The fear that Iraq’s current Prime Minister, Nouri al-Maliki, is becoming the nation’s next dictator seems to have been growing lately. But getting rid of him would be extremely difficult. And even his most determined opponents know this. Al-Maliki also appears to realise this – he hardly seems concerned about some of the complaints being made against him.
The factors that prevent any ousting of al-Maliki, who has been in power since 2006 and who may well carry on for a third term, can be placed in three broad categories: regional, constitutional-legal and to do with internal political wrangling.
Discussion about whether al-Maliki is planting the seeds for a new one-party, one-leader regime in Iraq has been plentiful over the past months. Allusions have been made and Massoud Barzani, President of the semi-autonomous region of Iraqi Kurdistan in the north of the country, has been the latest to come out with the accusation directly. Barzani talked openly about the fact that Iraqi Kurdistan might push to secede from Iraq if what he described as a dictatorial regime continued.
Politicians from the Iraqiya bloc, al-Maliki’s major opposition, agreed with Barzani. Interestingly so did cleric-politician Muqtada al-Sadr, who leads the Sadrist political-religious movement in Baghdad’s Parliament and Ammar al-Hakim, the leader of the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq. Both of these groups are meant to support al-Maliki – they’re important parts of the Shiite Muslim alliance among the Iraqi electorate. And explicitly, they do. But implicitly, they have been criticising al-Maliki.
However all of al-Maliki’s critics also seem to be aware that it will be nigh on impossible to oust the man they see as a power monger.
For one thing, regional interests are not in their favour. It seems that neither Iran nor the US want to see al-Maliki ousted. The only power player in the neighbourhood that does, would appear to be Turkey.
Getting rid of al-Maliki would involve convincing all regional players of the importance of ousting him, independent Kurdish MP, Mahmoud Othman, told NIQASH. It would take a lot of discussion and in fact, Othman believes, there is an undeclared agreement between Washington and Tehran to avoid any such changes in Iraq’s immediate future.
This may well be because al-Maliki has managed to maintain fairly good relations with all three of these countries – despite the precarious and delicate nature of the relationships.
Observers say that one of the most obvious indications that Washington and Tehran back al-Maliki is the decision to hold talks on the Iranian nuclear issue in Baghdad. Iran agreed to discuss the issue with permanent members of the UN Security Council - the United States, Russia, China, Britain and France – as well as Germany last month. The first meeting was held in Istanbul but the next will be in Baghdad. Iran considers Iraq an ally in the matter and the US wants to prove its campaign in Iraq meant something; namely that Iraq is once again politically active in the region.
According to Othman, this means that “the US and Iran have an interest in supporting the Iraqi regime”.
The regime itself would appear to agree. “Iraq’s hosting the second round of talks is an important step which supports the Iraqi government and gives it great impetus,” Abbas al-Bayati, a member of the parliamentary committee on security and defence and an MP for the State of Law political bloc led by al-Maliki, boasted. “Iran and the US agreed to hold the negotiations in Baghdad because the two countries are well aware of the fact that the political and security conditions in Iraq are becoming more stable. And because the two countries realize that Iraq’s regional role has developed a lot after its success with the Arab League summit in Baghdad.”
Al-Maliki also has the necessary support in the Iraqi Parliament to carry on. His State of Law bloc hasn’t had any defections. In fact, it has benefited from defections from other parties, namely almost a dozen from the Badr organisation, a party formerly associated with al-Hakim’s Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq, as well as the Iraqiya bloc, al-Maliki’s main opposition.
Article 61 of the Iraqi Constitution does give local MPs an opportunity to moot a vote of no confidence in leadership.
But to do this they need at least an absolute majority in Parliament and for that, some MPs from the mostly Shiite Muslim alliance that al-Maliki heads would need to defect and vote against him.
Iraqiya leader Ayed Allawi would only need about 20 defections from al-Maliki’s alliance to start a vote of no-confidence process. But while some of those engaged with al-Maliki’s alliance may criticise some of his policies – al-Hakim and Sadr, for example - they don’t look likely to withdraw from the coalition any time soon. Observers say this has a lot to do with those organisations’ connections to Iran, which supports al-Maliki’s government.
And two separate statements were issued last week expressing the mostly Shiite Muslim alliance’s support for al-Maliki and calling upon all parties to come together and continue to work for the good of the nation.
Another issue that prevents the ousting of al-Maliki is the lack of any realistic replacements. Neither the Iraqiya bloc nor the Kurdish MPs, who hold a balance of power in Parliament, had any names for potential prime minister; none of the Shiite Muslim parties offered suitable options either. Last week the Sadrist movement released a statement suggesting it might be able to form a new government headed by one of its members – but the statement was withdraw shortly after it was issued.
Additionally it would also be impossible for his opponents to call for early elections in order to get rid of al-Maliki. The heads of the body responsible for organising any elections – the Independent High Electoral Commission (IHEC)– were arrested recently on what have been described as relatively minor corruption charges.
Al-Maliki said he had nothing to do with the arrest warrants but as the New York Times reported on the subject: “Mr. Maliki has sought for two years to consolidate control over the electoral commission, whose independence is viewed as essential … And it reinforces a narrative that Mr. Maliki is emerging as an authoritarian leader in the wake of the American military withdrawal.”
Now there are fears that when the IHEC’s extended mandate expires in two months and new commissioners are supposed to be elected, things will not proceed according to plan. These worries are supported by the fact that parliamentary committee responsible has already failed to agree on the names of the would-be chairman and members of IHEC. All of which could not only put Iraq’s general schedule of elections at risk, but also puts paid to any ideas about an early election.
And so it seems that opposition politicians are coming to one conclusion: in the absence of any other ways of ridding themselves of what they see as a would-be dictator, they will have to negotiate.
“Withdrawing confidence from the Prime Minister is not an option right now,” Saleh al-Mutlaq, one of Iraq’s three deputy Prime Ministers, said. Al-Mutlaq is a senior member of the Iraqiya bloc and was threatened with a no-confidence vote by al-Maliki late in 2011. “Dialogue is the only way to resolve conflicts in this country,” al-Mutlaq said, much to the surprise of other al-Maliki critics.
“Al-Maliki had become too powerful; he holds all the key positions in government,” a senior government official told NIQASH on condition of anonymity. “And his opponents feel it is too late to use the no-confidence option. They believe it is better to try and reach an agreement with al-Maliki so that the situation can be calmed down, and then to hold real elections in 2014 in order to remove al-Maliki from office properly. Because at the moment,” the official concluded, “the only person who matters, who can withdraw confidence from al-Maliki is al-Maliki himself.”