At last, after months of deadlock following national elections in May, Iraq is on its way to a new government. The president, Barham Saleh, and prime minister, Adil Abdul Mahdi, are both veteran Iraqi politicians known as technocrats and reformers. The international community greeted their ascent with optimism, in the hope that these figures will drag the government out of the corruption, institutional incoherence, and alienation in which it has been mired since 2003.

But the international community has repeatedly invested too much hope in the ability of one or two individuals to change an entire failing system. Today’s narrative conjures up memories of a version from 2006, when Nouri al-Maliki replaced Ibrahim al-Jaafari as prime minister, and 2014, when Haider al-Abadi replaced Maliki. Both leaders subsequently failed to tackle the vested interests and structural constraints that hinder reform.

Even the most well-intentioned reformers in Iraq are hamstrung by the muhasasa taifa, a system of sectarian apportionment that has informally structured government formation since 2005. This system was set up to give representatives of the different communities in Iraq—Sunni, Shiite, and Kurd—a stake in government and hence a commitment to peace. However, the system circumvents the constitution and marginalizes the role of parliament by empowering party bosses to allocate the three top positions and the majority of cabinet posts based on sectarian and ethnic identity. This covert backroom apportionment, fuelled by unrestrained corruption and carried out in the name of ethnosectarian balancing, has delegitimized the post-2003 governance of Iraq and alienated the vast majority of the population from the ruling elite.

The way Saleh (elected by parliament) and Abdul Mahdi (designated by Saleh) gained power this fall strongly suggests that their appointments were the result of muhasasa dealings rather than the functioning of parliamentary democracy. If this turns out to be true, any efforts they make to reform Iraq’s corrupt government will be hampered by the debts they owe to the powers that put them in place.


The Iraqi constitution of 2005 formally governs the selection of the Speaker, president, and prime minister following national elections. The parliament—called the Council of Representatives—elects a Speaker, two deputies, and the president. Within 15 days of his appointment, the president must call upon the largest bloc in parliament to form a government. This bloc then designates a prime minister, who in turn has 30 days to form a government.

But since 2005, this process has been structured according to the sectarian terms of the muhasasa rather than the constitution. The muhasasa empowers party bosses to negotiate among themselves and select a prime minister and president according to sectarian and ethnic identity, ensuring that the Speaker is Sunni, the prime minister is Shiite, and the president is Kurdish. These party bosses also divide up the ministerial posts and government resources that accompany them, often for their own material benefit.   

The newly appointed President Saleh was a member of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) for many years. Because of his frustrations with party infighting and corruption, he broke away and established his own party, the Coalition for Democracy and Justice, in 2017. That party performed terribly in the national elections, so Saleh rejoined the PUK, and in exchange the PUK supported his candidacy for the presidency.

Parliament handed Saleh a decisive victory in the second round of voting: he carried 220 out of 273 votes. For a moment, in an apparently hard-fought election, members appeared to have acted on their own initiative and ignored the demands of the party bosses. Saleh’s win looked like a victory for a charismatic, honest politician committed to reform. But the machinations that followed suggest a different scenario: party bosses conspired to elect Saleh because he did not have an independent support base and thus did not pose the least threat to their interests.   

By ignoring the constitutional procedure for choosing the prime minister, Saleh has further undermined the precarious role of the Council of Representatives.

Following his victory, instead of waiting for the largest bloc in parliament to select a candidate for prime minister, Saleh announced in less than two hours that he had chosen Abdul Mahdi. In fact, Abdul Mahdi had arrived at the parliament while presidential voting was still under way, in order to be in place for the announcement. This strongly suggests that Saleh’s victory and Abdul Mahdi’s appointment were the results of yet another muhasasa backroom deal orchestrated among party bosses. By ignoring the constitutional procedure for choosing the prime minister, Saleh has further undermined the precarious role of the Council of Representatives and raised questions about whether Iraq can legitimately call itself a parliamentary democracy.


After the national election in May, Iraq’s parliament had arrived at an impasse. Three Shiite Islamist parties had gained the most seats in the Council of Representatives: Muqtada al-Sadr’s Sairoon Coalition; Hadi al-Amiri’s Fatah, representing the militias; and the incumbent Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi’s Victory Alliance. After extended negotiations, two supercoalitions emerged: Islah, a combination of Sadr’s and Abadi’s factions, and al-Bina, led by Amiri. Both coalitions claimed they had enough seats in parliament to choose the next prime minister. The process ground to a halt.

The deadlock continued into early July, when mass protests erupted in Basra over government corruption and ineptitude. Basra has become a powerful symbol of the failure of the Iraqi state. With a population of four million, it is Iraq’s second-largest city and provides 80 percent of its oil revenue. But the government has failed to provide a sustainable sanitation system, even as the salinity of the Shatt al-Arab waterway has increased. As a result, 95,000 Basrawis were hospitalized over the summer with illnesses related to drinking contaminated water. 

Finally, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, Iraq’s leading Shiite clergyman, weighed in on September 10 to break the deadlock. He called for a change in leadership in response to public dissatisfaction with the ruling elite and announced that he would not support any candidate for prime minister who had previously been in power. Sistani’s backing is critically important for Iraqi Shiite politicians. His announcement, combined with Abadi’s failure to address the crisis in Basra, forced both Abadi and Amiri to drop out of the contest.

Basra has become a powerful symbol of the failure of the Iraqi state.

It was against this backdrop that the Shiite Islamist party bosses put Abdul Mahdi forward as a compromise candidate for prime minister. Once a central figure in Iraqi politics, Abdul Mahdi had withdrawn from his leadership roles and kept a low profile since 2016. His former party, the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq, is weak and fractured. Without a support base, party, or militia of his own, Abdul Mahdi posed no threat to any of the party bosses and hence no threat to the muhasasa system, making him an ideal compromise candidate (similar to Saleh).


The muhasasa system and the governing elite it has empowered have driven Iraq into an extended crisis. To the extent that Saleh and Abdul Mahdi may wish to be agents of reform, they face a daunting task. In past writings, Saleh has suggested creating an independent Iraq Investment Fund that could channel resources into new infrastructure projects independent of the muhasasa system. Such autonomous bodies are certainly needed, but in the past they have failed for lack of protection from corruption and party bosses.

To defend reform from those with vested interests in preventing it, Saleh and Abdul Mahdi will need to build a coalition of domestic and international partners. Given Sistani’s standing and commitment to reform, his support will be critical. The public is ready to be mobilized for reform: Iraqis have been demonstrating en masse against the muhasasa and corruption since 2015. Saleh and Abdul Mahdi could also seek to rebuild the momentum generated by the Kuwait International Conference for Reconstruction of Iraq in February 2018, when regional powers and the international community committed to help rebuild Iraq in order to stop the reconstitution of the Islamic State (also known as ISIS).

The technocratic plans that have engendered such optimism for this new government depend on a difficult balancing act. Saleh and Abdul Mahdi can create and defend the autonomy their plans require only by mobilizing the population, essentially countering the influence of the party bosses by building a popular movement for reform. Doing so will pose a direct and dangerous challenge to the very forces that recently delivered both the president and the prime minister to power.

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  • TOBY DODGE is Research Director for Iraq in the Conflict Research Program at the London School of Economics and Political Science.
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