Claims and counter-claims continue to dominate Iraqi media concerning the military battle against ISIS in the north of the country, with reports about renewed action around Tikrit today. But whatever the exact situation may be in Tikrit, the Iraqi parliament in Baghdad today scored a very significant victory in the battle against ISIS: The election of a new parliament speakership in accordance with the relevant constitutional provisions.
The vote today was historical also for reasons beyond the ongoing struggle against ISIS. Above all, it is the first time in Iraq’s post-2003 history that Iraqi deputies have followed the constitution to the letter and held a separate vote on the parliament speaker and his two deputies. Previously, the speaker vote has been subjected to more far-reaching package deals also covering the presidency and the premiership. Indeed, as late as during the first session of the new Iraqi parliament just 2 weeks ago, Sunnis and Kurds demanded that the Shiites decide on their premier candidate before a vote on the speaker. Now, after considerable pressure from the outside (and in particular from the Shiite clergy), that knot has been disentangled. Hopefully it will all have positive and liberating side effects for Iraq’s political process.
The votes on the new speaker and his two deputies were in themselves interesting, although not much is known about voting patterns because of the secrecy (paper ballots) with which the votes were conducted. Firstly, Salim al-Jibburi (originally of the Sunni Islamist Iraqi Islamic Party from Diyala and currently part of a wider Sunni alliance headed by Usama al-Nujayfi, the former parliament speaker), won the speakership itself with an impressive 194 votes, far more than the required absolute majority of 165 votes. His challenger, Shuruq al-Abaji (a female MP from a smaller secular bloc) got only 19 votes, whereas 60 blank or invalid votes seemed to indicate some sort of protest.
The first deputy vote was more dramatic, with Ahmed Chalabi mounting a surprise internal Shiite challenge to the official Shiite alliance candidate, Haydar al-Abbadi of the Maliki list. There was also a third candidate, Faris Yusuf Juju, yet again a secularist. Abbadi did win the competition with Chalabi 149-107 but that was not enough for an absolute majority. Chalabi then withdrew and Abbadi won the second vote with 188 votes, though 76 deputies voted blank.
The second deputy vote was more of an acclamation, with the Kurdish candidate from the Gorran party, Aram Sheikh Mohammad, gaining 171 votes and with 70 blank votes.
Not all of this is easy to interpret. The blank votes seem to have been quite consistently in the range of 60 to 70 deputies, though this has not been tied to any particular bloc. The bomb represented by the intra-Shiite Chalabi challenge to Abbadi may have been an attempt at testing the waters for a forthcoming premier candidacy and his ability to attract votes outside the Shia alliance, although it has been suggested that it is difficult to compare the Abbadi-Chalabi struggle with a future Maliki-Chalabi struggle because Abbadi has more friends than Maliki outside his own faction. At any rate, it was quite impressive for Maliki’s coalition to gain 149 votes for Abbadi in today’s heated political atmosphere, where the advance of ISIS has been so marked lately that it could now be hurting Maliki more than it is helping him. Abbadi was nominated as recently as this morning, after Humam Hammudi of ISCI had been considered the frontrunner for the first deputy speaker post previously.
Perhaps the most important result of today’s vote was the leap of faith that Iraqi politicians conducted despite wavering to the last minute. Shiites and Kurds voted for the Sunni Islamist Jibburi as speaker without any guarantees regarding the deputy speakers – not to speak about the president or the PM. This in turn could have positive side effects, and hopefully the president will be duly elected in the same manner and with adherence to the constitutional timeline – 30 days from the first parliament meeting on 1 July.