It Is Maliki Versus Abd al-Mahdi
Posted by Reidar Visser on Friday, 3 September 2010 20:15
In a fascinating replay of what happened inside the Shiite alliance (UIA) in March and April 2006, Adel Abd al-Mahdi of ISCI has emerged as the main challenger to the other prominent premier candidate for what is still only a theoretical project of a new Shiite alliance (NA), Nuri al-Maliki of the Daawa party. Back then Abd al-Mahdi had been a frontrunner for the job as well but lost out to Ibrahim al-Jaafari, partly out of fears from others that Abd al-Mahdi would give away too much power to the Kurds. Jaafari was subsequently replaced by Maliki.
Still, it may be the contrasts with 2006 that after all are most important this time. In the first place, the power bases and the numbers are different, in addition to the fact that no full merger between the two would-be component of the Shiite alliance, Abd al-Mahdi’s INA and Maliki’s SLA, has so far taken place. Back then, Maliki ultimately won the job on the basis of supports from Sadrists and independents in addition to his own Daawa base. This time around, the Sadrists have been anti-Maliki although they have also been pretty reluctant to embrace Abd al-Mahdi, according him a very low score in the “straw poll” of premier candidates held right after the 7 March elections, and for a long time having favoured former premier Ibrahim al-Jaafari (who together with Ahmad Chalabi was reportedly the only major absentee at today’s decision by INA). For his part, Maliki has for the past years managed to build up a substantial power base of his own, meaning that inside the putative NA, he commands the weight of 89 seats whereas Abd al-Mahdi’s INA accounts for slightly less (70). Add to that the fact that SLA contains a floating mass of at least a couple of dozen MPs – including some from the Tanzim al-Iraq branch of the Daawa and some from Maliki’s own branch – that expressed an interest for a full merger with INA as early as last summer and may be more inclined to compromise with them for that reason, and the complexity of the matter becomes clearer. Reflecting this situation, the modalities for deciding the competition between the two have not yet been decided, although several suggested mechanisms have been floated.
Another key difference concerns timing and procedure for the further process. Back in 2006, a two-thirds majority was required to elect the presidential council and this established the effective threshold for electing the premier (whose nomination was to be done by the presidency). Accordingly, when the first UIA candidate, Ibrahim al-Jaafari, faced resistance from the Kurds and others, he dropped out of the competition. Conversely, when Maliki emerged as a compromise candidate, not even the Kurds had the audacity to attempt a second veto and the rest of the government-formation process went reasonably smoothly, with the government seated in around 50 days after Maliki’s emergence as a compromise candidate. This time around, though, even if the Shiite alliance should be able to agree on a single candidate – only then would it in fact exist as a relevant bloc or kutla according to even the most flexible reading of the Iraqi constitution – there would still be a long way to go. Firstly it seems unlikely that the secular Iraqiyya will accept a government formed on this basis, since it has been making the case for a stricter interpretation of the constitution based on electoral results all the way. The possible exception in this case is that Abd al-Mahdi is well liked as a person among several high-ranking Iraqiyya leaders, though perhaps more so among the Wifaq ones than others and any cave-in by them to an NA demand for the premiership would likely meet with considerable defections from the other components of Iraqiyya and the end result could be a repeat of the “Tawafuq syndrome” of the previous parliament or even something less, with weak representation of the areas controlled by the central government north of Baghdad. Secondly, a deal with the Kurds is not a foregone conclusion this time, since the Kurdish votes are not needed to seat the government, and since their demands so far have been pretty extravagant. If they overplay their hand, they, too, might risk marginalisation as a result. Thirdly, the loser of the internal Shiite competition will still have cards to play for these reasons, depending to some extent on the numbers involved in the final struggle. For example, if the vote is close and Maliki loses, he could still turn to Iraqiyya and try to be more generous with them.
In terms of chronology, next week will mark the high point of the Ramadan celebrations, so settling the internal Shiite issue will likely not begin in earnest until 15 September. In other words, unless the Iraqis rush faster than in 2006, a government on this side of the US midterm elections on 2 November might prove difficult.
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