Whilst the advent of democracy in Iraq has often been hailed as historic, politicians embroiled in an ongoing and tense stalemate to form the next government, continued to set other unwanted records with the longest period of time taken to form a government after an election.
Fast approaching eight months since the Iraqi national elections were held, politicians gripped with deep mistrust and personal grudges have failed to negotiate their way to a new government, desperately needed to bring stability and security to Iraq.
With a closer view of the Iraqi track record, this is hardly a surprising or unexpected phenomenon, even if Iraqi politicians have outdone themselves by their own standards.
The national elections were first delayed by two months, followed by results that took another two months to ratify, and since then another five months or so have passed for Iraqis to make somewhat of an inroad into selecting a prime minister to spearhead government formation. Before the US or Iraqis get ahead of themselves, it may take well into 2011 to agree on the formation of a cabinet.
Democracy in Iraq has been painstaking at the best times owed largely to the fractured and historically tainted nature of the Iraqi socio-political horizon. However, with the promise of a first fully sovereign government in light of the US withdrawal and the need to plug the security gaps that the might of the US army have crucially covered at great expense for so long, these elections and a successful national unity government which has been a reoccurring and elusive pillar of Washington policy, were understandably seen as a major barometer of the things to come.
With Ayad Allawi’s al-Iraqiya list narrowly winning the majority of seats to incumbent Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s State of Law coalition, the scene was already set for a turbulent battle in the Iraqi political chambers.
As soon as the final votes were ratified, the jockeying for political alliances and coalitions began. The very arduous, bitter and intense nature by which political groups have failed to find common ground speaks volumes about the very characteristics that have continually blighted the Iraqi transition to democracy.
The maths in principle is easy. A coalition with 163 seats is needed to form the next government. With al-Iraqiya on 91, State of Law on 89, Iraqi National Alliance on 70 and the Kurdistan list on 57, the permutations are varied but the denominations required to obtain the key threshold clear.
Once the Iraqi National Alliance (INA) and State of Law joined forces in the aftermath of the elections to create a seemingly new Shiite super party, at least on paper the formalities seemed obvious. Their combined total gave them 159 seats, thus leaving them only 4 seats short.
However, this is easier said than done with many personality clashes, historical animosity and different agendas even within existing alliances to factor in.
With the surprising decision of Moqtada al-Sadr’s list to back al-Maliki for the premiership, it was widely but prematurely hailed as the breaking of the deadlock.
However, as Iraq often takes one step forward and two back, the Sadrist’s stance all but fractured the Shiite coalition, with the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq (SIIC) and Fadhila hesitating to follow suite and grant al-Maliki a second term that many Shiite actors deeply oppose.
Much like pieces of a chessboard, the permutations and tides of power shifted once again.
The Sadrist’s move and the breaking of the Shiite coalition have more or less left the door widely open to the Kurds. With the SIIC still in the frame to form a counter coalition with al-Iraqiya, this has left the balance very finely in the Kurds favour with either of the major groupings.
There was initial hope that Allawi and Maliki could work together but given the ill feelings and growing disillusionment between the arch rivals, the chances of a direct al-Iraqiya and State of Law coalition remains bleak. This is increasingly leading to two entrenched camps with the yet undecided Kurds waiting on the wings to decide their fate.
From a Kurdish point of view, not only is this a position they have become accustomed to but also alleviates the danger that they could have been sidelined by a pan-Arab alliance. Given the strained nature of relationships between Erbil and Baghdad over the past years over a number of key issues including article 140, the status of disputed territories, oil sharing and revenue distribution, factors that are from a Kurdish perspective augmented with a bitter taste of broken promises emanating from the last Kurdish and Shiite alliance, this provides a valuable opportunity for the Kurds to tips the scales towards Erbil once more.
Many of the 19 points put forward by the Kurdish alliance as their key demands are hardly new and stem from the Transitive Administrative Law period as well as from the first coalition in 2005. Yet it begs the question why after all these years have these key demands, largely accepted in principle from the outset and reflected in the constitution, been continuously neglected?
The Kurds find themselves in a powerful bargaining position again and no matter how long it takes or what pressure they come under from the US, Baghdad or neighbouring countries to back down and compromise, their key points should be firmly etched in the political chambers.
After all, the Shiites bickered amongst themselves for many months were compromise was scarce, so why shouldn’t the Kurds be as ardent and persistent in their own goals?
Although, the Kurds could still strike accord with an Allawi boosted by an theoretical backing of SIIC and Fadhila, the chances of a Kurdish alliance with al-Maliki seem more likely.
It must not be forgotten that a number of al-Iraqiya political parties vied aggressively with the Kurdish parties in the key disputed territories including Kirkuk and the opposition to article 140 became almost one of the cornerstones of Allawi’s campaigning.
However, assuming al-Maliki musters the required majority to lead Baghdad once more, any Shiite deal with the Kurds particularly over the disputed territories at the doorstep of al-Iraqiya will hardly be the right tonic to soothe Sunni sentiments.
In fact, this is Iraq and regardless of electoral results, coalitions and agreements, any motion that does not cater for the appetite of all major groups will spell disaster.
Iraq is a disparate and historically scarred nation and any sharing of the Iraqi cake that does not satisfy all parties will almost certainly implode in violence.
Therefore, regardless of any future coalition, any sidelining of Allawi’s party will unleash certain doom. In the same way that if the Kurds were sidelined with a more unlikely Allawi and Maliki partnership, the Kurds could well have withdrawn from Baghdad all together.
This effectively means that while any agreement on the candidacy of Prime Minister would be a key milestone, it is essentially just another step. The actual formation of a cabinet will be even more delicate, as al-Maliki will almost certainly have no choice but to cede a number of key cabinet positions to al-Iraqiya and the Sunnis. Simply put, the chances of Allawi’s party accepting to play second fiddle to the main Shiite bloc having ironically been victors at the polls is next to zero.
To placate the stance of al-Iraqiya, they still firmly believe according to their interpretation of the constitution that they have the right to attempt to form government first as the party with the most votes.
On top of this, the Sadrist’s vote of confidence for al-Maliki will hardly come cheap and that they may yet demand at least 6 of the 34 positions on offer.
If the jockeying for the premiership was hard enough, getting the balance right in the sharing of the cake will be even more perilous.
Eventually a new government will be formed, but one with crumbling foundations, bitter taste in the mouth of politicians or parties who believe their returns were disproportionate, and the new Iraqi government will only stutter into a new political chapter. Such delicate alliances are always susceptible to problems and disintegration.
As political tussling, personal battles and ill feelings continue to run rife, politicians have seemingly forgotten the very people they have been elected to serve.
Violence in Iraq is steadily on the rise, reconstruction has all but been stagnant and much essential work to resuscitate Iraqi from years of sanctions, insurgency and economic ruin continues to linger.
First Published On: Kurdish Globe
Other Publication Sources: Peyamner, Various Misc.