Iraq’s Political Elite Identify Consensus Candidate for Prime Minister-Designee
Key Takeaway: Iraq’s President Barham Salih asked Mohammed Tawfiq Allawi to attempt to form a government and serve as prime minister. Allawi holds no parliamentary, popular, or military leverage and is unlikely to gain the necessary political capital to address the demands of protesters or challenge parliamentary powerbrokers. Allawi will not immediately take office – his cabinet must still be formed and approved.
Iraqi President Barham Salih formally nominated former Minister of Communication Mohammed Tawfiq Allawi to replace the caretaker Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mehdi. Former Prime Minister Mehdi had originally resigned on November 29, 2019 following a brutal crackdown against an ongoing popular protest movement, which prompted Iraq’s highest religious authority, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, publicly to withdraw his support. Iraq’s parliament accepted the resignation but left Mehdi and his government in place as caretakers until the President selected a new premier.
President Salih had to enforce a self-imposed deadline for political action to name a premier. President Salih announced on January 29, 2020 that he set a deadline of February 1 for the largest political blocs in Iraq to agree upon a candidate whom Salih could invite to form a government.  The law originally required Salih to identify a replacement premier by December 15, 2019. However, Salih attempted to pass his constitutional responsibilities to the speaker of parliament and disregarded the constitutional deadlines. President Salih did not nominate a premier from the largest bloc within the Iraqi parliament as the Constitution requires. Instead, Salih, in concert with the largest political blocs, selected the candidate who faced the least political resistance.
President Salih selected the candidate who faced the least parliamentary resistance to attempt to form a government. Mohammed Tawfiq Allawi emerged as a potential compromise candidate during internal political discussions in mid-January. President Salih reportedly cleared Allawi and three additional candidates as acceptable premiers with Iranian proxy leader Hadi al-Ameri as well as other major bloc leaders in a conversation on January 19. The leaders of the two largest political blocs, Ameri’s Conquest Alliance and Moqtada al-Sadr's Toward Reform, had reportedly agreed on Allawi by January 30. However, anonymous sources told reporters that Conquest Alliance member and State of Law leader Nouri al-Maliki was lobbying the political blocs to reject Allawi.  President Salih appears to have named Allawi with the approval of Ameri and Sadr despite Maliki’s disapproval. President Salih likely calculated that Allawi could form a government that would gain the absolute majority of 165 members of parliament needed to approve the Cabinet and the premier.
PM-designee Allawi emerged as a consensus candidate, not outright vetoed by any powerful actor in Iraq. The elite politicians, the Shi’a religious leadership, Iran, and the U.S. all reportedly raised no red line objection to Allawi, according to AFP. The U.S. Embassy in Baghdad welcomed the nomination but stressed it “must be followed up with efforts… [to form] an independent and honest government committed to addressing the needs of the Iraqi people.” The powerful actors that shape Iraq did not reject Allawi, but his actions are constrained.
PM-designee Allawi holds no political leverage in the parliament. The position of PM-designee is Allawi’s first position since leaving government in 2012. Allawi was not selected for PM while serving as a sitting member of parliament. Allawi twice served as Minister of Communications in 2006 and 2010-2012 under the Premiership of Nour al-Maliki. Allawi resigned twice in protest of Maliki’s corruption and sectarian actions. Allawi, during his ministerial post, was a member of the secular Iraqiyah Coalition led by his cousin Iyad Allawi which since dissolved. Allawi is viewed now as malleable. Allawi’s own description of his career from Facebook indicates he has not joined a new political party since leaving government. One anonymous Iraqi official told the National, “’Iran wants him because he is weak... That's why Mr. Sadr and Mr. Amiri have supported him.’”
Allawi has no mandate and faces popular opposition. Prime Minister-designate Allawi addressed the country on February 1 via the official channel and office of the Prime Minister, welcoming the opportunity to form a government. Allawi promised to form a more representative cabinet, hold early parliamentary elections, and ensure formal charges are brought against those who killed and injured protesters since early October. Hours earlier, Allawi had addressed the country with a message posted to his Twitter account, saying “I will ask you to keep up the protests, because if you are not with me, I won't be able to do anything.”  Allawi recognizes he lacks leverage without popular support. Yet, demonstrators have already begun demonstrating against Allawi across central and southern Iraqi cities, including chanting, “Allawi is rejected, Allawi is rejected!” Demonstrators associate Allawi with the political establishment and identify him as a pawn of the corrupt powerbrokers. A self-organized group of protesters in the southern city of Nasiryah issued a written statement calling Allawi a “candidate that belongs to the sectarian power sharing political system we are protesting against,” categorically rejecting him. 
Moqtada al-Sadr is seeking to suppress and redirect popular street opposition away from Allawi. Sadr previously withdrew his cover for Iraq’s popular protest movement on January 24, setting conditions for a subsequent security crackdown against the protesters by Iraqi government and Iranian proxy militia forces. Protesters railed against the act as a “betrayal.”  Sadr reversed this position on January 31 by attempting to re-establish himself among the popular protesters. Sadr issued a statement calling for mass demonstrations and sit-ins writing that all demonstrators are brothers and forbid people from “mentioning my name [Moqtada al-Sadr.]” However, Sadr did not provide genuine support to the protesters. Rather, he undermined his own populist, nationalist, and reformist agenda by siding with the Iranian proxy network and political elite. Sadr issued a second statement via Twitter on February 1 endorsing Allawi calling it “a good step.”  Sadr then instructed his supporters known as “blue hats” to intimidate and clear anti-Allawi protesters from central Baghdad overnight on February 1. The blue hats armed with batons beat demonstrators and took control of the “Turkish restaurant” – an unfinished building that serves as logistical and organizing hub for protesters.
President Salih has re-created the conditions of the Mehdi government by choosing a compromise candidate who cannot implement the reforms favored by protesters or ensure that Iraq’s elections break the elite politicians’ monopoly on power. If Allawi can form a government, he will be viewed as responsible for holding new elections. Moqtada al-Sadr’s own advisor admitted that Allawi is receiving support from the established political elite so that he can call for snap elections – not to overhaul the system. Iraq passed a new electoral law on December 24, 2019 in a shallow attempt to placate protester demands. The law does not adequately prevent parties from retaining their collective power and does not establish the necessary mechanism for carrying out the new elections. The 2019 election law did away with party lists, which were widely seen as a key source of corruption. Party lists prevented voters from casting votes for individuals, instead allowing them to only vote for a grouping of pre-determined candidates by party. The 2019 election law also divides Iraq into districts rather than provinces. The Government of Iraq has no agreed upon census data upon which to establish electoral districts. The 2019 law also does not prevent national parties from flooding money and candidates into districts only to reorganize as parties in parliament. Allawi is unlikely to gather the political capital necessary to execute reforms or fair elections. Indeed, Iraqi political parties may have agreed to his premiership precisely because they would prefer a weak caretaker prior to elections. Political elite are more likely to repress protesters with a weak PM in office. However, the designation of Allawi furthers the very conditions that protesters are demonstrating against.
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