In many ways, the approval by the Iraqi parliament this week of a Sadrist nominee as head of the country’s de-Baathification board is significant also as an indicator of the shrinking parliamentary support base of Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki.
Ever since his accession to the Iraqi premiership in 2006, Maliki’s strength has been the ability to avoid outright showdowns with the Iraqi parliament despite persistent and growing frictions. In some cases, this has been done simply by letting parliament quarrel among themselves regarding key legislation whereas Maliki governs based on Baath-era laws: The oil and gas law is a case in point. In other cases of problematic legislation, Maliki has relied on the judiciary to strong-arm the national assembly into obedience. This approach proved itself successful in a number of cases – and perhaps most spectacularly so when the supreme court struck down early attempts to decentralize the provincial powers law in 2010, as well as in Maliki’s moves to attach the independent commissions administratively to the executive and to limit the right to question ministers. And again other potential conflicts have been defused in the last minute by the resuscitation of sectarian alliances, sometimes with reported Iranian support. First, there was of course the last-minute détente with the Sadrists that largely helped save Maliki’s premiership in early summer 2012 when things almost reached a critical level. As late as January this year, only months before the provincial elections, Shiite parties similarly sided with Maliki and failed to attend an emergency session of parliament intended as a show of support for growing political unrest in Iraq’s provinces. In sum, whereas Maliki is dreaming a lot about rather unrealistic visions of a “political majority” government, he has actually been quite successful in surviving with what is often not the “power-sharing” he posits as the lamentable reality, but rather a “political minority” government.
There have of course been exceptions, i.e. votes that were lost for Maliki or turned out in ways that were antithetical to his vision for Iraq. At the first such vote, the October 2006 law on the formation of federalism, one could argue that the Daawa had not consolidated its parliamentary base in any shape or form, and incongruously ended up supporting legislation which it would later bitterly oppose. Perhaps the most serious losses was the ascendancy of Ayyad al-Samaraie to the speakerhip in 2009, which was vigorously contested by Maliki but to no avail. More recently, Maliki twice tried to influence the formation of the Iraqi electoral commission – first by prematurely attempting to sack the incumbent one in July 2011, then by a failed attempt at inflating the number of commissioners in 2012. This was a harbinger of more serious things to come: Term limits on the premiership in January 2013, and provincial powers law revisions in June. There are reports Maliki allies are challenging some of these laws before the supreme court (and he may potentially have some success with the limitation of the premiership terms) but so far no clear decision has emerged.
Earlier this week, on 22 July, another such milestone for the critics of Maliki was reached. In a parliament session attended by no less than 243 deputies, a proposal to confirm the Sadrist Falah Hasan al-Shanshal as de-Baathification head was approved. Details on the vote are few, with some sources claiming “unanimity” and others suggesting some Maliki allies rejected it. Whatever the actual voting patterns, Maliki supporters have already indicated that they may once more complain to the federal supreme court.
The really important point though is that according to the accountability and justice law, the decision on the head of the de-Baathification committee must be made by an absolute majority, i.e. 163 out of the 325 parliament members. We must assume the decision was made in this way, and that an absolute-majority opposition to Maliki is beginning to consolidate in the Iraqi parliament. That is a threatening proposition even to a prime minister who has expertly sidelined the assembly in the past. Going forward to the parliamentary elections of 2014, he must especially be wary of the burgeoning coalition of Shiite Islamists (Sadrists and ISCI) and Sunnis/secularists (the Nujayfi bloc in particular) that reportedly pushed forward Shanshal’s approval.
Beyond the numbers, there is the strong symbolism of the personalities involved. Shanshal, of course, was sidelined by Maliki earlier this year after having attempted to remove Midhat Mahmud – the supreme court chief and a key Maliki ally in his efforts to keep the Iraqi parliament at an arm’s length. Now Shanshal is being reinstated, suggesting more criticism of Maliki’s regime of the deeper kind focusing on his relations with the judiciary could be coming up.
On a more humoristic note, the abnormally high attendance rates in the Iraqi parliament in July, in the middle of Ramadan, raise some questions about what is going on. Could it be related to superior provision of air condition at a time when most other Iraqis suffer in the 50 degrees Celsius heat? Surely, if the trend continues like this, the assembly might actually get things done, which would be a welcome change from the recent past in Iraqi politics.