Iraq and Gulf Analysis

Archive for February 12th, 2011

In Egypt, a Popular Revolution; in Iraq, a Struggle about a Fourth Vice President

Posted by Reidar Visser on Saturday, 12 February 2011 17:25

In one of the least glorious acts of his presidency, Jalal Talabani has asked the Iraqi parliament to amend tomorrow the newly passed law on “one or more deputies for the president” so that the number of deputies can be expanded from three to four. Some reports even say Talabani has specifically requested that the law reserve the fourth seat for a Turkmen (the three persons already nominated are two Shiites and one Sunni Arab).

The realpolitik behind this move is as follows. The two biggest Kurdish parties promote a vision of Iraqi politics in which ethno-sectarian collective groups rather than the individual citizens are centre stage. In accordance with this policy, the Kurdish parties ask for ethno-sectarian quotas in government (percentages of jobs that will go to Kurds), identify “disputed territories” (where a majority of people defining themselves as “Kurds” live) and have introduced the general concept of “racial entitlement” (istihqaq qawmi) as a means of justifying these demands. Another facet of this strategy is to make as many non-Kurdish Iraqis as possible think of themselves as members of ethno-sectarian communities too, as seen particularly in the way the Kurds have been building relationships with Iraq’s Christian communities.

The latest step, then, is to reach out to the Turkmen community through the promotion of a separate Turkmen vice-presidency. This strategy makes sense for the Kurds, firstly since they need to win over Turkmens in order to advance their aim of territorial annexation of the disputed city of Kirkuk, and secondly since they are much less worried about the Turkmen as a minority community than the prospect of Turkmens and other non-Kurds joining a strong Iraqi nationalist party. Briefly put, to the Kurdish strategy, it is a good thing when the Turkmens emulate their calls for “racial entitlements” – a concept that does not occur in the constitution – instead of joining other Iraqis in cross-sectarian parties. At the same time, it is a move that will pay off nicely for Talabani, since his deputies according to the law has no other powers than what he himself delegates to them from his own, largely ceremonial prerogatives. Nonetheless, Talabani has succeeded in prompting Turkmen politicians to fight among themselves for a deputy president position that has only symbolic value, while at the same time sacrificing opportunities to obtain ministries where they could have played a more national role.

Tomorrow’s other main scheduled event in parliament, the second reading of the budget before it goes to a vote later in the month, exemplifies the potential benefits to the Kurds of promoting an ethno-sectarian paradigm in Iraqi politics. If ethno-sectarian identities were of limited significance, then one could expect many nationalists in the Iraqiyya movement to support the deputy prime minister, Hussein al-Shahristani, in his persistent reservations against recognising the contracts of the foreign companies operating in Kurdistan without adjustments. Conversely, if Iraqiyya and State of Law are unable to cooperate due to differences in which sectarian sentiments play a part, then the position of the Kurds is looking a lot stronger. Lately, of course, there are indeed signs that that appears to be the case, with Iraqiyya reportedly seeking assistance from the Kurds to achieve progress on legislation for the strategic policy council, another institution that just like the deputy presidencies will help enshrine a sectarian architecture in Iraq’s political institutions. Reports that Iraqiyya have accepted the directorship of the Sunni religious endowment authority (awqaf) would just seem to emphasise this trend towards a Sunnification of Iraqiyya; as do statements by Haydar al-Mulla of Iraqiyya that they are happy with a Turkmen president to fill the third seat as long as there is not a fourth one for a second Shiite! It is increasingly unclear whether the budget text will actually clarify the exact government position on oil exports, but the debate surrounding it will no doubt be influenced by the degree to which an ethno-sectarian quota logic continues to prevail among Iraqi politicians.

Some in the international community will no doubt laud Talabani for his latest move. (“Expanding the number from three to four – how did he think of that?”) Critics will point to the instrument of ever more vice presidents and deputy ministers as the cardinal symptom of a political system in great crisis, where quotas for imagined collective identities matter more than talent in providing services for individual citizens. Why stop at four vice presidents? Why not add some for the Christians and Sabaeans? There are plenty of sects and tribes that need recognition; in the end “Every Iraqi Is a Vice President” will be a suitable slogan.

With hopeful signs of a no-nonsense democracy in the making in Egypt, perhaps Iraq, too, will one day get a democracy that is less characterised by exogenous forces than the current system and political culture, still rooted in the days of Paul Bremer in the years from 2003 to 2004. There are signs that Iraqis are already calling for “better services” but until they also start calling for “fewer vice-presidents” their revolution is likely to remain a frustrated one.

Posted in Iraqi constitutional issues, Iraqi nationalism, Sectarian master narrative | 6 Comments »