After he formed his own electoral coalition known as Unity of Iraq in summer 2009, former interior minister Jawad al-Bulani has largely disappeared from the limelight in Iraq. His new coalition, which in many ways resembled an Iraqiyya in miniature with a secular ideology, a Shiite leader and a largely Sunni support base, performed poorly in the parliamentary elections of March 2010 and played no significant role in the formation of the second Maliki government in December 2010. But for the past month or so, Bulani has once more attracted the interest of Iraqi media.
The first occasion on which Bulani came to the fore again was in July after the merger of his Unity of Iraq bloc with Iraqiyya. Unity of Iraq had originally emerged with only 4 deputies after the parliamentary elections and had first moved to form a post-election alliance known as Wasat with the equally unsuccessful Tawafuq coalition (6 deputies) with which it had few ideological commonalities. After the merger of Iraqiyya and Unity of Iraq, the rump of Wasat – basically the old Tawafuq – for a short while remained independent in parliament. However, recently Tawafuq moved to join Iraqiyya as well. Inevitably, in isolation these moves left a sense of greater sectarian polarisation in Iraqi politics, not least since the only branch of Iraqiyya that defected after the elections – White Iraqiyya – is Shiite-dominated and has recently been strengthened by yet another ex-Iraqiyya deputy from Karbala. For its part, despite Bulani being a Shiite and Unity of Iraq having a certain cross-sectarian appeal, Iraqiyya is certainly looking somewhat more Sunni-leaning after the latest co-option of Tawafuq, which in many ways was the quintessential “Sunni party” in the previous parliament.
Soon after the merger with Iraqiyya, some of Bulani’s troubles came to the fore. In an embarrassing development, the leader of Unity of Iraq had failed to win a seat for himself in the March 2010 election. Nonetheless, he was given a replacement seat earlier this year after a member of his coalition, Ali al-Sajri, was promoted as minister of state in the new Maliki government. However, the problem was that Sajri had been a candidate in Salahaddin whereas Bulani had been a candidate in Baghdad, making his replacement distinctly at variance with the law on the replacement of candidates as well as the constitutionally stipulated balance of deputies between the governorates. Finally, in a much-overlooked development, on 10 August the Iraqi federal supreme court announced that it had overruled the Iraqi parliament’s decision on replacement seats and deprived Bulani of the seat that he had been awarded earlier. There are several problems related to the ruling, including the question of why the same principles were not used against several other deputies (including individuals from the Sadrists, Fadila and Tawafuq) whose replacement of other deputies had featured exactly the same problems as those highlighted in the case of Bulani. So far, however, the only lingering protests considering the replacement seats seem to concern the seat given to a member of Iraqiyya after a White Iraqiyya member was given a ministry of state in February, as well as rather implausible protests by ministers affected by the recent downsizing of the government to the effect that they should get their parliamentary seats back (instead, those ministers should have protested the modalities of the downsizing procedure).
Just to make matters worse, Bulani recently offered a press statement which left considerable doubt about his ability to read the Iraqi constitution properly: On 26 July, he told media that the Iraqi parliament should be reduced to 163 members, supposedly to reflect the correct proportion of deputies per voter! In fact, what Bulani cited was the old elections law of 2005 and not the constitution. One of the reasons the election law was amended in 2009 was precisely that it was in conflict with the constitution in this regard.
At any rate (and possibly not entirely unrelated to the loss of his parliamentary seat and/or the recent merger with Iraqiyya), Bulani is now on the offensive again: He has suddenly become Iraqiyya’s candidate to head the defence ministry. This is an interesting move for numerous reasons. Firstly, back in 2006, Bulani had of course been the “Shiite compromise candidate” for interior (when the formation of the government was also held up for many months precisely due to bickering about who should hold the sensitive security ministries). Secondly, as a secular Shiite promoted by a coalition seen by some of its detractors as “too Sunni”, Bulani creates trouble for anyone who wants to adopt a neat sectarian perspective on Iraqi politics. In this respect, it is noteworthy that Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki himself has lately tried to label the defence post as a “Sunni prerogative” (rather than the rightful share of Iraqyya) in a sectarian and not too subtle move to circumvent the preferences of the Iraqiyya leaders for this post.
Bulani’s re-emergence as a candidate for defence in Iraq is potentially fruitful in the way it makes a mess of sectarian expectations that the defence post should go to a Sunni and interior to a Shiite. But by continuing to push for the strategic policy council, Bulani’s Iraqiyya is clinging to an oversized power-sharing formula for the Iraqi government which remains antithetical to recent public demands for a smaller, more effective cabinet. If Maliki is smart, he will accept Bulani and then see how this move influences internal politics in Iraqiyya, which in terms of numbers of important ministries will then be reasonably and comparatively speaking well integrated into his government after the recent downsizing. Unless Maliki is able to obtain allies outside his own core coalition that are prepared to challenge the strategic policy council favoured by Iraqiyya, an acrimonious debate about the council may well continue to dominate Iraqi politics for weeks and months at a time when focus on a new bilateral arrangement between Iraq and the United States is needed. Conversely, if Maliki is unwise and unrealistic, he will continue the futile search for “Sunnis outside Iraqiyya” to fill the defence ministry post.
Bulani, incidentally, is reasonably well liked in the United States for the work he did during his tenure at interior.