The Iraqi parliament has been unusually efficient today. Although the assembly barely reached the quorum level (only 183 deputies were reportedly present), those who attended today’s session – which included a questioning of Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki regarding his plans to reduce the size of his government – were effective enough. Whereas a previous session had ended with a lame “agreement to downsizing the government in principle”, today all ministries of state save three (provincial affairs, women’s affairs and parliamentary affairs) were abolished by a majority vote.
In one way, of course, this is a positive development, because a main problem in the government that was formed by Nuri al-Maliki in December 2010 was precisely its bigness and its sprawling, unwieldy character. Criticism of unnecessary and symbolic government offices that primarily serve to augment the hubris of their holders has been part and parcel of the limited “Arab Spring” that has manifested itself in Iraq over the past half year. With fewer ministers, decision-making inside the cabinet should be made easier and, in principle at least, one of the main obstacles towards a more effective government has been removed through today’s action.
At the same time it should be clear that everything that was done today represents a flagrant violation of the Iraqi constitution. That is so because the constitution does not distinguish between ordinary ministers (i.e. those with portfolio) and ministers of state (i.e. without portfolio) as far as sacking them is concerned. They should enjoy exactly the same right to individual questioning before parliament prior to a vote of no confidence, meaning that today’s en masse cancellation of around ten such ministries represents a clear constitutional violation. To add insult to injury, Maliki told parliament that “no legal problems” pertained to the process of reducing the size of the government and Iraqiyya expressed satisfaction as far as procedure was concerned. There have been vague attempts at establishing a distinction between ministries for which separate laws have already been issued and those that lack such laws (including the ministries of state). However, none of that cancels out the constitutional provisions, but so far it appears that only individual politicians like Wail Abd al-Latif and Aliyya Nusayf have even pointed out the constitutional infractions involved in today’s actions. Of course, it is not the first time the Iraqi parliament violates the Iraqi constitution, but what happened today does raise the question about the role of constitutions in states that have recently transitioned from authoritarian rule: Are they just for fun? Can their lofty principles be violated in such a flagrant way without damaging the fiction of democracy and the rule of law?
As for the political aspects of today’s actions, it appears that many of the ministries that were cancelled are from the smaller Shiite parties, including the Sadrists (Abd al-Mahdi al-Mutayri and Diya al-Asadi), Fadila (Bushra Hussein) and ISCI (Hasan Radi and possibly Yasin Hasan Muhammad Ahmad). Apparently, State of Law are giving up two ministries (Ali al-Dabbagh and possibly Amir al-Khuzaie whose national reconciliation position is listed as a “ministry of state” in many accounts) and Iraqiyya two (depending on how, in addition to Salah al-Jibburi, one counts Ali al-Sajri, originally from the Unity of Iraq list that has since been enrolled in Iraqiyya, and Jamil al-Batikh whose White Iraqiyya seceded from Iraqiyya back in March). The Kurds lose the ministry of state for civil society as well as a Fayli minister of state.
The ministries of state that were not abolished today are two held by State of Law (women’s affairs and parliamentary affairs) and one by a Turkmen (Turhan al-Mufti), whose party is seen as close to Iraqiyya but whose political rhetoric is often Turkmen first. The decision by Maliki to hold on to his embattled ally Safa al-Din al-Safi who is having trouble with accusations about corruption is interesting, and could indicate that he is feeling the threat of isolation within his own cabinet.
In terms of people, based on a rough count, the remaining rump cabinet includes 7 from State of Law, 5 Sadrists (who increased their share during the first half of 2011 through additional appointments in February and April), 2 smaller Shiite groups (ISCI and Fadila with one each), 4 Kurdistan Alliance plus one minority representative often seen as pro-Kurdish, and finally 7 from Iraqiyya plus Sadun al-Dulaymi (whose Unity of Iraq is now technically part of Iraqiyya) as well as the aforementioned Turhan al-Mufti. Which in turn means that the lingering decisions on the defence and interior portfolios could become an even more crucial factor in deciding the political balance of the Iraqi cabinet in the coming period.