Today’s vote in parliament on a law for Iraq’s anti-corruption commission was in some ways another defeat for Iraq’s prime minister Nuri al-Maliki. On a key article of the law, namely the mechanism for appointing the leader of the integrity commission, Maliki and his political allies had sought a different formula than that eventully agreed to by parliament: Whereas Maliki had asked for prime ministerial appointment powers, parliament reserved that prerogative for itself in article 4 of the new law. As usual in Iraq, no details on the votes of individual deputies were published but it has been made clear in press reports that the supporters of the anti-Maliki measure were generally Iraqiyya, the Kurds and possibly some individual members of ISCI.
Still, despite these developments in parliament today, two important caveats pertain to the image of Maliki coming under pressure. Firstly, today’s decision was in the realm of simple-majority decisions rather than anywhere near the absolute-majority territory in which the most crucial decisions – such as sacking the government itself – are made. With 248 deputies present, no more than 125 votes were required to win the vote, meaning we are still far away from the magical 163 needed to withdraw confidence in Maliki.
Second, today’s vote against Maliki was enabled precisely because it focused on a single anti-Maliki clause that attacked him personally. Conversely, when the issues are broader, this sort of cross-party political consensus that could form the basis for a challenge to the government simply does not exist. This can be seen for example in the debate on the oil and gas law. Seemingly there is a parallel challenge to prime ministerial power in the parliamentary oil and gas committee version of the oil and gas bill, which differs from the government version above all when it comes to the role of the PM in the projected, all-powerful federal oil and gas council. But in other areas of the oil and gas legislation – and especially in areas concerning centre-periphery relations - fissures in the anti-Maliki coalition are evident. Firstly, it seems unclear whether the Kurds are wholeheartedly supporting the committee version of the bill at all, since their latest tirade against the “Maliki draft” included criticism of items concerning central government powers that can in fact be found in the committee version of the bill as well. In other words, maybe the Kurds are not terribly serious about the committee bill at the end of the day and instead are just trying to heap pressure on Maliki in order to get a better deal from him bilaterally in KRG-Baghdad negotiations.
Second, even parties often seen as pro-Kurdish are at variance with Arbil when the specifics of oil and gas and other “big issues” (like disputed territories) come up for debate. Nowhere is this more evident than in the case of the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq (ISCI), which despite its reputation as a pro-Kurdish party has recently found it necessary to issue criticism of alleged oil smuggling from the Kurdish areas as well as what is seen as Kurdish attempts at grandstanding through reducing the oil output from the KRG area. Issues like these have over the past few weeks been highlighted by pro-ISCI deputies such as Qasim al-Aaraji and Falih al-Sari. Indeed, when it comes to the disputed territories, even Iraqiyya – which has recently gone quite far in accommodating Kurdish sentiment with respect to oil, at least at the level of the party leadership – have strongly protested developments in Diyala province, where the recent visit by the Kurdish president Masud Barzani prompted strong protests locally.
The lack of cohesion among Maliki’s opponents in turn explains how he is able to remain in power despite a decidedly flimsy parliamentary support base. The Kurds took at face value his promises on oil and gas and other issues in late 2010, overlooking the fact that these issues belong to the realm of parliamentary decisions and even referendums rather than to that of the premier. Maliki clearly is not strong enough to produce parliamentary decisions on these matters; however, he is quite capable of hanging on to power thanks to the inability of the opposition to unite to sack him. In the end this may suit Maliki well, since it means he can escape or postpone painful decisions on issues like oil and Kirkuk that would potentially bring him into conflict with the limited power base that he still retains in parliament.