Critics of Iraq’s prime minister Nuri al-Maliki must have realized it late yesterday, if not earlier: President Jalal Talabani is not going to call for a no confidence vote in Maliki. A letter from Talabani’s office made that perfectly clear, leaving Maliki’s critics with only one constitutional option for unseating the premier – a questioning before parliament, to be followed in a subsequent and separate session by a no confidence vote.
In theory, holding the questioning itself should be relatively easy. A mere 25 deputies can ask the parliament presidency (all of which is currently anti-Maliki) to summon the prime minister. The threshold for asking for a subsequent no confidence vote is also modest: A fifth of deputies, i.e. 65 deputies in the current 325-member assembly.
What should they ask about? This is where the problems begin. True to form, the critics of Maliki have reportedly formed no less than three committees to concoct nasty questions to be put to the premier in the parliamentary chamber. One story claims Bahaa al-Aaraji, the Sadrist, will lead the charge! Maliki’s allies cannot be any worse than this and have promised catalogues of files of alleged criminal wrongdoing on the part of Maliki’s enemies that will be revealed during the questioning, thereby changing the dynamics radically – or so goes their scenario, anyway.
Few critics of Maliki appear to have taken much notice of a potentially fateful ruling by the Iraqi supreme court some weeks ago which severely limited the ability of parliament to question ministers. Essentially, it said that in order for ministers to be summoned before parliament, there had to be a specific criminal charge or constitutional infraction for which to hold them accountable. The ruling amounted to nothing less than a rewriting of the Iraqi constitution since no such strings are attached there, but Iraqi media have been slow to respond. Importantly, whether one agrees with the ruling or not, it applies to ministers and prime ministers alike since they are all treated on an equal footing in the relevant article of the Iraqi constitution (61-7-c).
The ruling was given in the context of the potential questioning of a Maliki ally – Ali al-Adib who is minister for higher education – but some Maliki supporters are already discussing the potential questioning of the prime minister in a similar vein. The obvious question is, will the issues Maliki’s critics want to raise satisfy the new and more restrictive criteria of the supreme court for a parliamentary questioning (istijwab)?
Generally speaking, questions about corruption or the failure to provide services are unlikely to succeed simply on procedural grounds.
The subjects most likely to meet with approval as suitable subjects for questioning are constitutional infractions on the part of Maliki on very specific issues. Two stand out.
The first is the failure of the Iraqi cabinet, since 2010, to honour the requests for federalism referendums in numerous Iraqi governorates, including Basra, Wasit, Salahaddin and Diyala. This is a very clear violation of the law on forming regions that was adopted in 2006 and promulgated in 2008 as the implementation of article 118 of the constitution and which specifically charges the cabinet with putting the referendums in motion as soon as the requests have been received. At least in Sunni-dominated Diyala and parts of Salahaddin, the pro-federal currents seem to remain alive and as long as the federalists remembered to lodge a formal request for a referendum (alongside all the unnecessary bluster abut “declaring” themselves regions) there is plenty of reasons to ask Maliki what happened to those constitutionally mandated referendums. Article 78 of the constitution charges the PM with administering his cabinet so this is his responsibility.
A second subject that could count as a constitutional infraction by Maliki is the failure to have upper-level military officers by parliament, as demanded by article 80-5. Again, the PM has a special responsibility as administrator of the cabinet.
Whether any such questioning would succeed in a successful no confidence vote remains unclear. For a long time, the numbers in favour of a direct no confidence vote seemed exaggerated and masked the possibility that they might fall just short of the critical 163 absolute-majority mark. Additionally, if any of the two specific constitutional infractions discussed above come into play, Maliki may still be able to win over additional support. For example, on federalism, while the constitution is clear, Maliki might well be able to successfully use arguments of national unity in the assembly in the same way as he has used them in the governorates (where he has been able to mobilise Sunni tribes on an anti-federal basis and translate this into parliamentary support). In other words, Maliki’s implicit argument for violating the constitution for the sake of national unity may curry favour with at least some MPs.
The failure to have high-level military officials confirmed by parliament is an issue which more directly touches on the parliamentary oversight role that lies at the heart of any definition of democracy. Again, though, Maliki might conceivably succeed in winning over at least some potential critics by referring to expediency and the abysmal efficiency record of the Iraqi parliament.
Whatever happens, it is to be hoped that the no confidence vote, if requested, is allowed to go ahead as long as there is adherence to the basic constitutional modalities. Whoever wins this process will come out strengthened if the rules of the game are followed as much as possible.
Parliament is scheduled to meet again on 21 June.