The return by the secular Iraqiyya coalition to parliament, announced yesterday, seems like a logical albeit long overdue move.
In the first place, to boycott parliament was in itself a tactic that above all signalled isolation: Iraqiyya was unhappy with the general direction of Iraqi politics but was evidently unable to change the political game, whether through its representatives in parliament or through its participation in cabinet.
More recently, there has been evidence that Iraqiyya was also hurting itself through its actions. Since the start of the boycott, the frequency of defections from the coalition in both Sunni and Shiite areas has increased. Still, it is noteworthy that Wataniyyun, one of the recent breakaway groups who promised to never rejoin Iraqiyya, yesterday hailed the decision of the leadership to return to parliament.
The lingering question is whether Iraqiyya will withdraw its ministers permanently from cabinet. In that respect, there have been even clearer indications of a substantial renegade trend headed by Iraqiyya ministers wanting to keep their cabinet jobs despite having been ordered to boycott by their party leaders. In particular, the ministers who have continued to attend meetings despite the official boycott are from the Karbuli bloc of Iraqiyya called Al-Hall as well as a Turkmen minister for the provinces.
At the same time, there are signs that Maliki and State of Law also have shortcomings with respect to their ability to benefit from the situation. For example, their deputy Fuad al-Dawraki yesterday expressed satisfaction of the return of the Iraqiyya “since it represents a certain component” of the Iraqi people. That is not only tantamount to falsely claiming Iraqiyya is a Sunni party; it also indicates the limits to the prospect of the (mainly Shiite) State of Law successfully co-opting breakaway elements from Iraqiyya as much-needed additional parliamentary support.
What will probably define the struggle in the weeks to come is not the elusive national conference or any real attempt at implementing the Arbil agreement, but instead the fight for the annual budget – the only item parliament is constitutionally bound to deal with, and also the only item where Maliki truly needs the active support of parliament. In recent sessions it seemed Maliki would have to navigate between Kurds seeking concessions for their emerging energy sector and Sadrists with populist demands about citizen petrodollars. With the return of Iraqiyya, there will be the third alternative of compensating Iraqiyya deputies in Sunni-majority areas with budgetary pork barrel.
A potentially cross-cutting and complicating issue in all of this is the continued struggle over the general amnesty law. On this issue, Sadrists and Iraqiyya see eye to eye in wanting a more liberal regime, whereas Maliki’s State of Law coalition is more restrictive towards wide-ranging amnesties. In the past, there have been attempts by politicians to bundle several bills with the budget in order to maximise their own leverage in negotiations, though not always successful – the law on electoral conduct proposed in December 2009 being a case in point. Chances are Maliki will press for a separate budget deal with whomever is prepared to negotiate with him on his terms.
Iraqiyya are trumpeting the initiatives from Sadrists and ISCI (as opposed to the stance of Maliki) as reasons for returning to parliament. If there is to be more than rhetoric to this, they will need to find agreement on issues (and agendas) when parliament reconvenes tomorrow, 31 January. The budget is now the number one item on the agenda.