There was both irony and symbolism in the air as UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon visited Iraq today. In his address upon arriving, Ki-moon highlighted the importance of the Iraqi parliament adhering to constitutional timelines for forming the new government. For its part, apparently unaware about the visit, the Iraqi parliament was already in session. In order to accommodate Ki-moon, it had to postpone its planned vote on a new president by more than an hour.
Once the voting got underway, things went rather faster than expected. Parliament speaker Salim al-Jibburi announced that a committee had considered more than 100 candidates and made some disqualifications based on formal criteria such as age, education and de-Baathification status. He then proceeded to call a vote on several dozen candidates.
There is a case to be made that the way the election was carried out was illegal. This is so because the law on presidency candidates distinctly stipulates that rejected candidates, of which there were several, have a 3-day right of appeal to the federal supreme court. This was not honoured. Sadly, during the procedural discussion prior to the vote, Iraqi MPs wasted their time on political arguments instead of these important legal questions. As for the speaker himself, maybe it was too much to expect that he should take any interest in putting the law above the interests of big political parties since he himself acquired his seat in the previous parliament in an illegal fashion in 2010? And given that Jibburi is a darling of the US embassy, it would perhaps be too much to expect them or the UN to care about these little details of legality.
What happened instead was that a first vote was held in which the candidate of the unified Kurdish blocs received 175 votes – convincing and indicative of the broad political consensus that was also achieved when the new parliament speaker was elected, but of short of the 218 absolute-majority required for the president in the first vote. The second best vote-getter was Hanan al-Fatlawi of the bloc of Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki, who had launched her candidacy “in a personal capacity”. She got 37 votes, whereas several other candidates got a handful of votes each (no verified statistics are available since the Iraq parliament website remains offline).
Following rather unseemly interventions by Shiite alliance figures Ibrahim al-Jaafari and Baha al-Aaraji, Fatlawi was intimidated into withdrawing her candidacy. The third best vote-getter, Faiq al-Sheikh Ali also withdrew, leaving it to the judge Hussein al-Musawi, who also challenged Talabani in 2010, to stand against Masum in the largely ceremonial second vote (since he was absent from parliament, he was unable to withdraw). Of course, the optics of all of this represented a miserable rupture with positive tendencies in the direction of more mature, non-sectarian politics seen in the run-up to the presidential vote. There was something distinctively impotent over the way presidential candidates gave inspired speeches defending their choice to stand as candidates in a protest against the ethno-sectarian spoils system, only to withdraw and leave the field open to the candidate largely decided by one of the Kurdish parties (PUK) in its closed meetings.
Iraq is now actually ahead of the constitutional timeline for forming its next government. But the potentially most problematic task remains: Agreeing on a prime minister. The president has got 14 days to nominate the PM candidate of the largest bloc in parliament, and exactly like in 2010 there are questions about the identity of that bloc and its candidate. In general, much of what has been said publicly about this matter has been futile. The opinion of the new parliament speaker has been quoted, as has the federal supreme court – with claims and counterclaims about its position. The truth is, it is for the new president to identify the largest bloc and ask its PM candidate to form the next government. Whereas the pan-Shiite alliance has declared itself the largest bloc repeatedly, there is a case to be made that as long as it does not have an agreed PM candidate it doesn’t exist in a way that is interesting to the Iraqi government formation and that the State of Law bloc of PM Maliki – whose candidate is Maliki – is the biggest bloc. It is being reported that Masum will meet soon with the Shiite alliance to clarify these things. Unless a PM candidate emerges, Maliki could legitimately complain to the federal supreme court that Masum is wasting his time with a non-existent political alliance.
One additional interesting aspect of today’s sessions: Iraqi MPs apparently forgot about ueseless vice-presidential positions altogether! Hopeully the PM question will now remain their preoccupation.