Iraq and Gulf Analysis

Archive for July 23rd, 2010

The Anatomy of the Government-Formation Talks So Far

Posted by Reidar Visser on Friday, 23 July 2010 13:49

A certain degree of momentum has been building throughout the week in Iraq with an unprecedented degree of “optimistic” statements by several key leaders and with an anticipated meeting this weekend in Arbil of political leaders including Muqtada al-Sadr making the headlines; however as of yet there are zero objective signs of an imminent breakthrough as far as the information available in the public domain is concerned.

One interesting aspect of the negotiations so far has been the relative prominence of the triangle of State of Law (SLA), Iraqiyya (INM) and the Iraqi National Alliance (INA), with the fourth big winner, the Kurdish Alliance (KA) so far taking more of a backseat position. Some of this obviously stems from the fact that the prime minister is likely to come from one of the three biggest lists. Another interesting feature, though, is the apparent focus on writing political programmes prior to deciding on the prime minister. Thus, all three main blocs are ostensibly engaged in various sort of committees working on government-programme issues, though it is slightly unclear for example whether the recently-proposed Sadrist-Iraqiyya one is in fact a bilateral affair between the two or part of a more wide-ranging INA-INM effort.

In itself, a focus on issues is of course promising, in theory at least. Since these programmes are likely to eschew the issues of real importance, it is not altogether inconceivable that within some weeks they could be able to paper over many of the real differences with vague language, primarily related to the difference between federalists (ISCI within INA) and centralisers (the rest). There could be some problems regarding the limitation of the powers of the prime minister (SLA versus the rest); this however could get mitigated by the fact that both the others hope to obtain the next premiership in which case such limitations would clearly lose some of their relevance to them. However, it still remains unlikely that the three could agree on a common premier candidate in the end, which raises the question of whether this is all a waste of time.

Another problem is that the anticipated Kurdish drama – which is going to be the real knot – has been postponed due to the trilateral quarrel about who should be PM. So far, rather than serving as the kingmaker many had predicted, the Kurds have been content to wait for a PM candidate to emerge and have also been comparatively subdued with respect to their own desiderata (it is however noteworthy that both INM and INA appear to think that enlisting Kurdish support is the way to marginalise Maliki). In the unlikely event that the three others can agree on a common candidate, this is where the real problem will begin: The Kurds will present demands relating to autonomy in the oil sector and control of Kirkuk and other disputed territories that will be quite impossible for the other parties to accede to – even the Shiite Islamist parties, at the height of their domination in 2007, were unable to give the Kurds what they wanted on this. In a repeat of the debate on the election law in 2009, we can perhaps expect the dramatic arrival in Baghdad of the speaker of the Kurdish parliament Kamal Kerkuki; when that does not work even Masud Barzani at one point may choose to descend from Arbil to announce that any other solution than a Kurdish annexation of Kirkuk is unacceptable. There will be great consternation and more delays.

Absent any miraculous pact between Iraqiyya and State of Law (which would have the potential to circumvent many of these problems and create a government within a reasonable time frame), everything therefore suggests that a solution could still be a long way off. Some found the earlier prediction on this blog in March that the process could last almost into Ramadan (starting in early August) or even until the US troop drawdown (31 August) to be overly pessimistic. We are now moving towards a phase where the next psychological deadlines are likely to be the November midterm elections on the American side, and, as far as the Iraqis themselves are concerned, past records of government formation: 6 months for Iraq in 2006 (which would mean around September 2010), and around 7 months as the world record (at least the European one: the case of the 208 days in Netherlands in 1977; even optimists would probably stop talking about the beauty of consociational democracy if that point is reached in October 2010).

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