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my way or the highway
PM changes iraqi political format forever

Mustafa Habib
In passing the 2013 budget, Iraq’s PM switched from consensual, quota-based law making to his way: majority rule. The result: political tensions rising.
22.03.2013  |  Baghdad

The Iraqi budget for 2013 was passed in parliament in Baghdad on March 7. And in itself, this is not unusual. But what is unprecedented is the way in which it was passed.

The budget was ratified by what one analyst called “a fleeting alignment of the main Shiite [Muslim] political blocs and defectors from the predominantly Sunni [Muslim] and secular Iraqiya list”. In other words, it was passed by a political majority rather than by political consensus, which is what Iraqi politicians have been using to get their laws onto the books since the 2003 US-led invasion of the country that ended Saddam Hussein’s regime.

It was “a wafer-thin majority”, US analyst Michael Knights, wrote for the Washington Institute, a think tank dedicated to improving the US’ foreign policy in the Middle East.

Such decision making – by majority, rather than consensus – is a major political transformation for Iraq. And it has opened the door to heated discussions on the possibility of this kind of decision making becoming more permanent.

In terms of the 2013 budget, a fairly large number of opposition MPs boycotted the parliamentary session. This included the Kurdish bloc with around 40 MPs and the opposition Iraqiya bloc with around 80 MPs. Despite their absence though, there were still 168 MPs present in the house which meant that the bill could be voted upon. In the end, Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki managed to convince all of them - including 159 Shiite Muslim politicians - to support his version of the 2013 budget and it was ratified.

Afterwards Kurdish politicians issued a statement criticizing the way the budget was approved. They were disadvantaged by the budget’s specifics but they did not focus on this. Their statement focused on the methods used to pass the budget. Using the principle of majority rather than consensus was a dangerous precedent they said.

The principle of consensus and the relatively even distribution of government positions among Iraq’s different religious and ethnic groups was something that was first introduced by US diplomat Paul Bremer, the Administrator of the Coalition Provisional Authority of Iraq following the 2003 invasion. He formed a council to govern the country temporarily and selected its 25 members according to a quota system. Based on the estimated population of various different groups in Iraq, the Council included 13 Shiite Muslims, five Sunni Muslims, five Kurds, one Assyrian Christian and one Turkmen. Any decision that the council made needed to be based on consensus, Bremer said.

The Council was eventually replaced by an interim government, which was also formed using the quota principles and which also came to decisions based upon consensus between the country’s different ethnic and religious groups.

However, ever since he came to power the current Prime Minister, Nouri al-Maliki, has been saying that rule by consensus should end and in fact, that it makes it almost impossible to get anything done in Iraq.

“The system of quotas that we’ve been using for the past eight years has proven its shortcomings,” Abbas al-Bayati, a Turkmen and a member of al-Maliki’s coalition, told NIQASH. “Giving out positions based on ethnicities or sects has made the Iraqi government very unproductive. This is because some components of the government are in the opposition and they’re not interested in reaching consensus. That’s just not acceptable,” he concluded.

And there are other reasons besides this recent success with passing the 2013 budget that might well encourage al-Maliki to carry on with this new majority-rule system.

Iraqi MPs are continuously boycotting parliamentary proceedings. For instance, the biggest opposition bloc, Iraqiya, have been boycotting parliament in solidarity with anti-government protestors recently; these are mainly Sunni Muslim protestors as is the Iraqiya bloc. Kurdish politicians are boycotting the government because of the budget decision. And Sadrist MPs, who are actually part of al-Maliki’s coalition, are boycotting the government because they don’t like the way al-Maliki runs things.

“Boycotting proceedings is an old method of protesting but it’s useless,” al-Bayati noted. “It keeps on being used but the government must continue its work. So the ministers that boycott will be replaced and the new ones will come from among al-Maliki’s supporters.”

Meanwhile those politicians who fear the idea of majority rule, have also been busy explaining why consensus is still the best method for Iraq for the time being. There is a lack of trust in government and there is a lot of missing legislation as well as a lack of civil peace. That’s why it’s still important that all sectors of Iraqi society be represented in politics – then they won’t feel marginalized and they will be reassured that a new dictatorship cannot emerge. When those various sectors do start to feel left out of the political process, the results have been violence and tension, they say.

“A decade has passed since the end of the old regime [headed by Saddam Hussein] but we’re still living in a transitional phase,” Khalid al-Alwani, a Sunni Muslim and MP for the opposition Iraqiya bloc, told NIQASH. “In order to form a majority government, we first need political stability and security. Also, all the required, basic legislation needs to be in place. The Constitution is not complete and there’s no agreement around various issues of social justice and the rights of minorities, the relationship between the various regions, the powers of various executive branches of government and even foreign relations. All these things are still needed. Which is why we are not yet ready to form a majority government.”

“In addition to politics, the security situation is also extremely unstable,” added Kurdish MP, Shwan Mohammed Taha. “Iraq is still at war with extremist groups like al-Qaeda and those groups have proven their ability to survive and to attack, just as they did a few days ago when they mounted an assault on the Justice Ministry.”

That is why Iraq still needs to work out its political affairs using the consensus method, he argues. “The various sectors in the country are still afraid they are going to be marginalized,” Taha said. “And al-Maliki is doing this because he wants to govern the country all by himself. Which means he’s replicating the former dictatorship Iraq suffered under.”