BAGHDAD — As the Iraqi parliament witnesses significant political disputes over ministerial portfolios between the Building Coalition led by Nouri al-Maliki and Hadi al-Amiri, and the Reform and Construction Coalition led by Muqtada al-Sadr and Ammar al-Hakim, another set of disputes has surfaced over the posts of governors of Baghdad, Basra, Najaf, Wasit and Babylon.
The mandate of the current provincial councils — constitutionally tasked with choosing a governor — ended in April 2017, and the provincial elections have been postponed repeatedly. In other words, these councils are currently illegal.
The conflict over the presidency of local governments reflects a political conviction whereby setting an imminent date for local elections has become an uphill battle. Based on this conviction, political parties are seeking to substitute the current governors in a bid to ensure continued influence in those governorates.
In the capital, 10 days into the election of Fadel al-Shuwaili, a leader in the Sairoon Alliance backed by the Sadrist movement, as governor of Baghdad, the Baghdad provincial council held Dec. 22 an extraordinary session in which it revoked Shuwaili’s election and chose Falah al-Jazairi as a new governor from the State of Law Coalition led by Nouri al-Maliki.
However, President Barham Salih threw the ball in the court of the judiciary and refused to ratify the dismissal of Shuwaili and the appointment of Jazairi. He called on the Sadrist movement and the State of Law Coalition to resort to the Federal Court.
Meanwhile, the Najaf provincial council voted Dec. 19 to dismiss Gov. Louay al-Yasiri, a member of the State of Law Coalition, on charges of corruption. The council appointed a leader in the Hikma bloc (National Wisdom Movement) led by Hakim as the first deputy governor pending the election of a new governor during the coming period.
However, the biggest conflict revolves around the post of governor of Basra. The current Basra governor, Asaad al-Eidani, formerly affiliated with the Hikma bloc, refused to leave the post despite having obtained a parliamentary seat in the recent elections. Eidani has yet to take the constitutional oath.
The Basra provincial council has thus far failed to hold a session with a quorum in order to elect a new governor amid the ongoing conflict between the Sadr-Hakim alliance and Maliki's alliances. Sadr supports Hikma bloc candidate Ali al-Shaddad, who faces wide rejection from Al-Binaa Alliance.
This means that the conflict over local posts is likely to extend to the rest of the southern provinces, thus reflecting the political parties’ desire to undermine each other’s influence in the federal parliament, especially as far as the traditional conflict between Sadr and Maliki is concerned. Winning the post of governor also infers achieving political and electoral gains in the event local elections are held in 2019.
Saad al-Matlabi, a member of the State of Law Coalition, told Al-Monitor that all blocs are seeking to win the posts of local provincial council governors, heads and deputies, especially in the Sairoon Alliance and the Hikma bloc, which have been planning for this for some time now.
“This is a normal scenario that goes in line with the democratic process. The reason it has escalated is that the local elections are drawing near amid a prevailing belief that whoever controls local governments controls the elections,” he said.
Riyad al-Awadi, a member of the Hikma bloc, said, “The agreement between the Sairoon Alliance and the Hikma bloc is an old strategic agreement.” He noted that “this coalition succeeded in electing governors for Baghdad, Wasit and Babylon and is about to elect a governor for Basra.”
Observers agree that the ongoing conflict in Iraq's governorates is an extension to the conflict in the Iraqi parliament, as the parties struggle to complete the lineup of Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mahdi to take up the reins of the federal institutions.
For example, Al-Binaa Alliance’s insistence on the nomination of Faleh al-Fayadh for the post of minister of interior despite the monthslong objection of the Reform and Construction Coalition only aims at securing “a larger parliamentary bloc” in the federal government following the failure to do so through constitutional methods.
The Iraqi parliament lifted the freeze on the Independent High Electoral Commission Nov. 10, more than two weeks after the provincial elections were scheduled to be held, which put back the fate of these councils at the center of the debate.
Delays in the local elections are fraught with danger amid an ongoing popular turmoil in the southern provinces due to poor services, deteriorating living conditions and the political parties’ dispute over positions that the people and some politicians find useless. Iraqis in general blame these posts for the devastation plaguing the country.