The recent merger of the Iraqi National Alliance (INA) and State of Law (SLA) into a single parliamentary bloc has been met with considerable scepticism both inside and outside Iraq. Some of this criticism is well-founded and some of it rests on more shaky foundations.
Certain critics of the new alliance – and in particular the Iraqiyya coalition which came out first in the recent elections with the highest number of seats for a single list – focus on the legal and constitutional dimension, claiming that the right to form the government assigned to the “biggest parliamentary bloc” in the constitution necessarily relates to a bloc that had an existence by the time of the relevant parliamentary elections (in this case on 7 March 2010). The constitution is not specific on this, but it could be argued quite plausibly that parliamentary elections are more meaningful in terms of democracy if voters at least have an idea about what sort of coalition-forming alternatives exist for the post-election period. This interpretation has been challenged by Iraq’s federal supreme court which in a recent opinion put post-election and pre-election coalition forming on the same footing, but this in turn has been criticised by Iraqiyya for constituting a move beyond the true remit of the court. Also it could be argued that even though INA and SLA have announced their merger as a parliamentary entity, they have failed to produce a name and a bloc leader – both of which became normal characteristics of coalitions that qualified as “parliamentary blocs” in the previous assembly.
However, the problem with the legal approach to the issue does not rest so much in the theoretical domain. Rather, it has to do with Iraqiyya’s own approach to the eventuality of post-election coalition-forming in the autumn of 2009 and the first part of 2010. And in particular, it relates to Iraqiyya’s various (and ideologically contradictive) manoeuvres vis-à-vis INA in that period, which continued almost until the election date. The bottom line is that it is exceedingly difficult to understand these moves unless one accepts that there was an underlying intention of doing precisely what Iraqiyya is protesting today: To form a post-election bloc with the aim of trumping or blocking the list that came out with the highest numbers of votes. All too often, we tend to forget that the idea that Iraqiyya would emerge with a plurality in the elections was not entertained with any degree of seriousness even among the party faithful until after the elections, and that most of the pre-election coalition posturing was aimed at weakening Maliki and his SLA.
The examples of this approach by Iraqiyya are numerous. For example, just after the final line-up of Iraqiyya had emerged in late October (i.e. in the shape it was submitted to IHEC), Hussam al-Azzawi told media that Iraqiyya “intends to form a broad front with the other coalitions, and those who are closest to us in this respect are the Iraqi National Alliance and the Kurdistani Alliance”. Even more remarkable is the fact that something similar was repeated well into February 2010. At that point, Adnan al-Danbusi of Iraqiyya told Al-Hayat that his coalition was in touch with several forces including INA and the Kurds in order to “form a wide national front”.
ولفت الدنبوس الى ان «القائمة العراقية تجري حوارات مع عدد من القوى السياسية الفاعلة بينها «الائتلاف الوطني العراقي» والحزبين الكرديين، وخرجت بتفاهمات اولية إيجابية نحو إيجاد مثل هذه الجبهة العريضة لأننا نعتقد أن الجبهة هي الحل الوحيد للأزمات والمشكلات السياسية الحالية في البلاد»
What plausible motive could there be behind that front in February 2010, just weeks before the elections, other than a post-election plan to challenge Maliki who at the time looked likely to emerge with the biggest bloc?
But if the legal argument may look like a contradiction when the pre-electoral behaviour of Iraqiyya is taken into consideration, there is another, and more compelling, criticism of the new Shiite alliance: It takes Iraq back to the primitive political atmosphere of 2005. Thankfully, at a time when most Iraqi politicians are careful to wrap their statements in a mist of nationalist rhetoric about “unity” and “coexistence”, some still speak a kind of language that is easier to understand. Back in December 2009, Jalal al-Din al-Saghir of ISCI, a long-time advocate of a merger between INA and SLA, called for “the brothers in State of Law and the Iraqi National Alliance to put the interests of the people and the public above their own interests, and to merge… The unity of these two coalitions [is] the coalition of the majority.” It is in this kind of frank references to majorities and minorities in ethno-sectarian terms that the true character of the merger project is revealed: It has been conceived to perpetuate Shiite dominance of Iraq in ethno-sectarian terms, pretty much like the old United Iraqi Alliance that was formed in 2004.
هنا اكرر ندائي لإخواننا العزاء في الائتلاف الوطني العراق وائتلاف دولة القانون أن يغلبوا مصلحة الناس والأمة على مصالحهم الخاصة من خلال الاندماج فيما بينهم لأننا نعرف انه لا توجد فروقات حقيقية وإنما الفروقات هي مجرد اجتهادات ومجرد آراء لا يمكن أن ترقى إلى مهمة حفظ مصالح الأمة المرتبطة بوحدة هذين الائتلافين ، ائتلاف الأكثرية ولا شك أن مستقبل العراق يحتاج إلى هذه الأكثرية ليس من اجل أن يتغلبوا على الآخرين وإنما ليتموا مسؤوليتهم تجاه الآخرين ، وان الوصول إلى البرلمان بطريقة التنازع وبطريقة الصراع ما بين الائتلافين أو الوصول متفرقين سيؤدي بالنتيجة إلى ضعف هذه الأكثرية والسماح لمن يريد العبث بمقدرات العراق ومستقبل العراق باختراق هذا الصف والعمل على طبيعة التناقضات التي ستنشأ من جراء هذا التنافس
What, then, are the viable options for Iraqiyya today? How can they protest against the sectarian repolarisation of Iraqi politics without proceeding down the blind alley of a legal argument that they are unlikely to win? It seems pretty obvious what some in the new Shiite alliance want them to do. For example, Bahaa al-Aaraji, a Sadrist, says Iraqiyya should be invited into a coalition government, not as a list but as one of the “components” (mukawwinat) of the Iraqi people. In plain Arabic, he means Iraqiyya should represent the Sunnis in an ethno-sectarian power-sharing arrangement. Some may think that sounds sweet and tolerant, but they should remember that last autumn the same Aaraji was very happy to ram through changes to the electoral law with support from the Kurds and in disregard of what many Sunni representatives wanted. In other words, if Sunnis and secularists accept the ethno-sectarian power-sharing logic and opt to enshrine it in Iraqi politics, they also ensure that they will forever remain in a minority position in Iraq.
The alternative for Iraqiyya is to abandon the ethno-sectarian logic altogether and find back to its secular nature. Secular parties seek partners on the basis of ideology and not ethnicity. Instead of opting for an oversized government, they could make a last-ditch attempt to appeal to those in the Shiite alliances that are more interested in a shared vision of a strong, centralised Iraqi state. They talk about problems of Maliki getting “too strong”, but which is really the greater threat against Iraq’s survival right now: A strong premier (whose power can be balanced in a more effective government) or those who talk about an Iraq divided into regions based on sect and ethnicity? The oversized power-sharing government may create some temporary satisfaction among external players in Iraq, including Iran, Saudi Arabia and the United States. But it is also the solution that gives something to all Iraqi politicians and nothing to Iraqi citizens. All they will get is a big government that can accomplish absolutely nothing.
PS Meanwhile, the Sadrists are inviting endorsements for Jaafar al-Sadr as the next Iraqi premier at the link below: