Late last night, Iraq’s president, Jalal Talabani, broke his long silence on exactly what is going on with the request for a no confidence vote against the country’s embattled premier, Nuri al-Maliki.
For a “clarification”, Talabani’s latest announcement was relatively convoluted. Still, there is now at least a few more pieces of information available. Firstly, Talabani is aware that the signature collection does not form part of the constitutional procedure for a presidential call for a no confidence vote. Good. Nonetheless, he has apparently asked for the signatures in advance in some kind of “intermediary” gesture to the opposing camps. His aim has probably been to establish whether there was basis for a no confidence vote to succeed.
In this more limited capacity – as an “opinion poll” if you will – the exercise is of course valid. It also has some interest for predicting the likely outcome of a vote in parliament. As said before, though, there are methodological issues here, relating in particular to the difference between collecting written signatures via email and actually having people come and vote in the parliament chamber. This aspect is salient given the overall low attendance level in the Iraqi parliament. Additionally, there is of course the question of whether Talabani’s office is up to the best standards in terms of analyzing this material. The public statement erroneously refers to “quorum” (nisab) instead of an “absolute majority” as the required threshold (they are both at 163 but no excuses for the confusion by the presidential “guardian of the constitution”) . We can only hope there are no more errors in the press release.
To the numbers reported by Talabani, then. Most wire services on Saturday said only 160 MPs had signed (thus falling just short of the required 163 needed to unseat Maliki) but a fine reading of the presidential statement shows that is not necessarily the case. Instead, Talabani essentially gives us something of a mathematical equation:
- 160 signatures from Iraqiyya, the Kurdistan Alliance, the Sadrists and independent MPs were initially presented.
- An unspecified number of signatures from the PUK (Talabani’s own Kurdish party) were subsequently added. This must be more than 3 (since at one point there were more than 163 signatures) but less than 12 (the total of PUK MPs in parliament, assuming none had signed off in the initial batch of 160).
- Subsequently, 11 signatures were withdrawn and 2 were “suspended” (taliq, this is evidently so strange that even the Arabic statement uses quotation marks).
- The remaining total is less than 163. (It should be noted that there is no word about falsification of signatures – a subject which consumed a good deal of heated exchanges in the press last week.)
Let us for the sake of the argument assume that the unknown variable here – the PUK signatures – were at their highest possible value, i.e. 12 (the total of PUK representatives in the Iraqi parliament). That would leave us with a maximum of 160+12-11-2 signatures by people ready to vote down Maliki, i.e. 159. This is 4 less than the required threshold of 163, in line with conservative estimates presented earlier in the week, and significantly lower than numbers reported by Maliki critics (ranging from 176 to 200 plus). At the very maximum, there may at one point have been 172 signatures according to the Talabani statement. Add to this the fact that it is easier to make people sign via email than show up in parliament. (Maliki lawyer Tareq Harb appears to have his own count, arriving at 146 but apparently not counting the PUK signatures that were added at one point.)
The Maliki critics who met again at Erbil today have plenty to think about. They are apparently considering a plan B consisting of the second route to a no confidence vote: A questioning of the parliament (called for by 25 deputies) followed by a no confidence vote called for by 65 deputies. This approach is not without its problems: It takes longer, the supreme court recently issued a very biased ruling limiting the right to question ministers (it has received zero attention by the Iraqi press but was almost certainly calculated to also apply to the eventuality of a prime ministerial no confidence vote) and the support of President Talabani and his Kurdish PUK party would not be a given. In any case, its proponents should now stop trying to convince the Iraqi public about their number of signatures (today, Iraqiyya leaders boast they have 10 more up the sleeve and there are even reports about another futile attempt to send one more letter to Talabani to convince him). Instead, if they truly want a vote they should simply begin making specific steps towards a questioning of Maliki in parliament (which begins with a request by 25 deputies to the parliament speaker, Usama al-Nujayfi of Iraqiyya, to summon Maliki to the national assembly).
Talabani does not rule out this second option, of course. Indeed, in calling for the “national meeting” – the gathering of leaders sought by Maliki instead of a no confidence vote – he says this can be useful whether the premier is ousted or not. Maliki critics should however take notice how firmly Talabani asserts his own right to appoint any replacement in line with article 76 of the constitution by which is it his job to identify the candidate of the biggest bloc in parliament. If the Shiite alliance breaks down as a result of a no confidence vote in Maliki and the remnants fail to form alliances with Iraqiyya and the Kurds, that might in theory well be Maliki’s own State of Law bloc – and its premier candidate Maliki himself.