Baghdad (AFP) – Iraqi lawmakers held an all-night sit-in at parliament protesting efforts by powerful political blocs to maintain control of key government posts, pushing the speaker to convene an emergency session Wednesday.
The demonstration followed chaotic scenes in parliament Tuesday sparked by the postponement of a vote on a new cabinet that Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi wants to include technocrats instead of party-affiliated ministers.
The political row comes at what US Secretary of State John Kerry last week described as a “very critical time” for Iraq as it seeks to recapture more territory from the Islamic State jihadist group.
Under pressure from the sit-in and with some lawmakers calling for his replacement, parliament speaker Salim al-Juburi convened an emergency session on Wednesday.
Abadi presented a list of cabinet nominees at the end of March, but influential political blocs put forward their own candidates and most of Abadi’s were replaced on a second list distributed to lawmakers on Tuesday.
Some MPs demanded the opportunity to vote on Abadi’s original list — from which at least two candidates had already withdrawn — but the session was adjourned without a vote on either the old or the new lists.
Parliament then descended into chaos, with lawmakers shaking their fists and chanting against the system of ministries being distributed according to political quotas.
An AFP journalist said that there were around 80 members of parliament taking part in the sit-in inside the hall around midday on Wednesday, some of whom chanted: “Yes yes to reform, no no to (political) quotas!”
Thin mattresses on which lawmakers slept were spread outside the entrance to the hall.
“More than 50 MPs from all the political blocs” took part in the overnight sit-in, said lawmaker Iskander Witwit.
– Ministries as personal fiefdoms –
Another lawmaker, Zainab al-Tai, said the main demand was the resignation of the parliament speaker, the premier and the president.
More than 150 members — around half of parliament — had expressed support for those measures, she said.
Abadi — despite being in agreement with lawmakers who want cabinet reforms — risks being hit by the political fallout if the changes fail to materialise.
Iraqi ministries have for years been shared out between powerful political parties that run them as their personal fiefdoms, relying on them for patronage and funds.
But even if the current cabinet lineup is replaced with independent, technocratic ministers — a change that faces major obstacles — that would only be the beginning of the process.
Ministries are packed with lower-level employees appointed on the basis of party and sectarian affiliation, and replacing them would face serious resistance.
Technocrat ministers would also lack the political cover afforded by party affiliation, and could face threats by armed groups opposed to changes they proposed.
Abadi called in February for “fundamental” change to the cabinet so that it includes “professional and technocratic figures and academics.”
That kicked off the latest chapter in a months-long saga of Abadi proposing various reforms that parties and politicians with interests in the existing system have sought to delay or undermine.
Powerful Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr later took up the demand for a technocratic government, organising a two-week sit-in that put Abadi under pressure to act, but also supported the course of action he wanted to take.
Sadr relented after Abadi presented his first list of nominees at the end of March, but has yet to react to the most recent developments in efforts to replace the cabinet.