Al Kadhimi also recognises the urgency behind the months-long protests that erupted across the country in October which – despite ebbs and flows – have shown few signs of abating. Demonstrators have risked life, limb and the coronavirus pandemic to demand jobs, better living standards and greater transparency and accountability from government.

While the Prime Minister’s decision to advance the elections by almost a full year could be seen as a bold move, it is worth remembering that one of his pledges when he took office was to guide the country towards early polls that would hopefully usher in new, fresh faces. Mr Al Kadhimi has even made a call to young Iraqis to stand in the upcoming elections. Until now, independents have had little chance of success in elections dominated by political blocs with vast financial resources. Mr Al Kadhimi himself does not belong to a political party and had previously stated that he would not run in the elections.

By calling early polls, however, he will have met a key demand of the protesters – provided Parliament ratifies his decision.

After decades of living through dictatorship, war, terrorism, sectarian strife, institutional corruption and constant threats to their country’s sovereignty, it is clear that the Iraqi public have had enough of the political corruption and dysfunction that plague Baghdad. And although these troubles long precede Mr Al Kadhimi’s time in office, he will know that he has now inherited them and will, therefore, be held accountable.

With little ability at the moment to assuage some of the protesters’ long-term concerns, laying the groundwork for a stronger mandate to do so next year is an important step. In the meantime, he must continue to focus his efforts on preventing any further erosion of the integrity of the state and the rule of law. Baghdad risks being tipped into a state of total lawlessness, evidenced recently by the recent killing of one of Mr Al Kadhimi’s associates, security expert Husham Al Hashimi. He must also ensure the safety and security of protesters, most of whom are ordinary Iraqis. A crucial part of this is seeing to it that justice is delivered against perpetrators of violence – including Iranian-backed militias and Mr Al Kadhimi’s own government security forces – against protesters over the past months.

The forces undermining Iraqi stability, breeding fear and chipping away at national institutions, are as pervasive as they are insidious. But if the Prime Minister can preserve the state’s core institutions and make some key advancements along the way, then come election time he will have signalled to Iraqis that he is in control of his country’s destiny and can be relied on to do the top job. More importantly, he will have safeguarded the foundation needed for a stable and democratic Iraq over the long haul.

Updated: August 1, 2020 06:47 PM

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