The Battle of the Coalitions Is Heating Up
Posted by Reidar Visser on Monday, 14 September 2009 13:44
Fronts in the intra-Shiite competition over political pre-eminence in Iraq have hardened perceptibly over the past few weeks. Media supportive of the newly formed Iraqi National Alliance have been highlighting negotiations between Adil Abd al-Mahdi and Kurdish leaders about a possible future alliance (in other words, the ISCI–Kurdish axis in a new incarnation), whereas commentators close to Nuri al-Maliki have openly condemned these manoeuvres as a plot to exclude a second Maliki premiership.
Now the Buratha news agency has pulled out all the stops by openly threatening to destroy Maliki’s coalitions in the Shiite-dominated governorates south of Baghdad. After the local elections last January Maliki generally formed provincial councils with the support of all other political forces except ISCI. But now, ISCI supporters say, Shiite Islamists like the Sadrists and the Jaafari breakaway movement from the Daawa, are once more on their own side. If Maliki perseveres with his plans to run separately from the Shiite-dominated list – or so the argument goes – ISCI and its new allies will withdraw confidence from Maliki’s governors in all governorates except Baghdad, Basra and Karbala (in these places it is conceded that Maliki’s majority is unassailable.)
The Buratha news agency hasn’t got its math quite right though. Or rather, its commentators have forgotten that Maliki’s strategy last spring was two-pronged and featured not only an exclusion of ISCI to the advantage of Sadrists and Jaafari but also an attempt to reach out to secular forces such as the Iraqiyya list and local parties. In fact, by consolidating his alliances with these latter forces, Maliki should be able to fend off any challenge by ISCI in Wasit, Qadisiyya, Babel (each of which has three secularist representatives) and possibly even Muthanna (which has an unusual high proportion of local lists represented). Only Najaf, Dhi Qar and Maysan seem to be irretrievably lost for Maliki under the new scenario. It is often forgotten that Maliki’s “State of Law” coalition itself emerged relatively unscathed from the process that led to the formation of the new Iraqi National Alliance; some press reports erroneously claim that the Tanzim al-Iraq branch joined the alliance but so far it is only the Anizi breakaway faction of the Tanzim al-Iraq that has joined.
Even if the threat may be exaggerated, this new development can perhaps help jog Maliki’s mind as he goes about putting the final touches to his own coalition which is expected to be announced either shortly before or after the Eid al-Fitr holiday later this week: He needs broader alliances if he is to succeed. It is not correct, as some commentators continue to maintain, that the new Iraqi government needs a two-thirds majority behind it; this was a special feature of the 2005 constitution that was expressly limited to the first parliamentary cycle. However, Maliki still needs to come in first in the sense that he must obtain the largest number of representatives in order to get the job of nominating the next government. To achieve this, he must do better than the Kurds, among whom the probability of a unified ethnic identity vote remains strongest right now. So far there are signs that Abu Risha (of the Anbar awakening movement) is on track to join him, and last week the new party of Mahmud al-Mashhadani and Nadim al-Jabiri publicly said they would run with Maliki. One of Maliki’s news outlets also carried a report to the effect that Maliki and the minister of interior, Jawad al-Bulani, who heads the more secular Iraqi Constitutional Party, were once more on good terms and that Bulani would likely join Maliki’s alliance. But the recent threats concerning the provincial councils do suggest that Maliki would be a lot safer if he entered into formal cooperation with at least one major secular party, like Iraqiyya, Hiwar or both.
Meanwhile, there are rumours that Allawi still remains in dialogue with virtually everyone (including ISCI: such an alliance would be an insult to voters as the two parties disagree on almost every significant constitutional issue in Iraq). For his part, Muqtada al-Sadr has introduced a bit of confusion in the Iraqi National Alliance camp by issuing detailed instructions about what sort of candidates should be supported, including a requirement that they should not belong to a political party and not don clerical robes (although there should be “representatives” of the higher clergy). In the context of an open-list system (which is now expected to be adopted) this could prove especially interesting. Also, this is a noteworthy stance on the relationship between the clerical hawza and the legislative branch of government, where Sadr now marks a clearer distinction to the Iranian model than his new partners in ISCI have done so far. It should be remembered that both ISCI’s last leading cleric, Muhammad Baqir al-Hakim, as well as Sadr’s own father, Muhammad Muhammad Sadiq, supported the concept of the rule of jurisprudent or wilayat al-faqih, but unlike Hakim (who never challenged Khamenei) Sadr emphasised that it should be based in Iraq. In typical fashion, as part of their dalliance with ISCI a couple of years ago, many Western diplomats took at face value the narrative that Abd al-Aziz al-Hakim held no executive office in deference to an “Iraqi” rejection of wilayat al-faqih; this interpretation is however flawed since Hakim was not recognised as a mujtahid or higher-ranking cleric (which is the crucial distinction in “clerical rule” as per the Khomeini model. In fact, Iraq saw several junior clerics rise to executive office during the period of the monarchy). However, several turbaned ISCI members of the lower-ranking clergy – including Hakim himself – had no reservations about accepting positions in the legislative branch of the Iraqi government (i.e. as members of the Iraqi parliament); it is on this issue there now seems to be a competing Sadrist interpretation of what the rules of the game should be.
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