Four months after the elections, the political situation in Iraq remains stalemated, with the major parties involved in multiple talks with everybody without reaching lasting agreements. The constitutional requirement that the new parliament elect a speaker on its first meeting has been disregarded and parliament also decided to ignore its obligation to elect a president within a month of its first convening on June 14. Now without deadlines, Iraqi politicians are indulging in a complicated game. Recent direct talks between incumbent Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki and Iraqiya’s leader Iyad Allawi have given rise to speculation that some progress is finally being made or, more skeptically, that all sides are bluffing in an attempt to gain an advantage.

At the heart of the stalemate is the disagreement about who should be prime minister. This is the most powerful position in the government and in the last year Maliki has demonstrated that it can become even more powerful in the hands of a skillful politician. Control of the premiership is thus seen as all important. Neither the position of president nor speaker of parliament carries even remotely the same weight.

Has Maliki Seen the Writing on the Wall? 

Maliki has shown so far that he is determined to continue as prime minister. His insistence prevented the formation of a single Shi’i coalition before the election, leading to the emergence of Maliki’s own State of Law (SoL), which he dominates, and the Iraqi National Alliance (INA), which groups the other important Shi’i parties and personalities, including the Iraqi Supreme Council of Iraq (ISCI), the Sadrists, the Badr organization, and former Prime Minister Ibrahim Jafari. Maliki’s insistence that he must remain prime minister has kept the new parliamentary Shi’i bloc, the National Coalition—which includes State of Law and the INA—from speaking with one voice. Instead, the parties in the INA are negotiating separately with Iraqiya and the Kurdish parties, and have even established their own diplomatic contacts with other countries in the region.
Two recent developments may have weakened Maliki’s determination and convinced him that he may not be the next prime minister. The first is the increasing vocal and united opposition from all the INA members. While there is nothing new about this opposition, there is now a greater degree of openness about it; INA members have made repeated references recently to a letter they sent to Maliki explaining why he could not be the National Coalition candidate. 
The second sign of change, clearly related to the first, is that after weeks of procrastination, Maliki and Allawi have held several meetings. Maliki in particular had been reluctant to enter into a direct dialogue with his adversary, arguing that he was not interested in an encounter that would merely be a photo opportunity. The recent meetings between Maliki and Allawi—and even more importantly between the negotiating committees of the State of Law and Iraqiya—are open to conflicting interpretations.

Or Is Maliki Bluffing?

The optimistic assessment is that the meetings indicate that Maliki and Allawi have accepted that neither of them has the support to become prime minister. As long as they both aspired to the position, they were locked in a zero-sum game precluding negotiations. But if the premiership goes to a compromise candidate, there is plenty to negotiate: who that candidate will be, who the president and the speaker of parliament will be, which party will control which ministries. While such negotiations will undoubtedly be complicated—they will eventually have to include the Kurdish parties as well—many positions are at stake and thus there is room for bargaining. 
The less optimistic interpretation is that the dialogue with Iraqiya is simply a bluff on the part of Maliki, an attempt to convince the members of the INA that, if they do not support him as prime minister, he will work out a deal with Iraqiya and leave them out in the cold. At least some of the INA is taking the threat seriously. Representatives of the ISCI and the Badr organization publicly objected to the June 29 meeting between Maliki and Allawi at Iraqiya’s headquarters. This was not the first meeting between the two leaders, but many INA members chose to read it as the result of U.S. pressure on Allawi and Maliki to join in a coalition to the detriment of the INA, which is considered to be particularly close to Iran and thus regarded with suspicion in Washington. 
Both interpretations of these meetings are plausible. For example, it is not clear the talks between Iraqiya and State of Law have produced any concrete results—when one side, most often the State of Law, claims progress is being made, the other promptly denies it. And the INA, despite a few expressed concerns, does not appear worried enough by the dialogue between Maliki and Allawi to support Maliki for the prime minister’s position—and INA is also holding talks with Iraqiya.  All parties are thus still playing a multi-sided game. 
The Kurdish parties, which will have to be brought into the government no matter who forms it, are not directly involved in the current maneuvers. Their concern is to retain control of the presidency and to safeguard the autonomous status of Kurdistan, and they will thus support any government that accepts these demands. 

Outlook Remains Unclear

In the absence of any clear indication about the outcome of the complex interactions among parties, plausible and implausible rumors abound. The pan-Arab newspaper Al Hayat, for example, has reported that Iraqiya has conveyed to State of Law its willingness to give up the prime minister’s position as long as State of Law admits that Iraqiya has a right to form the government, thus to participate in the selection of the prime minister.  However, Iraqiya would extract a high price for renouncing the premiership: it would demand the post of speaker of the parliament and three of the four important ministries—defense, interior, foreign relations, and finance. This is an implausible rumor, because Maliki would be giving up too much, not only the premiership but also the most important ministries. More plausible are the rumors, of which various versions exist, that as part of a compromise the position of prime minister would be made less powerful, either by creating one or more deputy prime minister positions or by strengthening the presidency. 
The stalemate is beginning to take a toll. The public’s patience is wearing thin and violence is increasing, although it has not reached the dramatic levels of earlier years. Shi’i pilgrims are targets of attacks. Random street violence is returning. Allawi and other Iraqiya leaders claim to be targets of assassination attempts. And the population is becoming impatient with the government’s failure to deliver services, particularly electricity, prompting street protest in Basra. While the government claims that the protest was politicized, hinting it was incited by the Sadrists—and this is possible—frustration is genuine.
Exiting the present impasse requires an agreement on a compromise candidate for the position of prime minister, with Allawi and Maliki agreeing to step aside. Such a compromise would make it possible to move forward on the government. Just as importantly, Maliki’s willingness to accept defeat could have long-term implications for democracy in Iraq—and even the region. Most Arab leaders do not step down as a result of elections; on the contrary they use elections to reaffirm their power. If Maliki retained his position despite a less than impressive performance at the polls, the Iraqi elections would simply confirm that Arab leaders do not allow themselves to be defeated. If he did step aside in favor of a compromise candidate, it would be an almost unique demonstration that elections can bring about change.