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let the post election horse trading begin
iraqi politicians playing the long game

Mustafa Habib
The current Prime Minister of Iraq, Nouri al-Maliki, and his bloc won the largest number of votes in the recent general election. However it is unlikely to be enough to form a government. Along with economic issues…
22.05.2014  |  Baghdad
Iraqi PM Nouri al-Maliki (R) with some of his many opponents, Osama al-Nujaifi (L) and Ammar al-Hakim.
Iraqi PM Nouri al-Maliki (R) with some of his many opponents, Osama al-Nujaifi (L) and Ammar al-Hakim.

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The Iraqi general elections have been and gone and now, judging by the preliminary results of voting, the real work will start.

The State of Law group of politicians, led by current Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, has managed to win the most votes despite much criticism of al-Maliki over the past couple of years. Al-Maliki and his colleagues in State of Law have 92 seats in the 328 Iraqi Parliament, if the most recent numbers released by the Independent High Electoral Commission remain the same when the final, official results are announced in a few days.

Al-Maliki’s Shiite Muslim-led coalition was followed at a distance by two other Shiite Muslim groups, the Muwatin, or Citizen, bloc headed by Ammar al-Hakim of the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq, who had 29 seats, and the Ahrar bloc, which is closely associated with the Sadrist movement, who got 28 seats.

Sunni Muslim parties were further behind with the United bloc, led by one of the country’s most prominent Sunni politicians, Osama al-Nujaifi, getting 23 seats, the bloc led by former Prime Minister Ayad Allawi, which has a less sectarian agenda, winning 21 seats, and the Al Arabiya bloc, which is led by Deputy Prime Minister, Saleh al-Mutlaq, making it to at least ten seats.

Sunni Muslim politicians in Iraq are already attributing their decline to the fact that many Sunni Muslims in Iraq were either feeling too disenfranchised to vote, because of al-Maliki’s ongoing marginalization of their sect, or they were victims of violence in the predominantly Sunni Muslim province of Anbar. Because of an anti-government insurgency that continues there, tens of thousands have been displaced and others were simply unable to vote because of security concerns in their hometowns.

Meanwhile the country’s other major group, Iraq’s Kurds, won a total of 55 seats altogether. Although at a regional level the three major Iraqi Kurdish parties have been fiercely competitive, as they have had to form their own regional government after local elections, on a national level they seem to have decided to present a unified front. A recent meeting of the representatives of the three major Iraqi Kurdish parties confirmed that they all want to get rid of al-Maliki too.

All of which means that what comes next will be difficult. Iraqi law states that it is not the party that won the most votes that gets to decide how the next government is formed. The group of political parties that form the largest coalition in Parliament get to do that. After Iraq’s 2010 elections, it took months of discussions and horse trading for the government to be formed. Many believe the same thing will happen again and some pessimists are even betting on over 12 months of an “unofficial” caretaker government.

Additionally negotiations are only going to be made more complex because of the various crises in Iraq at the moment – these include not only ongoing violence in Anbar but also financial and economic problems due to delays in approving the Iraqi national budget. And apart from the Iraqi Kurdish, there is a lot of infighting within the various sectarian-flavoured political groups, which will make it even harder for everyone to agree.

Most significantly, the Shiite Muslim parties are now divided; previously they were all working together. But over the past few years, the leaders of the popular Sadrist movement, represented by the Ahrar bloc in politics, and the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq, or ISCI, which is represented by the Muwatin bloc, have expressed their dislike of al-Maliki.

Muqtada al-Sadr, the spiritual leader of the Sadrists, has been overt and harsh in his criticism while Amir al-Hakim of the ISCI has been more guarded. Al-Maliki has previously said that al-Sadr is too young and inexperienced in politics.

The problem for al-Maliki though is that his two former allies are close and apparently they both agree that he should not be given another term in office.

The Sunni Muslim politicians of Iraq are of the same mind. But within the major Sunni Muslim blocs there are some conflicts. For example, the Sunni Muslim parties with the most seats – respectively, Nujaifi and al-Mutlaq – may find it hard to convince Allawi’s group to join them because the latter feels the former betrayed him after the 2010 elections, by leaving to form their own parties, affectively splitting the Sunni Muslim bloc. Additionally al-Mutlaq is considered by many Sunnis to be too close to al-Maliki.

So what will happen next? And how will these various and troubled political groupings choose Iraq’s next Prime Minister?

It’s going to be tough. For one thing, al-Maliki’s State of Law seems to consider their 92 seats enough of a victory to push for al-Maliki’s next term as Prime Minister. There is also talk that all of the anti-al-Maliki parties may get together to ensure that al-Maliki is removed from power – that would mean a cross-sectarian, cross-ethnic coalition united in one desire. And apparently there have been talks between the various players about this possibility, and about the potential to elect a leader from al-Hakim’s Citizen bloc. However it would still be difficult to achieve this because it ignores State of Law’s 92 seats, not to mention what one Iraq expert describes as the “psychological quantum leap” it will require of all of the players.

Another scenario involves nominating someone from al-Maliki’s own State of Law party to replace him, someone who is acceptable to al-Maliki’s foes but who is also close to the Prime Minister.

Another factor that may further complicate things is the prospect of intervention from outside Iraq. After 2010, US troops and diplomats were considered an important neutral element that acted as a buffer between all parties. And it is also clear that both Iran and the US had a lot to do with negotiations that eventually secured al-Maliki his second term.

Whatever happens, the only winners at the moment are likely to be the gamblers of Iraq; because they’ll probably be winning bets on how long it takes to form a government for months to come.

by Special Correspondent in Erbil