Haider al-Abadi, selected to be Iraq’s new prime minister, is already being hailed as a potential savior for his country. For months, Iraqi politics has been in a state of outright crisis, with a political deadlock in parliament; a prime minister, Nouri al-Maliki, with authoritarian tendencies; and an expanding insurgency in northern Iraq led by the extremist Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS), also called Islamic State (IS). Policymakers in the United States and elsewhere have argued that ending the emergency requires Iraq’s political leaders to create a government that shares power between Iraq’s main ethnic and sectarian communities. The hope is that Abadi, who was chosen with support from Sunnis, Shia, and Kurds, will be able to do just that.
Abadi’s appointment as prime minister is a welcome opportunity. But the system of power sharing that resulted in his appointment is part of the reason that Iraq’s politics have been so turbulent in the first place. It’s not sufficient for sectarian groups simply to cooperate on the selection of a political leader or the composition of a cabinet. (After all, every Iraqi government since 2003, including Maliki’s, has been cobbled together in similar fashion.) Achieving true stability in Baghdad will require devising institutions capable of resolving political conflicts when they recur. And it’s not at all clear whether Iraq's political establishment is up to that task.
By empowering specific political factions, rather than the country's political institutions, Iraq's power-sharing arrangements have failed to cope with natural changes in the country’s balance of power. Consider Maliki’s tenure as prime minister. The United States backed him as a compromise candidate in 2006 in the hope that his appointment would create stability and allow Washington to transfer security responsibilities to the Iraqi government. Maliki was considered capable of balancing between the two strongest poles of Shia politics, the Sadrists and the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq, both of which had powerful militias. Neither group