Among the several scenarios for a new Iraqi government that are floating around, one stands out as particularly unattractive and potentially destructive for Iraq as a state: The vision of a grandiose coalition combining all the blocs that won large numbers of seats in the 7 March elections.
This idea is becoming increasingly recurrent in Iraqi discussions. Early on, it was only Adil Abd al-Mahdi of the pro-Iranian Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq (ISCI) that talked about it, referring to a potential combination of his own Iraqi National Alliance (INA), Maliki’s State of Law (SLA), Iraqiyya (INM) and the main Kurdish alliance. More recently, however, also Ammar al-Hakim and other ISCI leaders have expressed interest in this kind of scenario, and no one in Iraqiyya has yet had the courage to rule it out. Predictably, decimated blocs (like Tawafuq) plus Unity of Iraq and the various minority representatives are calling for even bigger iterations of this scheme, including, unsurprisingly, themselves in ministerial roles.
Any government of this category would mean a sorry return to Iraq of 2003 and the “governing council” that was put in place by Paul Bremer back then. Its hallmarks will be indecision, incompetence and corruption – the inevitable characteristics of a government that has no single vision or unity of purpose, and basically has been thrown together with the aim of letting as many people as possible prey on the resources of the state in the hope that this will keep them from fighting with each other instead. Expect no progress on key legislation (since bills will never achieve consensus even inside the government), and no improvement of governance capacity (since ministers inevitably will be political appointees rather than technocrats). But above all, this will be a government defined first and foremost by its bigness, with an oversized cabinet and an additional number of ministers without portfolio.
Alas, this silly idea is likely to get an ecstatic reception in the international community. Few will be surprised that Iran likes it: Absent the creation of a purely Shiite or Shiite-Kurdish government, Tehran’s next best option for Iraq is an oversized government incapable of making decisions (which in the case of an oil law would directly threaten the Iranian oil policy of low output, high price), and with the sub-identities of the country’s population forming an implicit or explicit role in the dynamics of government formation (meaning Shiite Islamists will continue to dominate). But beyond Iran, the label that is being used by the Iraqi proponents of this idea – shiraka or partnership – will likely be welcomed also by Western players whose fear of exclusions and the concomitant creation of “spoilers” is such that it leads them to uncritically embrace the logic of “the more, the merrier” (or “inclusiveness” as they euphemistically label it). In their view, the only thing that matters is to keep the surface calm around the time of the US drawdown by the end of August, quite regardless of the potential for severe complications further down the road.
The big irony of this is of course that two of the prospective participants in such a government of national unity would in fact do a lot better if they formed a government alone. So why is it that SLA and INM cannot put aside personal differences and create a strong government (180 plus seats in parliament) that would have the potential to rule Iraq far more effectively? If Allawi and Maliki are to endure the discomfort of sitting in the same government anyway, why not ditch the two other and smaller partners – INA and the Kurds – whose sole contribution after all would be to create ideological contradictions along the centralism/decentralism axis and therefore a considerable potential for complete paralysis? With their common position on the virtues of pragmatism and a strong centralised state, such a two-party government would be able to push through legislation on the oil sector and revenue distribution faster than anyone else, which in turn would enable it to deal with more controversial issues in a less tense atmosphere later on. Crucially, with its strong popular basis from Basra to Mosul, this kind of government would have sufficient room for manoeuvre to offer generous concessions to Kurdistan without destroying the concept of centralised government in the rest of Iraq.
The problem is that because of personal differences, both SLA and INM have avoided the logical step of moving closer together, and instead invented rather strained discourses of mutual antipathy to justify their turn to less logical alliance partners (SLA and the Kurds; INM and INA). For example, Iraqiyya leaders criticise Maliki for concentrating power and for allowing Daawa to acquire strength in the public sector in undemocratic ways. True, these are valid and important points that need to be dealt with. But is the solution to add the Kurds and INA to the mix? With their ties to the Kurdish asayish secret police, the Badr brigades and the Iranian revolutionary guards, are these so much more democratic than the Daawa? Was it not INA that after all initiated the attack on INM through the de-Baathification process? Similarly, Iraqiyya has failed to give Maliki due credit for some of the good things he did back in 2008, including turning against Shiite militias, highlighting the significance of revising the constitution, and attempting to move away from power-sharing towards more ideologically based political alliances. For their part, the Daawa has not been sufficiently responsive to some of the positive overtures from the INM camp during 2009. Take for example the Hadba/Iraqiyun/Nujayfi bloc from Mosul, which has repeatedly called for more troops from the central government to the northern parts of the Nineveh governorate. This act of profound recognition of the Shiite-led government by a mainly Sunni party with strong local backing represents an important step forwards towards national reconciliation that has so far not received the attention it deserves in SLA circles.
Once the idea of another “national unity” government gets going in earnest, things will really start to mushroom. Surely, in such a government there must be space for all the “components” (mukawwinat) of the Iraqi people? What about Assyrian Christians, Chaldean Christians, Mandaeans, African and Caucasian minorities? A previous Kurdistan regional government had 40 plus ministries, but why stop there? Maybe the next Iraqi government could have 50 ministries?
The big problem is that there are a couple of hundred influential people in the world that prefer this scenario. Partly they are Iraqis, who claim to speak in the names of the ethno-sectarian communities they refer to all the time. Partly they are outsiders, some of them Americans, who are terrified of any bold move that could be construed as a risk for their own plans of declaring Iraq “normal” over the coming months (actually, the chances of achieving real and enduring normality is probably a lot bigger with a truly effective government). The victims are the millions of Iraqis who do not care about the ethno-sectarian identities that are currently being used as basis for government formation, and just want a state capable of delivering security, jobs and services.