Iraqi news reports and public controversy regarding the Kurdish ministers in the new Iraqi government of Haydar al-Abbadi that was seated last September have brought to the fore some of the key issues in Iraqi political culture and behavior in the post-2003 period.
In several Kurdish statements, as well as in press reports that uncritically reproduced those statements, one can get the impression that Kurdish politicians who were unhappy with the way portfolios were distributed to individual Kurdish ministers back in September think they have the right to conduct some sort of private reshuffle, moving individual Kurdish politicians between ministries in accordance with their preferences and ideas about which positions fit which individuals better. It has been maintained that Abbadi did not sufficiently consult with the Kurdish parties in making his nominations before parliament, and there is a desire for change of several key ministries. In particular, the Kurds are insistent that Hosyhar Zebari, the previous foreign minister, should be finance minister rather than deputy PM, whereas Rosch Shaways should continue to hold that deputy premiership. The Kurdish view has been that the swap between those positions could be executed as soon as there was internal Kurdish agreement behind the decision.
Of course, from the constitutional point of view, what the Kurdish parties may think about the allocation of Kurdish politicians to ministries is subordinated to the will of the Iraqi parliament, as expressed in the vote on the Abbadi government in September. Constitutionally, it is immaterial what Kurdish parties or the Kurdish regional president Masud Barzani may think about the issue. Parliament has already expressed its will, and if there are to be changes, these will have to be voted on. The only reason there is a legal loophole for making such changes at all without first going through the formal process of dismissing ministers already voted into their jobs is that the Kurdish ministers have refrained from formally taking the oath as ministers in the new cabinet before parliament.
Accordingly, before any swearing in of Kurdish ministers as per the new allocation preferred by the Kurds themselves can take place, a proper vote in the Iraqi parliament on their candidacies must be conducted. Whether a majority for such a vote is realistic remains an open question. True, one could expect such support for new Kurdish ministers to materialize as part of the general agreement between all the leading Iraqi factions that led to the formation of the Abbadi government in the first place. However, it is noteworthy that voting patterns on the individual ministers back in September featured several protest abstentions and many ministers failed to reach the symbolically important absolute majority mark of 165 (the Iraqi supreme court has insisted that an “absolute majority” means a an absolute majority of the total members of the assembly only in those cases where this is expressly mentioned and therefore an absolute majority of MPs present is enough for minister approval). Accordingly, the Kurdish bloc itself does not have sufficient votes to pass these ministers without the active support of at least some of the non-Kurdish blocs in the Iraqi parliament.
With security ministers still not appointed and indications there may be ministers of state added (one of the reported new Kurdish ministers is just an unnamed “minister of state” to be given to members of a Kurdish Islamist party), the new Abbadi government is structurally looking more and more like the second Maliki cabinet. It is true that the Abbadi government formation process looked cleaner on the surface with no intangible “strategic policy council” and no mysterious “Erbil agreement”. But if there is a multiplication in coming weeks of numbers of ministers with no other purposes than satisfying particular political party interests, some of the assumed differences between Abbadi’s and Maliki’s cabinets could soon get blurred.
The Kurdish stance on its ministers, too, is reflective of the culture of consociated democacy that has crystallized in Iraq since 2003. Essentially, the Kurds think they wield sovereignty within their allotted quota of ministerial seats. That is not a view that is supported by the Iraqi constitution, and one that will be put to the test when the Iraqi parliament gets together to tackle these issues in coming days. A forthcoming decision on Saturday has been expected, but so far there is no formal agenda on the parliament website. What is clear in any case is that any new Kurdish ministers must be voted on before they can complete the formality of swearing in.