Maneuvering to form a new government in Iraq has intensified in recent days. The recount in Baghdad is finished and the distribution of seats remains the same. No coalition has the 163 seats necessary to form a new government. The new and rather shaky parliamentary bloc that includes Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s State of Law coalition and Iraqi National Alliance is the closest with 159 seats. But Iraqiya—the coalition headed by Iyad Allawi and supported by most Sunni voters—emerged from the election with 91 seats and continues to hold out hope that it can form the new government. Thus far, neither side is willing to make the concessions necessary to form an inclusive government that enjoys widespread support.
Maliki is determined to remain prime minister and is currently the State of Law coalition’s only candidate for the position. But State of Law only has 89 seats in the new parliament, while Allawi’s Iraqiya has 91. Thus, Maliki can only receive a mandate to form the government if the new parliamentary bloc announced by State of Law and the Iraqi National Alliance in early May remains intact. A break-up is unlikely, but not impossible.
INA-State of Law Remains Shaky
None of the Shi’i parties in the Iraqi National Alliance (INA) want Maliki to be prime minister—opposition to him personally is what prevented members of the INA from allying with State of Law ahead of the elections—and they have circulated alternate names
. But Maliki has not shown sign of relenting. Although the battle is far from over, in recent days there seems to be growing resignation among INA members that Maliki may get a second term. As a result, Iraq is now witnessing the paradox that part of the coalition choosing the new prime minister—and one that will be part of the government—wants to weaken the powers of the prime minister.
A spokesman for the INA, Ibrahim Bahrul-Uloom, has stated that the INA is proposing the creation of three deputy prime minister positions, in charge of the security, finances, and services, respectively. At present, Iraq has one deputy prime minister. However, the constitution does not call for a deputy prime minister position (or positions) and it is not clear whether the change proposed by the INA would require a constitutional amendment. According to Bahrul-Uloom, the INA has also presented to State of Law a 50-article document that narrowly defines the job of the prime minister, reducing the position to one of managing the government, rather than being head of the government. Shi’i parties thus remain quite divided, despite the formation of the recently reunited bloc.
Discontent is not limited to the INA side. State of Law is also worried that the agreement that allowed to the formation of the National Alliance would be difficult and cumbersome to implement. The agreement included forming a dispute-resolution committee comprised of equal numbers of State of Law and the INA representatives. If this committee failed to reach a consensus, Shi’i religious authorities (interpreted as referring to Sheikh Ali al-Sistani, who has neither confirmed nor denied his acceptance of this role) would be empowered to make the final, binding decisions. The arrangement is indeed cumbersome, but it is doubtful that the INA would have accepted to form the bloc without it. Trying to modify the agreement could thus be dangerous.
Tactical Differences Among Kurdish Parties
Fissures are also appearing among the Kurdish parties, although they had announced after the elections that they would participate in national politics as a unified bloc. According to some reports, the agreement reached by State of Law and the INA when they formed the National Alliance assumed the Kurds would back the Alliance, and that they would keep the presidency in return for their support. Statements made recently by various Kurdish leaders call that idea into question. There is no doubt that current President Jalal Talabani and his Patriotic Union of Kurdistan Party want to retain the presidency and will back the INA-State of Law alliance as a result. But the leaders of Gorran, the party that broke off from the PUK and remains its main rival, is now suggesting that the Kurds should not demand the presidency, but the speakership of the Council of Representatives. Ostensibly, this is because the latter position is more powerful. Not incidentally, if the Kurdish parties accepted Gorran’s position and opted for the speakership rather than the presidency, Talabani would be deprived of the position he covets. Even more revealing of dissension among the Kurds is that fact that Massoud Barzani, the president of the Kurdistan region and the leader of the Democratic Party of Kurdistan, appears to be distancing himself from Maliki. Barzani has stated that Iraqi politicians must respect the constitution and the people’s will, and thus Allawi, whose Iraqiya coalition won the largest number of seats, should receive the mandate to form the government.
It is impossible to determine at this point whether Barzani’s position is just an opening gambit to win more concessions from the Shi’i parties or whether there is a possibility that at least some Kurdish parties will break ranks and back Allawi. Two conclusions are clear, however. First, State of Law is both angry and worried about Barzani’s position, because it needs Kurdish support to form a government. Speaking for the State of Law, Ali Dabbagh angrily declared that the Kurds were welcome to side with Iraqiya if they wanted, but then thought better of it and denied having made such a statement. Second, the Kurds are trying to exact a high price for their support. Reports indicate that they are demanding the implementation of Article 140 of the constitution, which calls for a referendum in Kirkuk; control of the presidency plus at least one of the sovereign ministries; an oil law that defends their interests; and a commitment by the government to provide funding for the peshmerga forces even though the peshmerga have a degree of autonomy from the Iraqi security apparatus. Baha’a Aaraji of State of Law has declared that the Kurds will have to reconsider their exorbitant demands if they plan to negotiate seriously.
Allawi’s Chances Diminishing
The loser in this maneuvering appears to be Iyad Allawi, who will probably not receive the mandate to form the government. Only a serious misstep on the part of Maliki (such as reneging on the terms of the agreement that led to his coalition’s alliance with the INA or too brazen a bid to exclude or break up Iraqiya) could change Allawi’s fortunes. It seems quite likely, though, that Iraqiya or at least Iraqiya members will have to be included in a governing coalition because Iraqiya received most of the Sunni vote. On this point, too, State of Law and the INA are divided. Al-Hakim has been open toward Allawi and Iraqiya, and meetings have taken place on a regular basis. Furthermore, al-Hakim, President Talabani, and even Sadrist representatives have been traveling to various Arab capitals, making a bid for Iraq’s reintegration in the Arab world, in striking contrast to Maliki’s aloofness. But Maliki has still not met with Allawi, although he has repeatedly promised that he will, once the time is right. Thus Allawi remains in limbo at present. He is currently keeping a busy international schedule (as are al-Hakim and Talabani), and maintains contacts with all political groups except State of Law. He has even gone to Najaf to pay his respect to Ayatollah al-Sistani. But there is no sign that there has been any breakthrough in his relations with Maliki.
It has become commonplace to say that the formation of the new Iraqi government is still many months away. Yes and no. The issues that need to be negotiated before a government is formed need not take months, unless all sides insist that all outstanding issues be settled before hand—including, for example, the referendum on Kirkuk and the oil law. The INA’s insistence on imposing limits on the prime minister’s power that require constitutional amendments would throw the entire process into disarray and cause longer delays. The real problem at this point, though, is not that the issues to be negotiated will take time, but that serious negotiations do not appear to have started yet. Iraqi politicians are still more focused on posturing than on compromising.