Nouri al-Maliki today stands closer than ever to a second term as Iraq’s prime minister. He has overcome a principal obstacle, the Sadrist opposition to his leadership. The former prime minister and leader of the State of Law coalition has once again shown his endurance, having kept the negotiations open and finally reached success after seven months of effort. While the race is not yet over, the National Alliance’s nomination of Maliki has sped up the process and spurred Iraqi politicians into a hustle.
In late September, Iraq saw days of inconclusive and postponed meetings of the National Alliance, with Iraqi and Arab press reports of Iranian pressure on Moqtada al-Sadr to accept al-Maliki as the prime ministerial nominee despite the fact that al-Maliki led a campaign against the Sadrist Mahdi Army in 2008. Sadr released a telling statement at the end of September, admitting to pressures and preparing his base for a decision he would make later in the week: “Politics has no heart,” he wrote to his supporters, “and you must know that politics is about give and take.”
On October 1, the Sadrists stood side-by-side with State of Law representatives to nominate Maliki for a second term. But the absence of three major components of the Iraqi National Alliance from the meeting promised to further complicate matters. Fadilah (Islamic Virtue Party) and Ammar al-Hakim’s Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq (ISCI) declined to take part, as did the ISCI-affiliated Badr Organization. This allowed the Alliance to bypass previously agreed-upon internal selection mechanisms and pass Maliki’s nomination without a vote, alienating those who have taken strong positions against Maliki. Without their support, what could have been a definite Maliki premiership suddenly became less than certain.
Reservations of major partners
The Sadrist Trend and State of Law hold that the rift with ISCI and Fadilah is a matter of technicalities, and that it can be solved through guarantees to the protesting parties. ISCI has serious concerns about al-Maliki, but ISCI/Badr and Fadilah have made sure to leave space for reconciliation within the National Alliance. While they have stated that will not block al-Maliki’s nomination, they will not vote for him either.
Fadilah has maintained an ambiguous position, explicitly siding with neither Maliki nor his opponents. On the other hand, ISCI will continue to push instead for Vice President Adel Abdul Mahdi, who has made it clear that he remains in the running for prime minister and would attempt to create a unity government that includes the Iraqiya bloc headed by former Prime Minister Iyad Allawi. Nonetheless, ISCI leaders have warned that if ISCI and Fadilah’s grievances are not taken into consideration, they would be compelled to forge an agreement with Iraqiya. In fact, a tripartite committee has been created to discuss possible unified action between Iraqiya, ISCI, and Fadilah.
Iraqiya and Sunni Perspectives
Today, Iraqiya head Allawi has three options short of what would likely be a self-destructive boycott: join al-Maliki in a unity government, create a counter-coalition that would provide a broadly acceptable alternative to al-Maliki, or participate in parliament as opposition. Allawi himself has little to no chance of being nominated and creating the government, considering that he is as divisive a figure as al-Maliki. If he accepts this, he might rescind his own run for the premiership and endorse Abdul Mahdi (or another acceptable compromise) as his nominee.
Positioning themselves for the bartering stage, the small Tawafuq and Unity Alliance of Iraq (UAI) have swung into action since the National Alliance announcement and are working towards banding together for strength. Tawafuq leader Rashid Ezzawi called for important posts to be divided among the main groups within Iraq regardless of whether Iraqiya participates in government or not. After standing on the sidelines for the past few months, Tawafuq and UAI now see an opening where they may represent the Sunni component in the next government if Iraqiya does boycott. This is reminiscent of the first post-Saddam Hussein government in Iraq, when most Sunnis boycotted and Tawafuq, with 44 parliamentary seats, was the only major Sunni group in parliament.
Nonetheless, this time around it is far less likely that Iraqiya would actually follow through on its threats and refuse to cooperate with a new government. Sunnis learned difficult lessons over the past few years from their self-imposed exclusion from government formation and the constitution writing process. After seven months of negotiation, it is not likely that Iraqiya would accept to be in the opposition. But in a sign of caution, Hassan Aloui of Iraqiya said after al-Maliki’s nomination that while Iraqiya intends to boycott an al-Maliki-formed government, this is not a decision that it could take on behalf of all Iraq’s Sunnis.
Kurds the Kingmakers Once More?
It is now clear that the Kurds will again carry the key to government formation. Any prime ministerial nominee needs 163 votes in order to take over the post and none of the contenders can likely achieve that magic number without the 43
Kurdistan Alliance votes.
While the Kurdistan Alliance has close relations with ISCI and is likely to take its positions into account, in the end the Kurds are likely to take a pragmatic approach and back whoever meets the threshold of their demands. Roz Nuri Shaweis, the Kurdish negotiator and deputy prime minister in Maliki's government, announced on October 6 that while he does not foresee government-formation being completed by the end of the year, the Kurds were nearing an agreement with Maliki, hinting that they may have to form a majority government. The Kurdish parties have presented a list of 19 demands, some of which are negotiable while others are not.
The demands (described by some observers as debilitating) include supporting the Kurdistan Alliance’s nominees for the posts of president and secretary-general of the cabinet, implementing Article 140 of the constitution (calling for a census and referendum in Kirkuk) within two years, and ratifying of water, oil, and gas laws within a year. The list also includes demands for a Kurdish veto on the nominees for sovereign ministries as well as any other ministries that affect the Kurdish region.
At one point, the National Alliance was only four seats short of the 163 votes needed to nominate a prime minister in parliament. As ISCI and Fadilah chose to challenge Maliki rather than support him, Maliki has lost 28 seats from the once-unified National Front. His chances at forming the government remain high with 89 State of Law votes and 42 Iraqi National Alliance seats – bringing his support to about 131 votes, far less than he could claim one week before his nomination. Today, Maliki hopes to regain Fadilah (7 seats) and has been negotiating with the small Sunni blocs, Tawafuq and the UAI (10 seats combined). Nonetheless, while looking for support in all directions, Maliki will be unable to reach 163 votes short of a miraculous breakup of other major parties or obtaining the Kurdish vote.
If an ISCI/Badr-Fadilah-Iraqiya bloc were formed, Iraqiya (91 seats) would gain the 28 parliamentarians who belong to ISCI/Badr and Fadilah, which would still be far short of the necessary 163. Such a coalition would also have no choice but to pull in the Kurdish vote and negotiate over Kurdish demands, some of which are bound to be strongly objectionable to Arab nationalists within Iraqiya. Nonetheless, with Abdul Mahdi heading the government in such a scenario, the Kurds would likely feel more assured than they would within an Allawi-led or an al-Maliki-led coalition, due to Abdul Mahdi’s decades-long ties with the Kurdish leadership.
With the Kurds, an ISCI/Badr-Fadilah-Iraqiyah bloc would then have 162 seats and would still need to be able to sway a few independents from other coalitions. This would not be a difficult task in and of itself. The Kurdish Gorran and Islamist parties, which respectively gained eight and six seats, would likely ally with the Kurdish Alliance on the national level (while maintaining opposition in Kurdistan). Several other minor coalitions and parties have also shown flexibility as to whom they would support.
Currently, Iraqiya and ISCI are working against the clock to achieve majorities of 163 seats in parliament before al-Maliki is able to. Adel Abdul Mahdi appears to be determined to take the office he feels al-Maliki is not fit for. Allawi and al-Maliki are both divisive figures, but al-Maliki now has the advantage due to Iranian support and the upper hand he commands as an incumbent. Unfortunately for Iraqis, neither is seen as being a uniting force capable of bringing the stability and reconciliation needed for Iraq to advance as a regional actor in its own right.
Danial Anas Kaysi is the Arab Reform Bulletin’s Assistant Editor.