The uncertified result of Iraq’s parliamentary elections, released by the election commission today, cannot be described as anything other than a victory for the incumbent prime minister, Nuri al-Maliki.
Compared with 2010, Maliki increased his share of seats in the Iraqi parliament from 89 to 94. This quite despite the fact that Maliki experienced numerous defections from his list before the elections and therefore fielded a much slimmer electoral coalition than in 2010. His success can hardly be translated as anything other than an indication of his continued popularity among voters despite growing unease about his rule among political opponents.
*Asterisk indicating affiliated list
Not only did Maliki manage to increase the size of his parliamentary contingent. His political enemies also look far more fragmented than before. In the Shiite camp, the Sadrist saw their bloc reduced by about a quarter of its previous size, whereas ISCI, despite making something of a comeback, was unable to garner more than 30 seats. Among the Sunnis, parliament speaker Nujayfi failed to emerge as the community leader he had been dreaming of, with Shiite secularist Ayyad Allawi continuing to appeal to secularists of Sunni and Shiite backgrounds alike. Even the Kurds have seen a greater degree of formal fragmentation than before (though a theoretical combined bloc strength of more than 60 seats is possible if they stay united and win over minority representatives as in the past). All in all, the group of parties that were on the verge of succeeding with a vote of no confidence against Maliki in 2012 now look weaker.
The question now, however, is what Maliki can do with this impressive victory.
Prior to the elections, a main debate was whether the next Iraqi government should be a power-sharing or a majority one. Maliki has been vocal in his expression for a smaller, majority government. Theoretically, he can also achieve it with these results, albeit not very easily. If Maliki stayed true to the “political majority” concept, it would involve gathering blocs that agreed with his vision of relatively centralized rule in Iraq, including a degree of central control of the oil sector throughout the country including Kurdistan. In theory, this could involve his own bloc, the Sadrists, smaller Shiite parties (Jaafari, Fadila, Sadiqun etc.), the Sunni party of Saleh al-Mutlak, parts of the Allawi list, as well as the many smaller minority and other lists (an unprecedented mass of some 40 deputies) that could help him reach the 165 absolute majority mark needed to form a government. In practice, though, the personal dislike of Maliki among many Sadrists and members of the Allawi list could make this prospect very difficult. Without them, his majority would be extremely slim, fragmented and vulnerable.
The point is, though, that with numbers like this, Maliki is likely to try hard to form some kind of majority government before considering other alternatives. One possibility he is likely to try is to redefine “political majority” in a looser, more opportunistic way, involving basically a Yes to a third Maliki term. With the right kind of deal he might be able to get the Kurds on board for this, thereby succeeding in keeping Shiite enemies – and Ammar al-Hakim in particular – on the sidelines. The problem, of course, is that much of Maliki’s political majority rhetoric centred precisely on defending the prerogatives of Baghdad with respect to controversial issues relating to foreign oil companies operating in Kurdistan.
Given these potential complications, it cannot escape notice that, in an unprecedented situation, the combined Iraqi Shiite Islamist parties now enjoy a theoretical option of forming a majority government. Together they have more than the 165 votes required for an absolute majority, meaning the question of reconstituting the pan-Shiite National Alliance will inevitably hit the agenda if Maliki fails in his other efforts. Indeed, such movements are already underway, and they could certainly gather steam if Maliki’s majoritarian dreams go nowhere. It has to be stressed though, that with Maliki’s strong showing in these elections compared with everyone else, the option of simply substituting him with someone more palatable to the Hakim and Sadrist camps is less relevant than it was prior to the elections. If everything else fails, Iran may well want to strongarm the Sadrists into accepting a third term for Maliki, which would have a reasonable parliamentary prospect with or without Hakim. It could also invite larger numbers of Kurds and Sunnis in, in which case it might well end up looking somewhat similar to the previous, oversized power-sharing governments formed in 2006 and 2010.
Meanwhile, the election result will be submitted for legal certification. In 2010, that process lasted more than 2 months, significantly delaying the process of government formation. Symptomatically, ISCI has already signaled that it may challenge the counting of the votes – something which will certainly not do anything to bring them closer to Maliki in the short term.