There has been lot of talk about signatures in Iraq lately. Most of it has been focused on a supposed list of signatories who asked President Jalal Talabani to stage a vote of no confidence in Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki. Late Monday, both Maliki and Talabani confirmed the existence of some kind of petition addressed to Talabani; Maliki asked Talabani to hand the document over to the judiciary to check it for possible forgeries.
There are lots of problems regarding these alleged signatures, both at the technical level and in the broader constitutional context. Technically speaking, no complete document of signatures has been published so far. Most press reports deal with aggregate numbers of deputies for each of the blocs opposing Maliki, with only a dozen of independent deputies specified by name. Numbers of signatories vary from 176 to 200 plus. Several of the named deputies, minority representatives and one Kurdish party (Goran) have subsequently protested at their inclusion or specifically rejected the idea of a no confidence vote in Maliki.
More importantly though, these signatures – whether they actually exist or not – have no legal or constitutional meaning.
There are two ways of asking for a no confidence vote under the Iraqi constitution.
Firstly, the president can do so. Importantly, in that case he can do so simply because he feels it is the right thing to do. It doesn’t matter whether he has the signature of every single deputy in the Iraqi parliament or none; it is his decision alone. It should be stressed that there is no need for the president to present any compelling rationale for having the vote.
Secondly, a fifth of the deputies in parliament (65 MPs) can also ask for a questioning of the PM (istijwab) followed by a no confidence vote. In that case, however, they need to go directly to the parliamentary speaker (Usama al-Nujayfi). Talabani has no role whatsoever in that route to a no confidence vote.
In both cases the vote itself will be settled by an absolute-majority vote of 163 deputies.
In other words, the signatures to Talabani are no more binding than an opinion poll. Talabani may listen to them if he likes to, or he may reject them and ask them to work via a 65-member petition instead.
This is why it is so strange that Maliki has initiated a procedure of investigation of these basically valueless signatures. One possible explanation is that he may want to pre-empt any possible move by his enemies through embarrassing them with charges of fraud. The different reports of the true number of signatories are in themselves perhaps an indication that there may be problems relating to the verification of some of the signatories. Even if this move by Maliki may seem quixotic, it is certainly preferable to the overtly politicised recent ruling by the supreme court on the right of parliament to question ministers.
Iraqiyya claims Talabani has already sent a request for a no confidence vote to Nujayfi. The only thing that is known officially is that Talabani has formed a committee to deal with the question of the authenticity of the signatures.
Constitutionally meaningless it all is, but maybe a way of winning time for players unsure about their next move?