Back in 2008, Sam Parker of the USIP proposed a highly useful analytical perspective for studying factionalism in “the new Iraq”, emphasising above all the distinction between the parties that are in control of the state apparatus (“the powers that be”, PTB) and those that have only limited access to state assets (“the powers that aren’t” or PTA). Among other things, the PTB/PTA distinction was helpful in making sense of how political parties that had only limited commonalities in terms of ideology – KDP, PUK, ISCI, Daawa, IIP (but not the rest of Tawafuq) – nevertheless closed ranks against outsiders in an attempt to hold on to power. It was particularly useful in explaining why mostly anti-federal parties like the Daawa and IIP hung on to their alliances with the decentralisers among the Kurds and in ISCI.
Nonetheless, on a number of occasions in 2008, ideology disturbed or even trumped the power relations that inspired the PTB/PTA dichotomy. This was seen to a considerable extent during the debate on the provincial powers law and the election law, when some Daawa and IIP elements joined Iraqi nationalists in the opposition to propose measures in Kirkuk that were perceived as centralist and anti-Kurdish. It also happened in a more dramatic and decisive fashion in the period leading up to the local elections in January 2009, when Nuri al-Maliki broke free from his pragmatic marriage with the Kurds and ISCI to successfully contest the elections on an explicitly centralist platform.
As Iraqi politics enter its final phase before the 2010 parliamentary elections, the PTB/PTA dichotomy is once more proving its usefulness in helping to explain alliances that are unrelated to ideology (or that even contradict the sphere of ideological politics entirely). Importantly, however, there are today certain changes to the line-up of the powers that perceive themselves as being in control of state assets. In particular, after its influence south of Baghdad was challenged by Maliki’s “support councils” before the last local elections and the new Daawa-led governorate councils that were subsequently formed, ISCI is increasingly seeing itself as a disadvantaged party. This situation in turn has opened up for dialogue with ideological enemies like the nationalist Iraqiyya. The IIP, too, is increasingly seeing itself as a party on the sidelines and has spared no effort in criticising Maliki’s centralisation of power.
The most concrete expression of this new tendency is an emerging debate on a so-called law on election conduct. The proposal, to be debated once the Iraqi parliament resumes its business on Sunday after another extended holiday, mostly contains measures designed to guarantee the integrity of the elections and that will come across as uncontroversial as such. However, one item has already provoked considerable debate: A suggestion to transform the current government into a “caretaker government” in the period leading up to the elections, effectively restraining its power to spend money freely. This is a clear attempt to curb the power of Nuri al-Maliki to use ministries under his own control to further electoral aims.
In other words, this seems like another PTA/PTB clash, albeit this time with a slightly different party configuration. Reactions to the proposal have been mostly predictable: It has been supported by ISCI, IIP, Iraqiyya (some of whom even propose it be bundled with the 2010 budget, the other big issue right now, to ensure its passage); it has been blasted by Abbas al-Bayati and Ali al-Allaq, who are Maliki loyalists. The response by Fadila – that the law is unconstitutional because it has been copied from previous legislation governing the Iraqi elections commission – is at least unsurprising for its idiosyncratic character. Only the Kurdish reaction has been a true surprise: Several Kurdish parliamentarians have criticised the proposal for being “unconstitutional”, although a definitive stance has yet to crystallise.
Why are the Kurds, who used to be critical of any hint of centralism on Maliki’s part, apparently siding with the Iraqi premier in this case? To understand this, we need to understand the origins of the proposed law. It originated in fact as a “document” (waraqa) on political conduct several months ago (it was publicly known at least on 8 November, when an article in Al-Adala, controlled by Adil Abd al-Mahdi of ISCI, referred to it). And its authors are in fact the Iraqi presidency council, headed by Jalal Talabani of the PUK. But in the meantime, possibly in an attempt at finding prospective post-election partners, Maliki has initiated a tentative dialogue with the Kurds, and it is possible that the Kurds are now reciprocating by standing by their PTB ally, despite having originally signed off on the proposal through Talabani.
A number of issues are raised by the proposed law. Firstly, how can the Iraqi presidency constitutionally introduce a new law? Usually legislation is dealt with in a dialogue between the cabinet and the legislature; the role of the presidency council is normally to approve or veto. Secondly, and disturbingly, Mahmud Uthman of the KDP has said parliament will “decide” on the constitutionality of the proposal on Sunday. Isn’t that the job of the constitutional court? Finally, with regard to the sustainability of any new alliance between Maliki and the Kurds (these two together control two out of the three parliamentary presidents and can probably obstruct the whole initiative if they want), two scenarios stand out. On the one hand, if Maliki uses the opportunity to obtain meaningful concessions from the Kurds on key constitutional questions he might emerge as a figure who is capable of doing business with the Kurds in a balanced way. On the other hand, if he surrenders entirely to Kurdish demands, he is likely to meet with resistance even from his own Shiite Islamist base, where anti-Kurdish sentiment has been running high for some time.
In other news, the IHEC has warned against public campaigning before its certification of the candidates is complete. Some news has leaked, however: Some current representatives in danger of losing their seats under the new open list system have been moved to symbolic constituencies. For example, Jalal al-Din al-Saghir of ISCI will stand for election in Dahuk (a Kurdish-majority governorate) and now openly admits that his only realistic chance of winning a seat is under the quota for compensation seats.