This article was originally published by Niqash. Any opinions expressed are those of the author, and do not necessarily reflect the views of Iraq Business News.

By Mustafa Habib.

Drama On Iraq’s Councils After Provincial Elections Are Cancelled Again

Conflict at federal level is complicating local politics too. Provincial elections have not been held for five years and council leadership no longer reflects the country’s new political reality.

In the weeks before the end of the year, Iraq’s provincial councillors saw plenty of drama. There were attempted dismissals of various governors, actual dismissals and political coups and in-fighting among state-level politicians.

In mid-December, a new governor was chosen for Baghdad by councillors representing parties at federal level. But then other councillors, representing opposition parties at federal level, chose a completely different new governor.

Members of two groups – the Sairoun alliance led by cleric Muqtada al-Sadr and the National Wisdom party, led by another cleric, Ammar al-Hakim – chose the first new governor. Then, provincial councillors from the parties that oppose those two groups stepped in and selected another candidate from their own ranks instead.

At this stage, the Iraqi president, Barham Saleh, intervened, refusing to ratify either candidate and referring the matter to the courts.

A similar situation arose in Basra where provincial council members who tried to elect a new governor were prevented from doing so by protestors outside the council buildings, who supported the sitting governor. The involvement of security staff meant that a vote could not be held. And in Najaf, the sitting governor there was also dismissed. More firings are expected in other Iraqi provinces too.

Why the drama? Because the country has not held provincial elections since 2013 and in many areas, the current provincial council does not reflect the contemporary political realities brought about by federal elections last year.

By rights, provincial elections to select local councillors should have been held in 2017. However the ongoing security crisis and the fight against the extremist group known as the Islamic State meant this was impossible. The federal government then decided to combine provincial elections with federal ones, to be held in May 2018, but again failed to do this.

The next date for the provincial elections was supposed to be December 22, 2018, but yet again the federal government – this time the new one headed by Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mahdi – decided not to hold them. A new date was not set and election authorities say it will be too difficult to hold provincial elections in 2019.

The Independent High Electoral Commission, or IHEC, has not been working properly for the past few months because, ever since the May 2018 federal elections, there have been all sorts of other concerns, explains Hazem al-Rudaini, a member of IHEC.

“The debate about the integrity of the federal elections, the various appeals and the recounts overseen by a judicial authority,” al-Rudaini listed the reasons. “All of this has impacted on the Commission’s work and makes it impossible to hold the provincial elections anytime in the coming six months at least.”

Amendments to the laws and rules around provincial elections are being discussed by IHEC and relevant federal authorities and politicians, al-Rudaini said, but “all that will take time”.

In fact, senior members of IHEC have been summoned to parliament to discuss this issue because some of the provincial appointments are now unconstitutional – for example, a governor cannot be a sitting MP at the same time yet some are. Additionally, the provincial councils hardly reflect the outcome of the federal elections, which saw the al-Sadr-backed Sairoun alliance win the most votes. In fact, that is part of what has caused the recent problems: The winning political parties are forcing through new alliances at provincial level, that allow them to remove the sitting governors who belong to other now-less-popular parties.

“We refuse to allow the current provincial councils to carry on working,” Rami al-Sukaini, an MP for the Sairoun alliance, told NIQASH. “There are proposals now that allow them to keep working for the next six months, and others to remove them and give parliament the power of supervise provincial councils, until provincial elections can be held.”

Iraq Initiative to Empower Women Candidates run Parliamentary Polls

In order to promote the equal opportunities for women to play their role as an active agent of society and due to the importance of political empowerment, participation and mobilization of women in the Democratic Government in Iraq, the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), as part of its governance programme to strengthen electoral processes in Iraq, launched an initiative to empower and develop capacities of 200 women candidates, from various political coalitions, who took part in the recent parliamentary elections in Iraq.

Political and electoral processes should be inclusive of women and acknowledge a special circumstances and needs. Women’s participation and representation is supported by many international frameworks, including CEDAW, the Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action, UNSCR 1325, UN Resolution on Women and Political Participation, and the 2030 Agenda. These frameworks acknowledge that women’s participation is fundamental to democracy and essential to the achievement of sustainable development and peace.

This initiative was aimed at strengthening women candidates capacities with a team of experts on electoral laws and regulations, leadership skills, communication using mass and social media (interviews and public speech), formulation of political messages, political campaigns and importance of gender equality. This training carried out in collaboration with Um-Alyateem for Development Foundation UDF, a local NGO, consisted of eight workshops targeting 25 women candidates each. An electronic platform for candidates who engaged in the program was created to exchange experiences and address questions through Facebook and viber. All candidates’ interviews were collected and disseminated by a YouTube channel since April 15th.

The Country Director of UNDP in Iraq, Mr. Gerardo Noto said: “Gender equality and women’s political participation are at the core of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. Indeed, Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 5 and its target 5.5 aim to ensure ‘women’s full and effective participation and equal opportunities for leadership at all levels of decision-making in political, economic and public life,’ and are crucial to establish inclusive institutions at all levels, as called by SDG 16”.

The recent Report of the Secretary-General on Progress towards the Sustainable Development Goals (E/2017/66) unveiled that “globally, women’s participation in single or lower houses of national parliaments reached 23.4 per cent in 2017, just 10 percentage points higher than in 2000. Such slow progress suggests that stronger political commitment and more ambitious measures are needed to boost women’s political participation and empowerment.” In the Arab States, the average percentage of women’s participation in national parliaments is only 18%. This constitutes the second lowest performing region for female representation.

UNDP Gender Specialist, Ms. Sundus Abbas stated “UNDP not only believes in the importance of supporting the participation of women in the political process but also it is convinced of the key roles of women on political levels and the added value that women bring to policies, therefore UNDP promote gender team in IHEC with tools and methods to insure  gender perspective in electoral process”.

Dr. Amira AlBaldawi, the director of UDF and a member of the COR from 2005-2010, confirmed “Although  the Iraqi Constitution, in Article (49 – IV) sets the quota for women in the CoR at not less than 25%, and although the number exceeded 84, yet the impact was very limited and did not meet people’s expectations. In addition to the above, most electoral lists heads stated that they will present high percentage of  new candidates, which requires more support to enhance and empower women capacities, to allow them to  participate effectively in the election. This is why we think such initiative is critical to strengthen women participation in Iraq”.

Dr. Nada Shaker, professor at Baghdad University and one of the woman MPs, stated “ I participated in the polls in order to serve the people in need via legislation of Codes that deal with investment and basic services, UNDP initiative was  very useful but it should be conducted months before the election so that women candidates can make full use of it”. She said  “Since I have the skills and tools, I am looking forward to create a parliamentary bloc that is able to make change”. She added “I hope that Women MPs can form a bloc that play a key role in the parliament”.

(Source: UNDP)

After five months of political uncertainty, Iraq finally has a new prime minister.

On October 3, Iraq’s newly named president, Barham Salih, picked Adel Abdul Mahdi, an independent Shia politician, to be the next prime minister and form a government. The appointment of Mahdi may have provided an opportunity to calm the protests that have roiled the southern Iraqi city of Basra since July.

Unrest in Basra escalated to levels high enough for the United States to shut its consulate in the city on September 28.

The unrest reflects a changing Iraq—one in which many citizens will no longer tolerate an unaccountable government.

The full article can be viewed here.

(Source: Atlantic Council)


By John Lee.

The new Iraqi Parliament (Council of Representatives) has selected Mohammed Halbusi [Mohamed al-Halbousi] (pictured) as Speaker.

Aged 37, Halbusi is the youngest person to serve as Speaker.

According to Anadolu Agency, he won 169 out of 298 votes, while his rival Khalid al-Obeidi, former defense minister, won 85 votes.

He is a member of the Al-Hall (Solution) party, and has most recently server as Governor of Anbar province.

(Sources: Iraqi Parliament, Anadolu Agency)


By John Lee.

Iraq’s Supreme Court (pictured) has ratified the results of the parliamentary election, which was held in May.

According to The National, this gives the winning political parties three months to form a new government.

Muqtada al-Sadr has retained his lead. A coalition government needs at least 165 from a total of 329.

(Sources: The National, Al Jazeera)

By John Lee.

Moqtada al-Sadr has reportedly retained his lead in Iraq’s parliamentary election following a full recount.

According to Xinhua, the results showed no change in 13 of Iraq’s 18 provinces, and changes in four provinces involving five seat-winners within their own coalitions.

The recount did not alter the initial results significantly, with Sadr keeping his total of 54 seats.

(Sources: Reuters, Xinhua)

SRSG Kubiš congratulates the IHEC Board of Judges on completion of the electoral recount and looks forward to a timely conclusion of the remaining stages of the electoral process

The Special Representative of the United Nations Secretary-General (SRSG) for Iraq, Mr. Ján Kubiš (pictured), welcomes today’s announcement by the Board of Judges of the Independent High Electoral Commission of the completion of the electoral recount in all 18 Iraqi governorates and also out-of-country voting.

SRSG Kubiš said:

I congratulate the Board of Judges on this important milestone towards the conclusion of Iraq’s 2018 electoral process.

“The timely, transparent, well-organised, credible conduct of the recount was made possible by the hands-on impartial work of the Board of Judges, and the dedication and professionalism of all recount staff, including Independent High Electoral Commission staff and judiciary personnel. The manner in which they have handled the recount has increased public confidence in the electoral process, and election results.

“I now encourage the Board of Judges and relevant state institutions to devote their attention to the timely announcement of provisional results and the speedy resolution of any outstanding appeals.

“Throughout the recount process, an experienced team of United Nations electoral experts has followed the process, providing advice and assistance. The United Nations remains available to provide further expert advice and assistance to the Board of Judges as they supervise the tabulation of recount results and all subsequent stages in certification of the results by the Federal Court.”

(Source: UN)

From Al Jazeera. Any opinions expressed are those of the authors, and do not necessarily reflect the views of Iraq Business News.

Negotiations are still under way to form a governing coalition in Iraq. No party won a majority during May’s national election, and the result is not yet confirmed, because a manual recount was called over allegations of vote rigging.

The parties trying to lead Iraq have major differences in their attitudes towards the United States and Iran.

But the big winner in Iraq’s contested election is expected to be Shia leader Muqtada al-Sadr, who confidently expects his party to lead the next government once the revised result has been confirmed by the country’s Supreme Court.

Meanwhile, protests, which began in the oil-rich southern city of Basra in early July, have spread to eight Iraqi provinces, leading al-Sadr to call on all the winning lists of Iraq’s May 12 parliamentary election to suspend government formation talks until the demands of protesters are met.

Al Jazeera‘s Imran Khan reports from Baghdad:

This article was originally published by Niqash. Any opinions expressed are those of the author, and do not necessarily reflect the views of Iraq Business News.

By Kamal al-Ayash.

After Elections, Anbar’s Would-Be MPs Still Owe Millions

Candidates in the recent elections spent millions of dinars on their campaigns in Anbar. Or at least, they promised to. Many small businesses, including copy shops and butchers, are still waiting to be paid.

There were almost 7,000 candidates running for office in the Iraqi elections, held May this year. The central Iraqi province of Anbar had about 350 of their own – and many of those candidates spent big on their campaigns.

In some provinces, local authorities reported that candidates spent as much as US$350,000 and even as much as US$1 million on campaigning. That’s a huge amount of money for Iraq and local small and large business owners are well aware of the windfall the elections can bring them.

But there are also dangers, especially if a candidate didn’t win. Companies that print posters, provide required services for events, or host elector-pleasing conferences will often strike a deal with a politician.

Possibly the politician will only pay a deposit upfront and promise to pay the rest after the election. Or possibly they will work through a broker, who organizes the campaign materials and the deals around them. And sometimes, those promises of payment are not honoured.

Hamid al-Fahdawi, 48, knows all about that. The Ramadi print shop owner says he is still owed more than IQD5 million (around US$4,200) and he’s been trying to contact his creditors. But they appear to have used a mobile phone during the election campaign and then discarded that number afterwards.

“I am still trying to call the candidates who owe me money,” al-Fahdawi says. “I hate hearing that automated tone on the phone that tells me ‘this number is out of reach’.”

Local businesses are relatively savvy about this, says Khalil al-Mohammedawi, a 55-year-old who owns a small printing office in central Fallujah. “There are a lot of people making money during the elections,” he explains. “That includes brokers who act as contact persons between service providers and the politicians. But because of our previous experience, we also know who is going to pay his debts and who is not.”

Al-Mohammedawi also says that some businesses build this risk into the prices they charge and they still make a profit even if they don’t get paid the full amount.

The print shops and small advertising agencies are not the only ones suffering from political non-payers. Large restaurants have catered meals for hundreds of candidates’ constituents and colleagues, often at substantial cost.

“Most of us trusted these candidates and we allowed them to place large orders on their tabs, without asking for payment,” says Hikmat al-Hazimawi, a restaurant owner in Ramadi. “We knew many of them personally, that’s why. What we didn’t know is that things would change after the elections and they would not pay us and would try to avoid us.”

The debts cause a chain reaction, al- Hazimawi adds, because now he cannot pay the people from whom he bought his meat and so on.

Another copy-shop owner in Fallujah disagrees with some of the complaints though. “The people who are owed money are those who never did this before,” Hazem al-Mohammedi suggests.

“They’re new to the business and they don’t know how to deal with these people, or who to deal with. Most of the candidates are actually respectable people and if you deal with them directly, you will be paid. It is the brokers that cause the trouble. Most of the money in those cases is not being spent on goods and services, but on the broker’s margins.”

By Ahmed Tabaqchali, CIO of Asia Frontier Capital (AFC) Iraq Fund.

Any opinions expressed are those of the author, and do not necessarily reflect the views of Iraq Business News.

Activity in the economy at large, and the market in particular, came to a virtual standstill at the start of the month as it coincided with last two weeks of Ramadan which ended with the Eid holiday’s in the middle of June.

The start of the summer heat in earnest further contributed to the slowdown of activity. However, the intense focus on the political activity around the election results took the spotlight over the major markers of economic recovery and the banks’ leverage to it.

Average minimum and maximum temperatures in Baghdad in degrees centigrade

(Source: World weather and climate Information)

The elections produced winners and losers who will eventually form a coalition government as reported last month, a process that should take a few weeks but could extend to a few months. Claims of fraud surfaced as in past elections, however this time there was an unusual action by parliament to force a manual recount of the whole vote and a wholesale annulment of certain types of votes (overseas, IDP’s and security forces votes). The parliament’s action was made possible by investigations that suggested that fraud was made possible by hacking the electronic readers of the ballot papers –introduced for the first time this year.

The potential disruption could have resulted in a delayed government formation until early 2019. However, objections to parliament’s action were raised to the Supreme Federal Court, whose ruling on 21st June was a master class response to the conflicting political reactions following the elections. The ruling, provided a framework for a workable compromise as evidenced by its wholesale acceptance by all of Iraq’s political parties.

The ruling is discussed in a recent article: in a nutshell it led to a manual recount of only of those election centres whose results were disputed, and thus should be concluded in a few weeks. The impact will likely be felt in a changed balance of power among the Kurdish parties and among some Sunni parties, but ultimately will not significantly change the balance of power of the main election winners. The process of government formation continued unabated during this period and the broad outlines of it are taking shape.

However, irrespective of how the upcoming government is formed, it would need to address the issues at the heart of the 2015 protest movement that had such a profound effect on how the election was fought and its results. These would be the provision of services and reconstruction, which require much needed overdue investments in the country’s infrastructure and the reconstruction of the liberated areas, estimated at USD 88bn over five years.

Prevailing negative perceptions of Iraq’s ability to fund this have not reflected the transformative effects of higher oil prices and the end of conflict on Iraq’s ability to self-fund the reconstruction of the whole country. These were discussed in detail in a recent article, the highlights of which are: By end of 2018, based on realized oil prices of 2017 and average year-to-date for 2018, Iraq is on its way to have a cumulative two-year budget surplus of USD 18.8bn instead of the initially projected cumulative deficit of USD 19.4bn. This would be equal to a stimulus of 14.5% of non-oil GDP once reconstruction projects are underway, thus further accelerating economic activity. The effects of this stimulus would be enhanced by a potential budget surplus of USD 9.3bn in 2019 or a further 6.8% stimulus to non-oil GDP.

The stock market’s action in June was a continuation of the same trends discussed here over the last few months. By end of June, the market, as measured by the Rabee Securities’ RSISUSD Index, was down -3.5%, bringing its year to date performance to -0.6. Average daily turnover was among the lowest of the last three years and most stocks, in particular the banks continued to decline.

The market’s focus continues to be the effects of the shrinking FX margins on banks’ earnings brought on, paradoxically, by the increasing signs of an improvement in liquidity in the broader economy. These were brought by the steady increases in the market price of the Iraqi Dinar (IQD) versus the USD, lowering its premium over the official exchange rate to 1.2% – the lowest point in a number of years from just under 6% at the end of 2017 and 10% at the end of 2016. FX spreads are one of many sources of revenues for the higher quality banks but constitute the bulk of earnings for the lower quality banks. However, almost all banks were caught in the group’s sell-off which accelerated in recent months.

However, valid as these concerns are, they fail to take into account the transformative effects of the expected budget surpluses of USD 28.5bn for 2017-2019 on the banks’ future earnings through the simulative effects the surpluses would have on economic activity. This same leverage worked in reverse during the double whammy of the ISIS conflict and the collapse in oil prices as government finances were crushed by soaring expenses and plummeting revenues.

The government resorted to dramatic cuts to expenditures by cancelling capital spending and investments which, due to the centrality of its role in the economy, led to year-year declines in non-oil GDP of -3.9%, -9.6% and -8.1% for 2014, 2015 and 2016 respectively. Ultimately, the government had a cumulative deficit of around USD 41bn during this period and accumulated significant arrears to the private sector in the process. The outstanding arrears are estimated by the IMF to be at USD 3.6bn as the end of 2017.

The effects were disastrous for private sector businesses at the receiving end of the cuts whose finances deteriorated, and which in turn affected the quality of bank loans as these businesses accounted for the bulk of bank lending.  As a result, the banks’ earning suffered from the increasing non-performing loans (NPL’s) coupled with negative loan growth, as well as from declining/negative deposit growth.

The changes for the worse for the banks during these years can be seen through the three charts below that look at loans/NPL’s, deposits and trade finance and their association with budget surpluses/deficits. The charts consider only loans/NPL’s, deposits and trade finance for the private sector but not those for the government as they conducted through state banks.

Loans and NPL’s 2010-2017

(Source: Central Bank of Iraq (CBI), Asia Frontier Capital (AFC))

Loan growth peaked in 2015 after slowing in the prior year and has declined since, while NPL’s soared in 2015-2016 as the effects of the capital spending cuts fed through to deteriorating loan quality. These negative effects were made worse by a flight to safety as more of the private sector borrowed from state banks instead, in the process increasing their share from 59% to 63% of all private sector lending. The ultimate effects of budget surpluses and deficits on loan growth and quality can also be seen from the above chart.

Deposits 2010-2017

(Source: Central Bank of Iraq (CBI), Asia Frontier Capital (AFC))

The same story is repeated with private sector deposits which for commercial banks peaked in 2013 and declined since then. The flight to quality was again evident in the slower decline in total deposit growth and its pick-up in 2017 as the expansionary effects of the recovery in oil prices and the ending of conflict were being felt. In the process, the state banks increased their share of total private sector deposits from 61% to 68%.

Trade Finance 2010-2017

(Source: Central Bank of Iraq (CBI), Asia Frontier Capital (AFC))

The only area where commercial banks increased their share was that of trade finance for the private sector- increasing from 71% to 87%. However, trade finance suffered significantly in this period as trade declined due to investment cuts and the slowdown in consumer spending. This further hurt the commercial banks as it was a major source of revenues and growth.

Its logical to conclude that the sea change which has taken place in the government’s financial health would reverse the trends seen in the charts above as the significant stimuluses to non-oil GDP should lead to sustainable economic activity, providing room for the banks to recover and grow again.

It should be noted that these are aggregate figures for the whole sector which hide significant variations in the performance of individual banks. The pains of 2014-2017, including the recent pressure on FX margins, would have exposed the structural weaknesses of many of the banks and will likely lead to failures among the weaker ones. However, the stronger banks that weathered the storm and addressed any structural weaknesses should benefit disproportionally from the expected benefits from a recovering economy.

Please click here to download Ahmed Tabaqchali’s full report in pdf format.

Mr Tabaqchali (@AMTabaqchali) is the CIO of the AFC Iraq Fund, and is an experienced capital markets professional with over 25 years’ experience in US and MENA markets. He is a non-resident Fellow at the Institute of Regional and International Studies (IRIS) at the American University of Iraq-Sulaimani (AUIS). He is a board member of the Credit Bank of Iraq.

His comments, opinions and analyses are personal views and are intended to be for informational purposes and general interest only and should not be construed as individual investment advice or a recommendation or solicitation to buy, sell or hold any fund or security or to adopt any investment strategy. It does not constitute legal or tax or investment advice. The information provided in this material is compiled from sources that are believed to be reliable, but no guarantee is made of its correctness, is rendered as at publication date and may change without notice and it is not intended as a complete analysis of every material fact regarding Iraq, the region, market or investment.