Overlapping political, economic and health crises make the task of the future prime minister an impossible mission
When Iraqi President Barham Salih appointed Mustafa al-Kadhimi to form a government last week, they were both wearing latex gloves and keeping their distance, consistent with the new rules that the pandemic requires. The gesture hardly reflected, however, the gravity of the situation the country is going through. Covid-19 has arrived in Iraq in the midst of an unprecedented political crisis. The government has been in office since last December, when popular protests forced the Prime Minister to resign, and Parliament has been unable to agree on a replacement. The economic slowdown resulting from the health emergency is exacerbated by the drop in the price of oil, the country’s only source of income. And last but not least, Iran and the United States are making it their battlefield.
“Iraq has a catastrophe on the doorstep: the covid-19 crises, the sharp drop in the price of oil, political instability, the conflict between the United States and Iran and, most importantly, the massive unemployment of people who suddenly they lack income due to the closure of the economy. In other words, there is a time bomb that is going to explode to all the parties and to the political system ”, warns Farhad Alaaldin, president of the Advisory Council of Iraq, a non-profit organization that advises the Iraqi rulers.
Al Kadhimi, hitherto head of the secret services, is the third candidate to try to form a government since February 1, when in the absence of an agreement in Parliament, President Salih took the constitutional initiative to appoint a prime minister. If you succeed in defeating partisan interests and get the support of the deputies to your Cabinet, you will face a titanic task, some analysts consider impossible. Although the new coronavirus has so far silenced protests calling for renewal of the system since October, the problems that led to them have worsened.
Baghdad has reported 1,434 diagnosed cases and 80 deaths. But the limited availability of evidence raises fears that the infected will be many more and the consequent collapse of their poor health infrastructure. At the moment, the damage is being mainly social. The combination of crises has paralyzed the economy.
The confinement imposed to slow down the spread of the virus has left most of the private sector without profit due to the closure of commercial activity and, above all, to the widespread “informal sector”. At the same time, oil revenues, which constitute 90% of the total received by the State, have been cut almost in half. From the 5,500 million dollars (about 5,054 million euros) obtained in February, it has gone to 2,990 million in March, due to the sharp drop in prices caused by both the global effect of the pandemic and the price war between Saudi Arabia and Russia.
Since the country needs 5 billion a month to cover current expenses, the accounts do not come out. Shortly before resigning as Prime Minister-designate, Adnan al-Zarfi warned that starting next month there will be difficulties in paying officials’ salaries. That affects three million people, a third of the active population. In addition, it frustrates the government’s promise of more public jobs late last year to quell protests.
The 39 million inhabitants of the third-largest crude oil exporter, and one of the five countries with the largest reserves, are far from enjoying living standards not only in Norway or Canada, but even in their neighbors Kuwait, the United Arab Emirates or Saudi Arabia. . Decades of war, before and after Saddam Hussein’s demolition by the 2003 US intervention, have left the population in poverty, without a sanitary system worthy of the name and without basic services such as electricity or drinking water.
Out of fed up with this situation, popular protests arose last October that led to the resignation of Prime Minister Adel Abdelmahdi, who has been in office since last December. Protesters also called for an end to sectarianism that corrodes the political system. One of its black beasts is the pro-Iranian militias that not only control the street (and which they blame for the majority of the half-thousand deaths in the protests), but use the state to advance their interests (and finance themselves).
The situation has been exacerbated by the spiral of violence in which Iran and the United States have embarked on Iraqi territory. Militias attack US troops and their response causes Iraqi victims. At the same time, Washington is putting economic pressure on the Baghdad government to reduce its relations with Tehran. Although he renewed the exemption (to his sanctions) in late March so that he can buy Iranian gas and electricity, he only did it for 30 days (instead of the usual 180) and with the warning that it will not be repeated unless Iraq end the smuggling of Iranian oil through the port of Umm al Qasr.
That confrontation complicates the already convoluted Iraqi political landscape. Although it is not written anywhere, since 2003 the prime ministers have needed the approval of both Iran and the United States. It seems difficult to achieve at a time when the objective of both is to deny the influence of the other. However, Al Kadhimi gives the impression of having it. At least the first statements of the two sides after his appointment have been positive. Now all that remains is to obtain the support of parliamentarians to, according to the mandate of the street, undertake reforms that end their privileges. If his negotiating skills allow him to overcome this contradiction, he will be prime minister and, before covid-19 is defeated, the protests will return to the streets.