Tag Archives: Government Formation

Once bitten, twice shy

While Kurds bring warring Arabs together, Kurdistan must ensure that the principles of co-existence are not sidelined

For a disparate country fuelled by common mistrust and a diverse ethno-social mosaic, finding a formula to satisfy all sides is never going to be plain sailing. How the Iraqi ‘cake’ is essentially shared and the mechanisms for doing so remain at the heart of Iraqi disputes. While analysts often talk about the distribution of power between the Sunni, Shiite and Kurdish counterparts, the basis for their respective “demands” is at times misunderstood.

There are essentially two deriving factors for the distribution of power in Iraq. The question around the division of power and key responsibilities between Shiites and Sunnis is essentially an Arab and sectarian based issue and a greater problem for Baghdad. There are of course various agendas for the balance of power and national ranking between Sunnis and Shiites, not least the great foreign interest in ensuring one side gets the upper hand over the other.

However, the Kurdish issue must not be judged on the same basis as the “Arab” problem. As far as Kurdistan is considered, it is a separate federal entity and as such the issue of ensuring equal representation and distribution of power should be based on ethnic grounds and on the basis of a voluntary union between the two main nationalities in Iraq.

Some Arab parties and foreign powers misapply the importance of dividing the top seats in Iraq. There was immense pressure from Washington and Ankara for the Kurds to relinquish their demand for the Presidency. This is democracy and normally electoral representation and thus the seats attained speak volumes. However, by the same token this is Iraq and democracy can never be applied on the basis of such simple mathematics. In theory, the Kurds came fourth in the election and thus top seats can be guzzled up by the so called victors of the polls. However, ultimately the argument is simple. As the second nation in Iraq, who affectively opted to become a part of a new federal Iraq on a voluntary basis, the importance of equal representation for the Kurds in Baghdad must not be mixed up with a quota based strictly on election results.

As such, when it comes to the distribution of power and key posts in Baghdad, the Kurds warrant a share of powerful positions based on equal partner status in Iraq and based on the plurality of the country. The Kurds warrant key roles that have influence in shaping the external character of Iraq and therefore the Kurds must hold onto the position of Foreign Minister. Then there are the key posts that decide the internal strategy and makeup of Iraq such as the ministries of oil, interior and security.

If the Kurds are denied positions that define and highlight the plurality of Iraq to the outside world or internal roles that define the direction of Iraq then this would provide evidence that age-old mentalities are hard to shake-off in Iraq and would certainly have the Kurds asking what direct benefit would they have  in any connection to Baghdad.

It would be ironic and somewhat contradictory if foreign powers and particularly Arab politicians assume that whilst constitutionally Kurds are the second nation in Iraq and in a voluntary union, that they would be happy with backroom political roles, especially to appease the likes of Allawi and al-Maliki.

This is the intrinsic nature of Iraq and no matter how you look at it, classic democracy can never be applied to Iraq. Regardless that they are outnumbered by Arabs in the greater Iraq, Kurds refuse to buckle to decisions imposed on their region or on their people by Arab politicians, lest some Arab chauvinists that prevail. Much in the same way that even though the Sunnis are far outnumbered by their Shiite rivals, they refuse to succumb to Shiite rule and moreover the majority of Western powers refuse to allow this reality to bear fruit. Ironically, the idea that Allawi and al-Iraqiya were triumphant at the elections is somewhat misleading. Firstly, Allawi is another Shiite using the Sunni bandwagon in his quest to reestablish power and secondly if all the Shiite parties combine, they have by far the most votes and could politically outmaneuver the Sunnis at ease.

Thus the new political mission in Iraq of distributing posts and forming a new cabinet will be based on the ideals of appeasement and a quota based system. The price extracted by political parties for supporting this new government will never be proportional to the number of seats attained at the polls, but based on meeting demands of political counterparts to keep them content and thus keeping the fragile political framework glued together.

As such, the perquisites of al-Iraqiya support hinge on them attaining powerful positions such heading the new National Council for Higher Strategic Policies. The contradictions are obvious, this council does not have constitutional support but based on the ‘goodwill’ of the leading Shiites and specifically al-Maliki when it comes to affording it executive decision making ability. As the head of the government, by far the largest coalition in the country and the overwhelmingly majority in Iraq, how far would al-Maliki go to share power with the Sunni’s purely based on the desire to appease their minority brethren who are yet a key component of the Iraqi framework?

The political uncertainty and instability can be best highlighted in the so called national army. The Sunnis distrust the national security forces that have a predominantly Shiite flavour, while the Kurds are not adequately represented and thus will always rely on their substantial and experienced regional Peshmerga forces, while other key Shiites such as the Sadrist fear that without their powerful militias that they would become sidelined militaristically by the likes of al-Maliki. Hence, Moqtada al-Sadr’s precondition for supporting his onetime nemesis in al-Maliki was that his Sadr forces obtain 25% of key positions within the security. Finally, there is the grand issue of fully integrating the Sunni Sahwa council forces into the official security apparatus.

Each of the aforementioned military factions is loyal to none but their political, sectarian or ethnic affiliations. Simply put, no side will accept a quota based on their populist representation in Iraq. Fuelled with great mistrust and a tainted history, no party will be willing to see another side with great military prowess assume the ascendancy.

As far as the Kurds are concerned, whilst they may have ironically helped Baghdad achieve a new government by acting as a strategic balancing body, of what benefit is seeing a strong and prosperous Baghdad and cross-sectarian Arab harmony if the key demands that form the underpinning of the voluntary union are continuously ignored?

Arabs have been dragging their heels over the implementation of the constitution particularly relating to Kirkuk and disputed territories and promises have been ignored countless times in the past. There is a great danger that Kurdish demands may be sidelined for greater Arab reconciliation somewhere down the line where Baghdad grows politically stronger. For example, all of nineteen Kurdish preconditions for support have been agreed by al-Maliki, which serve as a major victory on paper for Kurdistan. However, whether al-Maliki will be willing to underwrite some of these implementations in the backyard of al-Iraqiya is unclear. Most Sunnis within al-Iraqiya have been openly bullish in their opposition to potential KRG expansion. This will likely leave al-Maliki with a dilemma, stall the Kurds further or upset the Sunnis.

The Kurds must be unmistakably clear. The constitution is the basis for their co-existence and thus the Kurds are asking for nothing more than what is legally enshrined in legislature. If the Arabs pull together to thwart Kurds over the constitution demands or the principles of co-existence is sidelined once more, then the Kurds must stop working to establish unity and stable governance in Baghdad and resign from Iraqi politics altogether.

The signs this time around suggest the Kurdish leadership will not tolerate small talk or empty promises. However, it waits to be seen if the latest episode of Kurdish intervention between Sunnis and Shiites and their role as a key balancing force leaves them with their key goals and objectives distanced – once again.

First Published On: Kurdish Globe

Other Publication Sources: Various Misc.

As weeks quickly pass, Iraqi politicians inch towards government formation

As months have quickly accumulated since the national elections were held in Iraq, in contrast politicians only inch towards the much elusive milestone of forming a new government.

Whilst it is possible to provide a detailed overview of the current situation in Iraq and the key socio-political characteristics that have hampered a sense of nationalism let alone national unity since its inception, the facts provide the best summary.

Any government formation effort that breaks all previous records in terms of the time expended highlights the complicated social, ethnic, political and sectarian composition of Iraq.

Although hope of a breakthrough in government formation was prematurely conceived when Moqtada al-Sadr lent an arm of support around incumbent Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki on his quest to hold on to the premiership, a plethora of hurdles, permutations, mistrust and personal agendas remain that have actually blighted the process even further than before.

With the Kurds now enjoying the decisive “kingmaker” role they have been afforded, at least in theory all that is left for the Kurds to do is “make their king” and break this impasse. However, this is Iraq and seldom are things as straight forward as this.

Not only does Iyad Allawi’s al-Iraqiya group which holds 91 seats stubbornly refuse to accept “defeat” to what has now become a highly entrenched and bitter rivalry with al-Maliki’s State of Law coalition, but it still continues to actively and eagerly tout for support to attain the premiership, far from reluctantly taking part in a loose nationalist alliance with all other parties or assume the role of the opposition.

Further to the ongoing jockeying that leaves the race for the premiership at least in practice wide open, it is perhaps the lack of buy-in from the weary Americans and a host of neighbouring powers, each with their own distinct agenda that has prevented Iraq from going past the elusive post.

As negotiations have unfolded, it has become increasingly evident that al-Maliki’s alliance is more leaning to the acceptance of the 19 key Kurdish demands.  However, the US is far from happy to firstly see the pro-Iranian Sadrist’s inevitably receive a whole host of key posts in the new government as a reward for their support and secondly to see a repeat scenario of the last major elections in Iraq, the sidelining of the Sunnis leading to devastating consequences that took years to heal.

It is almost certain that Washington has waned heavily on the Kurds to ensure that they do not enter an exclusive government with Sadrist and al-Maliki as partners. Conversely, Tehran is putting increasing pressure on Ammar al-Hakim to loosen his steadfast resistant of al-Maliki with viewing to solidifying a Shiite stranglehold in Baghdad.

With the influential positions of Turkey and Iran in particular, Iraqi politicians have seemingly met with their neighbouring counterparts as much as their fellow Iraqi political competitors.

Almost inevitably the majority of Sunni dominated neighbours want to prevent a strong Iranian hand in Iraqi affairs and a sidelining of al-Iraqiya. While in theory the Kurds could still be sidelined if al-Iraqiya and State of Law were more inclined to work together, the Kurds could simply threaten to secede from Baghdad altogether. However, the danger is that if the Sunnis are sidelined what affective options would they have? They can hardly threaten to secede in the same way as the Kurds, meaning taking up of arms would be perceived as their only option.

The problem in Iraq has always been the same. How do a number of warring and embittered groups that have been essentially stitched together share a piece of the Iraqi cake?

If this cake could be shared exponentially based on a population breakdown then the solution is logical. However, the Sunni’s who in theory can muster around 20% of this cake would never accept a minority status under the Shiite shadow who in comparison can demand 60% of this cake. While the Shiites clearly warrant a bigger slice of this cake on paper, the Sunnis would never accept anything less than equal partnership.

By the same token, although the Kurds only form 20% of the population, they would passionately and vigorously resist any attempts that will ever see them as minors encapsulated by a Shiite majority or a pan-Arab alliance. For the Kurds, it is simply equal status within Iraq, an equal partnership to decide matters in Iraq and an equal say in the direction of the country or they would decide to opt with no partnership at all and pursue their own independent path.

So how affective can democracy become in a country where regardless of numbers all parties demand their share of power and representation? Or where no party will refuse to be sidelined, even if by the very nature of a healthy democracy that may be the case if another alliance outmuscles them in coalition efforts?

Even if al-Maliki holds onto power with the support of the Kurds, which has emerged as the most likely scenario, Allawi will refuse to play second fiddle in Baghdad especially when he considers himself as the real victor of the polls.

Furthermore, any al-Maliki deal with the Kurds would effectively be played on the al-Iraqiya doorstep. Would the Sunni nationalists in Kirkuk and Mosul, already at loggerheads with the Kurds over disputed territories, watch as they are firstly sidelined from power and secondly perceived to be cast off by Shiite-Kurdish deal making?

As arduous and painful the government formation has proven to be, any hailing of a new government once the dust finally settles will be premature as the real work begins.

Once coalitions have been formed, the next task which acts as the platform for the real tussle for power is the formation of the cabinet. This where the real key to power lies. Each group within a ruling coalition would need to be appeased sufficiently for their support by getting their returns on the positions of authority.

The real gauge on the political health of Iraq will be once the new government starts to work. As much as there was numerous permutations to forming power that have lengthened the process, there will be an equal number of permutations which may see the government become shaky, untenable and susceptible to stalling.

This is particularly true if a government is formed that is all inclusive and contains all major powers as the US and some Iraqi sides hope. The sharing of power will be tentative at best and decision making will be ineffective, quarrelsome and prone to divides. In other words, on paper an Iraq would exist that would look united with equal national representation, while in practice will hold back and hamper real economic and political progression.

Any inclusive government would not only result in a delicate balance of power within the cabinet, but would also see the power of the Prime Minister greatly diminish. The hands of the Prime Minister would be affectively tied by the consultation and necessary appeasement of all other “powerful” hands around his table.

As the political bandwagon stumbles on, the real people that suffer are not wealthy politicians in fortified enclaves but the very people that democracy is designed to sever and whom the politicians have been elected by – the people.

It is becoming increasingly common that politicians are more determined to serve their own goals than the goals of their people.

Not only does the Iraqi economy continue to decline and the standard of living suffer but the real threat of a new dawn of insurgency and terrorism grows by the day.

First Published On: Kurdish Globe

Other Publication Sources: Various Misc.

After eight months of intense political tussling to form a government, the real work has yet to begin

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.

Balancing the ethno-social political triangle in Iraq

Four months after the much anticipated national elections in Iraq that was hoped to foster the first all encompassing government in Baghdad, Iraqi politicians continue to jockey, debate and pursue tense negotiations with view to assembling the required majority to form government. Giving the Iraqi track record, a lengthy period of government forming is hardly surprising. However, the process was exasperated with contentious delays to the election itself, controversy over banned politicians on eve of political campaigning and then bitter disputes over the final election results.

In many ways, Iraq has made a lot of progress since the previous elections marred by Sunni boycotting, not least on the security and sectarian front. However, as the democratic process has become stalled in recent weeks, this has afforded a chance for insurgents to relay the road of instability and sectarianism. 

The critical government forming process has been giving added bite with the expected withdrawal of U.S. combat forces by the end of August. While the departing of foreign forces may have been a welcome sight for many Iraqis, the presence and influence of the U.S. all too often masked political and security cracks, and this has now become more evident than ever.

At critical times over the past several years Washington has used its substantial sway on Iraqi politics to ensure the Iraqi democratic bandwagon rolled on. Stability and success in Iraq shortly after the nightmare that ensued post-2003 became an American obsession. After all, in such an aftermath, anything short of peace, relative democracy and stability in Iraq would have catastrophic consequences, especially with neighbouring predators already circling with intent.

U.S. military presence will drop significantly from a peak of 170,000 just a few years ago. While the sheer U.S. military expenditure and involvement in Iraq may have been taken for granted in recent years, as the democratic journey continues to remain frail, the readiness, loyalty and impartiality of Iraqi security forces will be put to a firm test.

Government shaping has been further complicated with the lack of a clear winner at the polls. Although Ayad Allawi’s al-Iraqiya group won the most seats, it was marginally ahead of incumbent Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s State of Law coalition, and debate continues to rage on the party that has the legal jurisdiction to attempt to form government. Although Maliki did not win, he strengthened his claim to form government with an alliance with the religious based Shiite Iraqi National Alliance, meaning that his party was only seats away from attaining the majority needed to form a new government.

The Kurds, who continue to hold a key card in the formation of the new government, have taken their time over the selection of any alliance this time and aim to seek written guarantees on nationalistic issues before committing to bring another power in Baghdad. The natural and preferred alliance of the Kurds will be to work once more with their Shiite counterparts. However, persistent foot dragging on key Kurdish interests by Maliki put doubt in the minds of many a Kurd, especially as Maliki’s dominance and political standing solidified. However, the predominantly Sunni umbrella of Allawi is hardy the tonic that weary Kurds seek either. Al-Iraqiya was direct in competition to the Kurds in the tense oil-rich province of Kirkuk and has often voiced its intent against Kurdish attempts to annex disputed territories.

If Kurds do join the mainly Shiite coalition of Maliki, there is a danger that they may not receive their first choice government posts, as may have been the case a few years ago. However, more critically a Kurdish-Shiite alliance without the key Sunni parties and the ultimate victor of the polls, Allawi, will sow a new chapter of democracy in Iraq on shaky foundations.  After all, it was the sidelining of Sunni’s after their decades of near dominance that triggered Iraq to the brink of civil war. For years Baghdad and particularly the U.S. have sought to appease Sunni’s and bring nation reconciliation in Iraq.

While in theory US Vice President Joe Biden’s comments this week that Iraqi politics was “not a lot different” from other countries, may speak true on the surface. Unlike some other countries, democracy in Iraq produces brittle results. This is owed to the ethnic and sectarian disparity of Iraq. Regardless of election results, Kurds, Sunni or Shiites will still demand power in government. The ‘triangle’ can not always be massaged based on election results. Shiites will always form a majority in Iraq and Sunni’s will always refuse to succumb to all-out Shiite dominance, especially with the proviso of a strong Tehran hand in Baghdad. At the same time, Kurd will never submit to Arab dominance and influence, due to their autonomous existence, history and national interests.

This means that key posts must be divided carefully regardless of the election outcome. The sidelining of any major group will only spell trouble.  The elections themselves are generally formulaic, Kurds will always vote for Kurds, Shiites for Shiites and so on, even if the elections this time around swayed from a sectarian underpinning compared to before.

The triangle became more interesting in recent weeks with the thawing of relations between Allawi and Maliki, raising the prospect of what seemed an unlikely political marriage. A coalition of such proportions may seem a dramatic gain for democracy but this may also mean that key positions such as President and Prime Minister will go to Shiites. Furthermore, this has raised anxiety in Kurdistan that they lose political sway and key posts in Iraq to Arab coalitions.

The US has largely stayed out of the political manoeuvring this time around. However, Biden’s visit was a clear indicator that Washington is getting itchy feet. While their forces may withdraw, their high stakes in Iraq will not dwindle. Stability and prosperity in Iraq has become a keynote health gauge of the Middle East.

As for the political process itself, it is still better to endure more months of protracted progress and frustrations in hope of genuine gains, than short-term achievements under US pressure as witnessed too often, that may lead to shaky coalitions and more fundamental Iraqi issues been swept under the political rug.

It is these real issues such as oil sharing, broadly represented security forces, federalism and resolving of disputed territories that often become sidelined for the sake of progress on the surface. Any new government must make firm commitments to these aforementioned principles and critically to the implementation of the constitution that is after all meant to be the blueprint of the democratic existence in Iraq.

First Published On: Kurdish Globe

Other Publication Sources: Peyamner, Various Misc.

The Iraqi political machine’s tricky path

As the painstaking election process stumbles to a close in Iraq, the intricate political work has just begun.

Resolution of Iraq’s issues not without their “perils and dangers”

Arranging and preparing for the national elections in Iraq was complicated enough. The elections finally held on 7th March 2010 were hailed by western powers and generally observed as successful, however, this was after much wrangling over the election law that saw the elections postponed, a highly contentious decision to ban hundreds of alleged ex-Baathist weeks before the elections and not to mention deadly suicide bombings on Election Day designed to deter would be voters.

However, the convoluted and tricky path for the Iraqi political machine is very much ahead. If the holding of relatively successful elections in the face of a number of challenges was painstaking itself, the formation of a new government to appease embittered Kurds, Sunnis and Shiites against a backdrop of mistrust will be an even tougher task that  will drag on for months longer.

Political jostling, with only handful of ballots left to be counted, has already commenced with the key parties vying for power already well on the path of seeking coalition partners, with no group alone likely to win the 163 seats required to form government. The power for government is augmented with the fight for the key positions of President, Prime Minister and Parliament speaker. The position of President for example has already become heated by remarks in some nationalist circles that since Iraq has an “Arabic” identity, the post should be held by an Arab.

However, even before tiresome negotiations ensue, the Iraqi High Independent Electoral Commission (IHEC) will have its work cut out to address claims and counter-claims of voter fraud and irregularities, particularly in Kirkuk. The IHEC is already under-fire for the laboured nature of announcing the votes, which has aided to claims of electoral mishaps and even to calls for a full recount in some circles.

A different flavour

At least on paper, the elections present a good prospect of facilitating cross-national reconciliation. The political parties attempted to undercut the sectarian divides, with Nouri al-Maliki’s State of Law coalition and his closest contender and former premier Iyad Allawi’s al-Iraqiya, encompassing a number of political parties across sectarian lines.

With the Sunni turnout showing a marked increased from the boycott of 2005, the competitive nature of the elections was evident with divisions present within traditional Shiite, Sunni and Kurdish alliances.

The race for the hotseat

Whilst Maliki’s hard-line leadership alienated a number of groups, he was equally heralded for installing security in Iraq and possessing the right credentials as the nationalist leader that Iraq required. On the back of the highly successful showing at the 2009 provincial elections, results revealed to date put Maliki in prime position to win a majority once all votes are tallied up.

State of Law coalition is ahead in the symbolic Baghdad constituency, which remarkably represents one-fifth of the overall seats on offer. Al-Maliki was ahead in another several Shiite-dominated provinces with the predominately Shiite Iraqi National Alliance (INA) a close second in a number of these provinces, as well as leading in three southern provinces.

Against the popular view that religious parties have not fared as well, the Sadrist bloc of the INA has gained a credible number of seats and their influence as well as that of neighbouring Iran may well dictate the shape of the future coalitions. A strong showing by Moqtada al-Sadr is particularly bad news for Maliki, who instigated the infamous and bloody crackdown of his militia in 2008.

Whilst Maliki may be a leading contender, his quest to reassume power in Baghdad is far from sealed. His old foes and newly created adversaries will almost certainly jokey ardently to ensure that he does not win a critical second term in office.

In contrast, the surprising contender for the hot seat is Allawi. Results show that the secular and nationalistic agenda of al-Iraqiya bode strongly amongst Sunni voters in north and western provinces, many who remain sceptical at Maliki’s Iranian connections and Shiite control of security forces. Al-Iraqiya gains include Nineveh, which has the second highest number of seats up for grabs. As a result of the strong electoral showing, Allawi is neck-to-neck in the votes counted to date with Maliki. Allawi could well strike a coalition agreement with the Kurdish groups or the INA, as well as other smaller parties.

In this respect, the coalition opportunities on the table have far greater significance than ever before. Depending on who can be enticed into the political fold, a number of coalitions can be struck and thus the jockeying promises to be as intensive as ever.

Kurdish wildcard

The Kurds are widely acknowledged to assume the role of kingmakers once more. With the Kurds looking to achieve between 60-65 seats, this will have significant bearing on who ultimately assumes the premiership in Baghdad.

As far as the Kurds are concerned, if you have the power to make a king, then you have to ensure the “right” king is “made” at all costs.

Any future coalition will almost certainly require the support of the Kurds, and this places great leverage on the Kurdish bargaining position. The Kurdish support for Maliki at crucial times arguably helped to salvage the Baghdad government, especially when Iraq was on a fierce downward spiral between 2006 and 2007.

A number of Kurds grew increasingly sceptical of Maliki, but with al-Iraqiya vying directly for power with the Kurdistan Alliance in Nineveh and especially in Kirkuk, where they have based their support on promises to ward off Kurdish attempts to annex Kirkuk, Allawi is hardly a firm favourite either. Comments from al-Iraqiya liking Kurdish attempts at wrestling control of Kirkuk to Israeli settlements was hardly the right tonic to sweeten the growing bitterness.

Either way, the Kurdish aspirations of peacefully implementing article 140, resolving the issue of disputed territories and agreeing a national hydrocarbon law, will certainly hold fundamental importance to any prospective Baghdad partnership.

With growing pressure from the Kurdish public and political competition at home, the KDP and the PUK under the Kurdistan Alliance umbrella can ill afford to leave Baghdad without Kirkuk and the key Kurdish demands.

Kurds must stay as close as they can to the throne of power to safeguard Kurdish interests and may well support any legislation and lobbying further south, as long as their status quo is maintained and ultimately enhanced.

Race for Kirkuk

If the hotly-disputed race for Kirkuk needed any incitement, the close race between al-Iraqiya and Kurdistan Alliance for the province is increasing in intensity all the time. If the Kurds assume a majority as they did in 2005 and as they anticipate once more, this will aid their claim to annexing Kirkuk to Kurdistan, with many eying the elections in Kirkuk as a de-facto referendum.

While the final figures may well be disputed under contentious guidelines outlined in the election law specific to Kirkuk, the planned census in October 2010 will ultimately serve as the real battle to secure the future status of the city.

Change in Kurdistan

The three provinces that officially make up the Kurdistan Region had the highest turnouts across Iraq. With the new Kurdish opposition Change Movement (Gorran), entering the fray in dramatic circumstances in 2009, the race for votes in Kurdistan took on additional importance.

As expected Gorran faired well in the province of Sulaimaniya, but the contest with the PUK was as close as ever, with the PUK performing strongly in Kirkuk where Gorran was expected to make inroads.

It is too early to say to what extent the fractious nature of the Kurdish vote this time around hindered their quest for influence in Baghdad, but what is clear is that without a united Kurdish voice in Kirkuk and particularly Baghdad, the new political competiveness within the Kurdish scene may well hamper Kurdistan.

Gorran may well use their newfound leverage in Baghdad to indirectly pressure the Kurdistan Alliance for the much hyped “changes” they propose in Kurdistan itself.

Furthermore, with the much higher turnout of Sunnis than in 2005 and with increased number of seats in parliament not resulting in the anticipated number of seats in Kurdistan in proportion to the population, the Kurdish position becomes more tentative as the dust settles on the new political climate in Iraq.

American Withdrawal

Months of protracted negotiations and heated discussions will take place, all the while as the US increases its demobilisation efforts in anticipation of its iconic withdrawal by the end of August 2010.

While the next government will be the first under full Iraqi sovereignty and under relative blanket of security, this does not mask the key constraints and challenges that may hinder Iraqi progress once more.

Progress is very much reversible in Iraq and with emotive and historically entrenched angles on critical national issues, the resolution of these issues will not be without their perils and dangers.

Regardless of any election outcome, entities in Iraq will still decree a significant share of the Iraqi cake. While the system of proportional representation is designed to reflect the overall will of the electorate across the mosaic, the common policy of appeasement will be evident. For example, to keep Sunnis on the political stage, the expectation is they will still assume key posts, key percentage of the armed forces etc. This appeasement policy was a key reason for the decline in Sunni insurgency and the newfound security in Iraq, not necessarily just strong handed tactics by al-Maliki.

The greatest danger for America is that while Iraqis bicker and the US military arsenal wanes, this may yet give the encouragement for insurgents to reassume centre stage.

First Published On: Kurdish Globe

Other Publication Sources: Peyamner, Various Misc.