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The Iraqi Parliament Opens, and Stays Open

By Reidar Visser (www.historiae.org)

14 June 2010

A good indication of the state of affairs of Iraqi politics is the absence of a single, official list of the 325 deputies that were supposed to be present at today’s opening of the second Iraqi parliament after the adoption of the new constitution in 2005. True, there is a list of new deputies at the parliament website, but it is not the updated list after all the changes to the certification of candidates that took place in April and May. Rather, these are just copies of the provisional results released by the Iraqi election commission (IHEC) in late March, and as such they contain several errors. Most notably, they erroneously list two Iraqiyya deputies in Diyala, Abdallah al-Jibburi and Najm al-Harbi, who have been disqualified for legal reasons (criminal cases) and replaced by others from their list (reportedly Muhammad Uthman al-Khalidi and Hassan Sulayman al-Bayati of the Nujayfi bloc and the Turkmen front within Iraqiyya respectively). Similarly, Ibrahim al-Mutlak of Iraqiyya does not appear in the list for Baghdad even though his de-Baathification exclusion was eventually overturned. In fact, the only up-to-date document that appears on the website of the parliament is the list of the 7 compensation seats, which correctly indicates Jabir al-Jabiri of Anbar as the replacement for Iraqiyya candidate Umar Abd al-Sattar (who was also disqualified for legal reasons unrelated to de-Baathification). Jabiri has previously worked as an advisor to Rafi al-Eisawi, the deputy premier.

The reason there is no single list of winners and the votes they got is that the result in the end got stitched up, with absolutely no consistency: For example, some excluded candidates lost their votes but others did not. In the end IHEC apparently gave up presenting a true “final result” including individual votes (but it did make a press announcement to the effect that it had “furnished parliament with information about the name of the eldest seat winner” who should chair the first meeting: Bravo!) It should come as no surprise, therefore, that a similarly lax approach characterised the first meeting of parliament today. In theory, the procedure to be adopted is perfectly clear: Parliament should have elected a speaker today and a president within a month; he, in turn, would be supposed to charge the candidate of the biggest bloc with forming the next government. But just like in 2006, many Iraqi politicians prefer to seek a single package for all these appointments, and since no consensus is in sight anytime soon they simply declared that the first meeting would remain open (in 2006 it lasted for more than 40 days), thereby circumventing such nuisances as constitutionally mandated timelines. Also, the meeting was eventually chaired by Fuad Masum of the Kurdistan list rather than Hassan al-Alawi of Iraqiyya who excused himself for health reasons; in order to avoid a too overt breach of constitutionality, deputies that remain members of the present Maliki government were exempted from the parliamentary oath – to avoid a violation of the principle of division of power!

The timeline is not the only aspect of the constitution that some parties want do dispense with. The recent merger between the two Shiite-led alliances, State of Law (SLA) and the Iraqi National Alliance (INA) into a super-alliance known as the “National Alliance” has already created heated debate about the interpretation of the term “biggest bloc” in article 76 on the right to form the government, since a restrictive interpretation based on electoral entities would give priority to the secular Iraqiyya (91 seats), whereas a more elastic reading would allow post-election bloc formation and thereby create an opportunity for the new sectarian Shiite super-alliance (89+70 seats). It is however noteworthy that continued quarrelling inside the new Shiite bloc has led some of them to propose a number of unconstitutional measures in order to impose their particular candidate for premier. In particular, the second biggest Shiite component, INA, has suggested that article 76 of the constitution be further diluted. According to this innovation, the Shiite alliance would obtain priority based on a claim to status as the “biggest”, but instead of following the constitutional procedure of presenting a single prime ministerial candidate to parliament, INA has suggested entering parliament with multiple would-be premiers, whose final ranking would be decided either by the assembly or a roundtable of the winning entities.

This in turn reflects the political paradox of the new Iraqi assembly. To some, the proposal by INA will no doubt come across as superficially constructive and even “moderate”, since it would involve other blocs in selecting the premier: The Obama administration and the UN agency in Iraq, UNAMI, seem particularly fond of this kind of approach. A closer look, however, reveals that this is in fact a deliberate attempt by a medium-sized entity to outmanoeuvre the two biggest winning entities and their popular prime ministerial candidates: Iraqiyya headed by Ayad Allawi (91 seats) and SLA headed by Nuri al-Maliki (89 seats). In brief, INA fears that Maliki will seek to dominate the internal Shiite nomination process (where he is backed by a more coherent leadership group than INA which at least can block others even if they cannot impose Maliki), whereas INA is only interested in government participation by Iraqiyya as token “Sunni” representation. As such, this is a continuation of the campaign initiated by pro-Iranian forces in 2009 to attack what they saw as the biggest threat against Iranian hegemony in Iraq: The tentative autonomy of Nuri al-Maliki and the nationalist agenda of Ayad Allawi, both of which threatened to upset the formula of ethno-sectarian power-sharing favoured by Iran in which a broad Shiite coalition would always dominate.

The paradox is of course that Allawi and Maliki could have easily escaped the attempt by INA to unconstitutionally dethrone both of them from the prime ministerial position by simply making friends with each other. Under that scenario, they could form a viable, strong and reasonably coherent centralist and anti-federal government with a backing of 180 deputies – with no need to placate centrifugal forces such as the two biggest Kurdish parties, ISCI and Iran, and with far better prospects of actually getting a parliamentary speaker and president elected than those ambitious power-sharing visions that aim at a majority of more than 200 (just 163 is in fact needed to win a run-off; not 216 or two-thirds which is only an aspirational goal) and moreover intend to try to meet Kurdish demands that are likely to prove impossible. Interestingly, there are signs that this idea is finally gaining some traction, with sudden meetings between Allawi and Maliki just as the new Shiite alliance declared its new name, and with a legal advisor close to Maliki, Tariq Harb, even suggesting that this kind of alliance would be the most logical. At the same time, INA websites keep publishing slander about Maliki and some of his allies like Khalid al-Atiyya, again suggesting limits to their new marriage and its ability to survive in the real world. Already today, there was reportedly a meeting between the “bloc leaders” of the parliament prior to the gathering of the assembly itself, and unless the Shiites were represented by a single leader at that meeting they did in fact already violate their claim to constitute the biggest bloc!

In short, the debate about the next Iraqi government remains focused on procedure and hasn’t even begun touching real issues such as ministerial appointments and a political programme. Unless Allawi and Maliki should suddenly discover the advantages of a bilateral pact, it is likely to remain like that for some time, with a protracted debate about a premier candidate destined to run its course inside the new Shiite alliance for some time. So far, the new creation has not even been able to agree on a bloc leader (which is a requirement under the bylaws of the Iraqi parliament), and with a 80% consensus target for any premier candidate it may take a while before a decision is reached or a collapse in negotiations is recognised. The longer this process takes, the more fictitious will the claim to status as the “biggest bloc” become, and it is not unlikely that the Kurds and/or Maliki will gradually regain an interest in Iraqiyya as a realistic coalition partner. Only at that point can a real discussion about the fundamentals of the next Iraqi government begin.

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