The New Iraqi Parliament Opens
Posted by Reidar Visser on Tuesday, 1 July 2014 20:39
So the new Iraqi parliament met today after having promised Iraqi voters, the Shiite religious authorities, and the international community that they would do so.
Unsurprisingly, they did little else than meet. Following the inaugural formalities, Mahdi al-Hafez, the “speaker of age”(the oldest MP who chairs the first session), introduced the only point of substance on the agenda: The election of a parliament speaker and his two deputies. At that point, a Kurdish MP found the time had come to complain about the refusal of Baghdad to compromise on the KRG share of the budget. This rather blunt violation of the official agenda prompted heckling and even blunter derogatory verbal counter attacks. Speaker Hafez, who represents the small and secular Iraqi coalition with both Sunni and Shiite members, proposed a half-hour break to calm tensions and explore the opportunities for electing a speaker.
When the session resumed, many of the 255 deputies that had been present at the outset failed to show up. It was suggested that there was no longer a quorum (165 MPs); indeed some reports suggested the number of deputies present had fallen as low as 70-100. What apparently had happened was that Kurds and Sunni Arabs deliberately boycotted – the Kurds probably to some extent offended by the verbal altercation about its attempt to put budget issues on the agenda, but also with suggestions that both protested what they saw as a failure by the Shia alliance to come up with a replacement candidate for Nuri al-Maliki as premier. What was clear, at any rate, was that there was no speaker candidate. Accordingly, there wasn’t much to do except agree the next session, and it fell to the mainly Shiite Islamist MPs that remained in the session to work this out together with Hafez, the temporary speaker. To Hafez’s credit, he did not go along with suggestions by Ibrahim al-Jaafari that this could wait until after Ramadan. Instead, another meeting next Tuesday, 8 July, was fixed.
A couple of comments on the constitutional and legal aspects of this. Firstly, there has been much talk about the ability of the Iraqi supreme court to speed up the government formation process, based on its intervention back in 2010. Sadly, though, the ability of the court to do much in practice is probably limited. In 2010, its ruling against parliament was focused on its open-ended and everlasting (jalsa maftuha) session. Iraqi politicians have found an easy solution to this by simply ending today’s session without results and then calling a new one. The truth is, the supreme court cannot force Iraqi parliamentarians to remain within the parliament building until they find a solution, papal conclave-style. What actually happened in 2010 was not that the court suddenly became extremely powerful, but that its ruling coincided with the first real signs of progress on the political front after the Sadrists agreed to a second Maliki term.
Second, it should be stressed that constitutionally speaking, the only thing the Iraqi parliament needs to agree on at its first meeting is the speaker. The practice of agreeing on all three top positions – i.e. speaker, president and premier – is not rooted in the constitution. Rather, it is a tradition that has come into use on two previous occasions in 2010 and 2006. Sunnis and Kurds who are using this precedent to force the Shiite alliance to come up with a replacement of Maliki should be aware of this aspect, since for the first time the Shiites in the new parliament hold the numbers (170 plus) to proceed with elections of a speaker to suit their own interests even if the main Sunni and Kurdish parties continue to boycott. (It should be noted, though, that the debate about quorum or no quorum is immaterial to the speakership vote, which explicitly demands an absolute majority to be valid in any case per the Iraqi constitution.)
This point is also important because there seems to be a gross disconnect between the actual Iraqi political process and the media description of it. Consider, once more, the move to squeeze out Maliki, which is seen as a foregone conclusion in all Western and most Arab media. Compare it with the composition of the last key Shia alliance meeting on the subject on Monday, where those present consisted of 6 potential Maliki loyalists (Maliki himself plus Khudayr al-Khuzaie, Hadi al-Ameri, Hashem al-Hashemi, Faleh al-Fayyad and Ibrahim al-Jaafari) whereas only 2 (Ammar al-Hakim and Karar al-Khafaji) are known to be wholeheartedly against a third term. With a situation like that, a more realistic interpretation is that the tug-of-war inside the Shiite alliance may take rather longer than some on the outside seem ready to admit.
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