Iraqi parliamentary politics briefly got exciting again on Thursday, as one of the first contested votes in a long time divided the chamber along interesting lines.
Contested votes are comparatively rare in Iraqi politics. Usually, bills never come up for a vote until the political leaders have ruminated on them for so long that consensus is achieved through sheer exhaustion (or, not infrequently, by watering down the bills to the point where they are meaningless and/or contradictive and hence acceptable). Dissent is often marginal and not taken note of at all: Parliamentary records typically include a notice to the effect that this or that bill passed with a “majority”. Usually, this will have meant that the chamber – rarely more than two thirds full even on the best of days – will have passed the bill with a solid margin of maybe 80 or 90% of deputies voting in favour.
For this reason, the comparatively rare contested votes in the Iraqi parliament tend to receive attention. Memorable past ones include the cliffhanger vote on the law for forming federal regions in October 2006, the battle over the provincial elections law in 2008, and the fight over a new parliamentary speaker in the first part of 2009. Interestingly, most of those votes to some extent touched on disputes relating to fundamental issues of state structure, with the Kurds and advocates of stronger centralization siding with opposite camps on all three occasions.
Yesterday’s developments in parliament belong to the long-running saga of installing a new electoral commission for Iraq (IHEC). In fact, that process has already seen one contested vote last year, when Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki tried to sack the existing board but lost the vote in parliament. The term of the current IHEC board has now expired and it survives only through monthly extensions of its mandate granted by parliament in lieu of agreement on a new board. The big decisions relate to how many seats the board will have (there are currently nine commissioners) and who should fill them.
In this dispute, Maliki has identified himself with a proposal to extend the number of commissioners from 9 to 15. Presumably, the thinking behind this is that a big commission could be more susceptible to divide and rule strategies, and Maliki is probably also eager to find seats on the commission for newfound friends of his in splinter groups from the secular Iraqiyya and the Kurds (Goran). Maliki allies have said openly that they fear a 9-person board would have a too strong pro-Iraqiyya contingent (maybe 3 commissioners).
A law featuring proposed changes to the existing law for the electoral board – including the Maliki-sponsored increase of the number of commissioner – has been making its way forward in the Iraqi parliament and yesterday was ready for a vote. However, instead of adopting the changes, parliament voted to cancel the proposed changes.
This is where the political dimension comes into play. The official parliamentary record says 233 deputies were present when parliament opened. Press accounts say pro-Maliki deputies from his own State of Law coalition, White (Iraqiyya breakaway group), Fadila and Goran (Kurdish opposition party) left the chamber in protest, leaving deputies from Iraqiyya, the Kurdistan Alliance, ISCI and the Sadrists to vote down the changes. Just to complicate matters further, there are two accounts of how many MPs were present during the contested vote: Parliament speaker Nujayfi of Iraqiyya says 169 deputies were in the chamber (above the quorum level at 163); Maliki ally Khalid al-Atiyya says there were 156 deputies (less than the required quorum).
Whichever interpretation is correct, the vote yesterday should serve as another wakeup call for Maliki with respect to his narrow support base in parliament. Essentially, the forces who threw out his attempt to increase the number of IHEC commissioners were the same that tried to unseat him earlier this spring. Even though Maliki appears to have made some progress in drawing parts of Iraqiyya closer to him than to their nominal leader, Ayyad Allawi, this is of limited consequence unless he can get them to vote with him in key parliamentary contests like this one. Earlier this week, Allawi – who is technically a deputy but who rarely visits the national assembly – appeared briefly at the parliament building to discuss with the components of the Iraqiyya alliance. Allawi will likely see this latest vote as something of a vindication after a rather bumpy ride and multiple Iraqiyya defections during the first half of 2012.
Absent any supreme court challenges regarding the quorum, the debate about IHEC is now likely to focus on the identity of the 9 commissioners. The legal requirement that they be independent from party politics has long been forgotten, across the board.