In a significant move, the Iraqi parliament has completed the first passage of the 2014 annual budget despite boycotts by the Kurds and the Mutahhidun bloc loyal to the parliament speaker, Usama al-Nujayfi.
The sheer arithmetic behind the successful quorum at Sunday’s session speaks volumes about shifting political winds in Iraq ahead of the 30 April parliament elections. In order to go ahead with the first reading, 163 MPs needed to be present to reach the legal minimum requirement for taking parliamentary action. According to the official parliament record, 164 deputies attended. In the context of boycotts by Kurds and Mutahhidun alike, this is a remarkable achievement. It means, firstly, that the Shia bloc in parliament is exhibiting internal discipline at a level not seen since 2005. Altogether the three main Shiite factions – State of Law, Muwatin and the Sadrists – command around 161 deputy votes. The numbers suggest that despite internal turmoil among the Sadrists (or because of it?) a majority of these deputies will have been present during the budget reading. Whereas previous occasions involving Kurdish opposition to Maliki have seen widespread ISCI solidarity with the Kurds, no such major Shiite challenge to Maliki appears to have materialized this time around. But beyond this, importantly, there must have been some MPs from the Sunni and secular camps attending as well. The numbers don’t lie: even on a good day, there are no more than aroundd 160 Shiite Islamist MPs, and most of the handful of minority MPs from small non-Muslim groups and ethnic micro-minorities are loyal to the Kurds. Accordingly, in the context of continued criticism of PM Maliki by Iraqiyya leader Ayyad Allawi, it makes sense to assume that at least some of the breakaway elements of Iraqiyya that materialized in 2012 were present to secure the necessary quorum.
Substantially speaking, the conflict involves primarily Kurdish opposition to proposed measures of control regarding oil export from the Kurdish areas. For their part, the Sunni Mutahiddun appear to be boycotting more out of personal opposition to Maliki than a coherent anti-centralism agenda (although the tendency in the latter direction is more pronounced today than it was a couple of years ago). It is interesting that Maliki is using the issue of the budget and the question of Kurdish oil exports to mobilize popular opinion ahead of the elections. This is unprecedented: In 2010, neither the question of Kirkuk nor the budget tension was brought to the fore in a big way. At the same time, when seen within the context of the election campaign more generally, this is Shia chauvinism within a shell of Iraqi nationalism, quite different, for example, from the 22 July movement of 2008 focused on representation issues in the Kirkuk provincial council. Alongside assertiveness on the part of the central government in oil issues comes new governorate proposals clearly speaking to Shia Turkmen minorities, as well as the cabinet’s recent passage of retrograde Shia personal status law that would enable underage marriage – an apparent concession by Maliki to hardliners in the Fadila party ahead of the elections.
Still, this is only the first reading of the budget. Parliament speaker Nujayfi will be able to stage filibuster-like obstacles to delay the second reading and the decisive vote. It is however noteworthy that Nujayfi himself chose to be present and chair the budget first reading on Sunday, quite despite his own bloc’s boycott.
Three further parliament meetings are scheduled for this week. For now, the second budget reading is not on the agenda.