Iraq and Gulf Analysis

Archive for July, 2013

Anti-Maliki Forces in the Iraqi Parliament Reach Another Milestone

Posted by Reidar Visser on Friday, 26 July 2013 10:42

In many ways, the approval by the Iraqi parliament this week of a Sadrist nominee as head of the country’s de-Baathification board is significant also as an indicator of the shrinking parliamentary support base of Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki.

Ever since his accession to the Iraqi premiership in 2006, Maliki’s strength has been the ability to avoid outright showdowns with the Iraqi parliament despite persistent and growing frictions. In some cases, this has been done simply by letting parliament quarrel among themselves regarding key legislation whereas Maliki governs based on Baath-era laws: The oil and gas law is a case in point. In other cases of problematic legislation, Maliki has relied on the judiciary to strong-arm the national assembly into obedience. This approach proved itself successful in a number of cases – and perhaps most spectacularly so when the supreme court struck down early attempts to decentralize the provincial powers law in 2010, as well as in Maliki’s moves to attach the independent commissions administratively to the executive and to limit the right to question ministers. And again other potential conflicts have been defused in the last minute by the resuscitation of sectarian alliances, sometimes with reported Iranian support. First, there was of course the last-minute détente with the Sadrists that largely helped save Maliki’s premiership in early summer 2012 when things almost reached a critical level. As late as January this year, only months before the provincial elections, Shiite parties similarly sided with Maliki and failed to attend an emergency session of parliament intended as a show of support for growing political unrest in Iraq’s provinces. In sum, whereas Maliki is dreaming a lot about rather unrealistic visions of a “political majority” government, he has actually been quite successful in surviving with what is often not the “power-sharing” he posits as the lamentable reality, but rather a “political minority” government.

There have of course been exceptions, i.e. votes that were lost for Maliki or turned out in ways that were antithetical to his vision for Iraq. At the first such vote, the October 2006 law on the formation of federalism, one could argue that the Daawa had not consolidated its parliamentary base in any shape or form, and incongruously ended up supporting legislation which it would later bitterly oppose. Perhaps the most serious losses was the ascendancy of Ayyad al-Samaraie to the speakerhip in 2009, which was vigorously contested by Maliki but to no avail. More recently, Maliki twice tried to influence the formation of the Iraqi electoral commission – first by prematurely attempting to sack the incumbent one in July 2011, then by a failed attempt at inflating the number of commissioners in 2012. This was a harbinger of more serious things to come: Term limits on the premiership in January 2013, and provincial powers law revisions in June. There are reports Maliki allies are challenging some of these laws before the supreme court (and he may potentially have some success with the limitation of the premiership terms) but so far no clear decision has emerged.

Earlier this week, on 22 July, another such milestone for the critics of Maliki was reached. In a parliament session attended by no less than 243 deputies, a proposal to confirm the Sadrist Falah Hasan al-Shanshal as de-Baathification head was approved. Details on the vote are few, with some sources claiming “unanimity” and others suggesting some Maliki allies rejected it. Whatever the actual voting patterns, Maliki supporters have already indicated that they may once more complain to the federal supreme court.

The really important point though is that according to the accountability and justice law, the decision on the head of the de-Baathification committee must be made by an absolute majority, i.e. 163 out of the 325 parliament members. We must assume the decision was made in this way, and that an absolute-majority opposition to Maliki is beginning to consolidate in the Iraqi parliament. That is a threatening proposition even to a prime minister who has expertly sidelined the assembly in the past. Going forward to the parliamentary elections of 2014, he must especially be wary of the burgeoning coalition of Shiite Islamists (Sadrists and ISCI) and Sunnis/secularists (the Nujayfi bloc in particular) that reportedly pushed forward Shanshal’s approval.

Beyond the numbers, there is the strong symbolism of the personalities involved. Shanshal, of course, was sidelined by Maliki earlier this year after having attempted to remove Midhat Mahmud – the supreme court chief and a key Maliki ally in his efforts to keep the Iraqi parliament at an arm’s length. Now Shanshal is being reinstated, suggesting more criticism of Maliki’s regime of the deeper kind focusing on his relations with the judiciary could be coming up.

On a more humoristic note, the abnormally high attendance rates in the Iraqi parliament in July, in the middle of Ramadan, raise some questions about what is going on. Could it be related to superior provision of air condition at a time when most other Iraqis suffer in the 50 degrees Celsius heat? Surely, if the trend continues like this, the assembly might actually get things done, which would be a welcome change from the recent past in Iraqi politics.

Posted in De-Baathification, Uncategorized | 4 Comments »

The Iraqi Factor in the Syrian Crisis: Catalyst or Inhibitor?

Posted by Reidar Visser on Friday, 19 July 2013 17:32

Iraqis who cast their votes in postponed local elections in Anbar and Nineveh on 20 June had a lot on their plates. Beyond issues relating to the provision of services locally, the last weeks before the elections saw massive protests against the central government in Baghdad. The many angry slogans on display included calls for greater autonomy for the Sunni-majority areas of Iraq as well as expressions of solidarity with the mainly Sunni Syrian opposition movement. Some commentators even suggested momentum was building toward an “unmaking of Sykes-Picot,” the World War One British-French agreement that significantly impacted the delineation of borders between the modern states of Iraq and Syria. 

The results of those elections in Anbar and Nineveh are now final, and they indicate that in the end, local concerns firmly trumped the more radical and regional agendas in the Iraqi northwest… [Full piece can be read at the Middle East Institute blog]

Posted in Uncategorized | 3 Comments »

As Ramadan Begins, the Iraqi Parliament Manages to Agree… On Its Own Membership

Posted by Reidar Visser on Tuesday, 9 July 2013 18:01

In many countries, parliamentary deputies are replaced by new ones if they become government ministers. In most countries, they are replaced if they die. In Iraq, cabinets are big and the death rate high, meaning that there is a higher turnover of deputies during the parliamentary cycle than many other places. On Monday, the Iraqi parliament finally decided that one such replacement which had generated some considerable controversy – that of Thamir Ibrahim Zahir al-Assaf – was in fact valid.

Several points regarding this decision are worthy of note.

Firstly, in a sad testament to the inefficiency of the Iraqi parliament, the decision was finally taken on this matter some four months after the question of Assaf’s membership had first hit the agenda in March this year. The reason is that in order to consider a decision on “the correctness of the parliamentary membership”, as the Iraqi constitution puts it, the chamber needs to be at least two-thirds full so that the required supermajority decision can be made. With 247 deputies present, Monday was one of the few sessions this year with attendance levels over the two-thirds majority mark of 217. Most of the time, the Iraqi parliament is barely half full, with typical numbers of attendees just above the quorum level at 163.

Second, the dispute about Assaf’s membership serves as an indicator about the extent to which the Iraqi parliament busies itself with useless issues. Assaf was confirmed as deputy, but it is really unclear why anyone felt they had the right to challenge him. So far, the main objections to parliamentary deputy replacement have related to moves that upset the balance of governorate representation (i.e. a deputy from a certain governorate are attempted replaced by someone from a different governorate), or the balance of parliamentary blocs is affected (the supreme court has indicated that replacements should come from the same parliamentary bloc as the deputy who left his or her seat). In this case, however, the deputy in question not only came from the same governorate as his predecessor (Anbar). He also ran on the same electoral ticket – the Unity of Iraq alliance.

The Assaf case involves a remarkable chain of replacements in Anbar that began right after the formation of the second Maliki government in December 2010. When Sadun al-Dulaymi became a minister in that government, he was replaced by someone else from his list and governorate: Khalid Sulayman Hamud al-Fahdawi. Fahdawi was killed in September 2011 and was subsequently replaced by Ayfan Sadun al-Eisawi, also of the same governorate and list. Eisawi was then killed and shortly afterwards in January 2013 replaced by Assaf. A look at the original roll of candidates for the 2010 parliamentary elections shows all these four gentlemen on the same list running for seats in Anbar.


It has been suggested that three or four figures played a leading role in the recent attempt to challenge Assaf’s parliamentary membership. The first was another Unity of Iraq candidate from Anbar that failed to win a seat, Tareq Khalaf al-Fahdawi. The second was a relative of one of the deceased and replaced candidates, Faris Taha al-Halbusi. The third was the former finance minister, Rafi al-Eisawi, with some suggesting he was aiming to ultimately get the seat for himself in order to achieve parliamentary immunity from prosecution. And the fourth was the parliament speaker, Usama al-Nujayfi, who reportedly used his influence at the parliament speakership to get the case on the agenda.

It is perfectly conceivable that Halbusi thought he could make a claim to the seat based on a higher number of personal votes. This has been tried before, but as seen in other cases, the argument is judicially uninteresting. Personal votes are simply not relevant to the law on replacement of deputies. On the other hand, it is noteworthy that several deputies who in practice have stolen their seats since they replaced deputies from other governorates still retain their seats today because they are so well liked by their colleagues that no one has bothered to challenge them (or, that only a minority is interested in this). This includes National Alliance deputies Muhammad al-Hindawi and Jawad al-Shuhayli, as well as Salim al-Jibburi of Iraqiyya. Note also how the official list of parliament deputies deals inconsistently with this issue: It has seamlessly made Hindawi and Shuhayli deputies of Baghdad (they ran in Dahuk and Karbala), whereas Jibburi is still listed as Diyala representative, meaning Salahaddin has one less seat than the 12 mandated by IHEC in the official seat distribution.

Whatever the reasons may have been, the whole exercise of challenging the membership of Assaf was shown to be futile. Except for the potentially valuable effect of having sectarian fronts break up a little during a time of heightened sectarian polarization – Nujayfi may well lose some Sunni friends and Maliki may gain some as a result of the replacement dispute  – these antics and personal squabbles are an affront to Iraqi voters who risked their lives to go to the polls in March 2010. If it is allowed to go on ad infinitum, it will degenerate into a second election inside the Iraqi parliament where narrow clique squabbles among political elites rather than voter preferences decide. It is to be hoped that petty considerations of this nature will not prevail when the Iraqi parliament now turns to the far more important project of determining changes to the electoral law before the next round of parliamentary elections in 2014.

Posted in Iraq parliament membership | 4 Comments »

Personal Vote Results from Provincial Elections in Anbar and Nineveh: The Decline of Nujayfi and the Fragmentation of the Political Landscape

Posted by Reidar Visser on Friday, 5 July 2013 10:33

Following the announcement of the final results on 27 June, the Iraqi elections commission (IHEC) has now also released the personal vote results from Anbar and Nineveh for the postponed provincial elections that were held on 20 June. The results add some interesting information on political dynamics in the two north-western Iraqi provinces.

In terms of comparison with the rest of Iraq, it is clear that politicians in Anbar and Nineveh are struggling in terms of building relationships with their voters. Despite running in  the most populous governorate after Baghdad, politicians from Mosul and Anbar mostly fail to make it into the top 15 list of the best vote getters nationally. The five exceptions are Nineveh governor Athil al-Nujayfi of Mutahhidun (40,067 votes), the two top Kurdish politicians in Nineveh (14,218 and 13,672 votes respectively), ex Nineveh governor Ghanem al-Basso (12,716 votes), and Anbar governor Qasim al-Fahdawi (14,503 votes). Additionally, beyond national comparisons, it is clear that for some of these politicians, personal vote numbers that may come across as decent actually look worse when compared with results in the previous local elections of January 2009. This is above all the case with regard to Nineveh governor Nujayfi. Reflecting his party’s stunning loss of more than 300,000 voters since 2009, his own results declined from around 300,000 personal votes to only 40,000. And whereas it is clear that Mutahhidun has done a good job nationally in terms of transforming the original Hadba party in Nineveh of 2009 to  the dominant force within the Sunni and secular camp from Basra to Diyala, the reversal of its fortune in Mosul itself may suggest that Athil al-Nujayfi’s governorship of that area may have become something of a liability for his brother Usama’s national ambitions (or, alternatively, that the move towards rapprochement with the Kurds is hurting them more there).

It should be stressed that these negative results do not reflect disinterest in the personal vote option among electorates in Nineveh and Anbar. Unlike the results for the other governorates, IHEC has helpfully calculated total personal votes in these latest results. In Anbar there were 404,218 personal votes whereas the total of approved votes was 414,554, indicating a 98% use of the personal vote. Interestingly, in Nineveh there were 596,603 personal votes whereas the total of approved votes is given as somewhat less, 581,449! This could either indicate that the personal vote numbers fail to eliminate dismissed ballot papers (which would suggest the existence of some deeper problems in IHEC’s final ranking of the candidates) or that IHEC has miscalculated in this particular case. In any case, it seems clear that Anbar and Nineveh voters have used the personal vote amply; it is just that the local politicians are struggling to gain the attention of their electorates.

With the extreme fragmentation of the vote, it is not really worth commenting on the coalition forming process pending certification of the final results which is not yet complete (and before which no new local government can be elected). With the large size of these councils (30-40 seats), the absence of any blocs with more than around 25% of the seats and a plethora of small parties with 1-2 seats, predictive efforts will be mostly useless. For Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki, the decent result of Governor Fahdawi in Anbar may come across as good news, somewhat similar to what happened in Salahaddin (which voted in another governor who is on reasonably good terms with Maliki). For their part, the Nujayfi brothers will have to sort out the contradictions between their attempts to pose as Iraqi nationalists and their increasing closeness to KRG and Turkey in an attempt to stem Maliki’s growing power – a contradiction that will be highlighted by the fact that the Kurds are the biggest seat winners in Nineveh.

At the very least, one can hope that the necessities of building viable local coalitions for the new councils may play a role in preserving a reasonable political climate in Iraq’s northwest. After months of angry protests – some of it in solidarity with anti-Assad forces in Syria – it does seem that local, Iraqi concerns determined the choices of the electorate in the end, and that performance on such concerns will continue to determine the fortunes of the local politicians there in the future.

Posted in Iraq local elections 2013, Uncategorized | 3 Comments »