Iraq and Gulf Analysis

Archive for January 4th, 2011

Iraqiyya and the Construction of a Sectarian Political Architecture in Iraq

Posted by Reidar Visser on Tuesday, 4 January 2011 16:33

According to the Iraqi constitution adopted in 2005, the second parliamentary cycle – which started after the 7 March elections in 2010 – signalled the beginning of a majoritarian form of government in Iraq. No longer is there a split executive in which a presidential council chosen on the basis of an unspoken tripartite ethno-sectarian formula holds veto power. Instead, government is headed by a strong prime minister, with the president  possessing ceremonial prerogatives only.

There is, in other words, no constitutional reason for Iraqi politicians to hold on to the much-criticised system of government known as ethno-religious quota-sharing or muhasasa. In that kind of perspective, the outcome of the recent – and yet incomplete – process of forming a second government under Nuri al-Maliki, represents a mixed picture. On the one hand, what happened in many ways typified the old quota system. How about ministries that are given to parties rather than to individuals? Ordinary Iraqis obviously want to have the best possible people to take care of key issues like electricity and yet the only thing that has been agreed on so far is that the minister for electricity must come from, or at least be approved by, Iraqiyya as part of its quota, no matter what!

On the other hand, though, it is clear that two coalitions, the secular Iraqiyya and the Shiite Islamist State of Law, dominate the new cabinet politically, making the constitutional vision of a majoritarian form of government possible at least as a long-term scenario. This is so not least since most other participating parties in the new government hold superfluous portfolios that can be dispensed with or merged with others if a decision to create a true governance-focused cabinet were made.

It will be interesting to see how a party like the secular (but heavily Sunni-backed) Iraqiyya deals with this new reality. In fact, once more there appear to be mixed signals. In their attempt to break up the collective speakership of the parliament, Iraqiyya has clearly got both the constitution and the federal supreme court on its side. In that kind of perspective, the new speaker from Iraqiyya, Usama al-Nujayfi, could potentially emerge as a truly national figure to lead the legislative branch of government.

On the other hand, though, in its approach to the deputy premier positions, Iraqiyya appears to be on the verge of reverting to the old ethno-sectarian logic of the 2005–2010 period. Perhaps the best way to study this second tendency is to look at an event that took place in Baghdad last week. On 27 December, Iraqi media announced that the new deputy prime minister for Iraqiyya, Salih al-Mutlak had taken over the office “from his predecessor, Rafi al-Eisawi”! The obvious problem here is that there are three deputies in the new government. In the previous one there were two. Logically speaking, none of the new deputies has any “predecessors” at all. True, the “new” Kurdish deputy premier was also a deputy premier during the final months of the Maliki government and it seems reasonable that he should be allowed to stay in the same office. But why should Mutlak have any special entitlement to Eisawi’s office space at the expense of the third deputy premier, Husayn al-Shahristani of State of Law? And in what way is Eisawi Mutlak’s “predecessor” any more than he is Shahristani’s predecessor?

Obviously, there is talk of Shahristani having some kind of special jurisdiction in energy affairs, which may perhaps make it more suitable to accommodate him at or near the oil ministry. But the problem with the office handover from Eisawi to Mutlak is the assumption of some kind of deputy premiership “for Sunni affairs” (both Eisawi and Mutlak are Sunnis; Shahristani is a Shiite), which reiterates the muhasasa formula that was supposed to be a thing of the past and a primitive form of “government” that can be enjoyed in Lebanon and laughed at everywhere else.

Some would perhaps dismiss this whole story as the work of an incompetent journalist, but the report was reproduced on the Iraqiyya website and of course the meeting in itself went ahead with the active participation of Mutlak and Eisawi. If Iraqiyya chooses to continue in this vein, it might as well change its name to Tawafuq, the Sunni-dominated coalition that specialised in this sort of thing during the previous parliament and was almost thrown out of the national assembly by disgusted voters last March.

Iraqiyya will soon get plenty of chances to signal its true intentions. When parliament reconvenes on Sunday after another holiday, among the items on the agenda is the law on deputies of the president. Despite the presidency having now only ceremonial powers, several players on the Iraqi scene have invested considerable energy in skirmishes related to deputy positions for the president, one suspects on account of the inflated presidential salaries that have yet to be adjusted downwards to the new and minimal job description. It has been particularly painful to see minority representatives go out on a limb in search of these jobs: Many Turkmens demand it and some Fayli Kurds also. Of course, in a way it would be good if all the primitive ethno-sectarian quota business could be played out in this way, i.e. restricted to the unimportant presidency council. How about eight deputy presidents perhaps, and then leave the rest of the jobs in the government to grownups? But the big parties, too, have not totally lost interest in these useless positions, and in this regard it will be interesting to see what Tareq al-Hashemi, one of the most popular Iraqiyya politicians, chooses to do. Both he and Khudayr al-Khuzai of Hizb al-Daawa (Tanzim al-Iraq) are sometimes discussed as potential vice presidents alongside Adel Abd al-Mahdi of ISCI.

Finally, it will be interesting to see what position is eventually adopted by Iraqiyya on the projected strategic policy council that seemed to play a key role in enticing its sceptical leader, Ayad Allawi, into accepting a deal with Maliki. The original draft law for the council had been framed by Iraqiyya but was quickly given an not insignificant “addendum” by the Shiite alliance in the shape of a reported 80% consensus requirement for its decisions to be effective, leaving it as a highly theoretical institution and more of a think tank in practice. In an indication of how far Iraqiyya has travelled from its original position, some of its members are now highlighting the fact that the president of the council, who is supposed to be Ayad Allawi, will at least get the same kind of status in the Iraqi state bureaucracy as the prime minister, i.e. in matters of protocol the two must be treated the same! Some debate appears to remain regarding the number of members in the council, with Iraqiyya obviously preferring fewer members and the pan-Shiite National Alliance preferring more in order to make the prospect of consensus even more remote.

Maybe Iraqiyya should try to stop a minute and think seriously through how much this added layer of muhasasa is in fact antithetical to its own aspirations to be a nationalist party? If they choose to accept too many deputy premierships, deputy presidencies and strategic policy chairmanships, their chances of ending up as a copy of Tawafuq in the next elections in 2014 are considerable. On the other hand, if instead of fighting the useless fight for the powerless strategic council Iraqiyya joins forces with Maliki in resisting Kurdish demands on oil and Kirkuk then Iraq’s future wouldn’t have to be so bleak after all.

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