A world without Usama al-Nujayfi, Ayyad Allawi, Ammar al-Hakim and Mutqada al-Sadr. Surely that must be one of the most pleasant dreams that could happen in the head of Iraq’s prime minister, Nuri al-Maliki these days?
In fact, given political developments during the weeks since the announcement of the uncertified election result, Maliki has quite good chances for such a dream to become reality. Crucially, though, that dream would have to include a personality Maliki probably would have preferred to shut out along with the others: Masud Barzani, the president of the Kurdish federal region.
What has happened is as follows. In the uncertified election result there were 92 straightforward State of Law winners and another 3 State of Law affiliated people running on various pan-Shia lists in the Shiite-minority provinces in the north. Subsequently, Maliki has been formally joined by smaller Shiite parties such as Solidarity in Iraq (1 seat in Dhi Qar), the Just State (1 seat), Professionals and Masses (2 seats), Loyalty to Iraq (2 seats in Najaf). Additionally, support for Maliki from the Sadiqun movement affiliated with Asaeb Ahl al-Haqq (1 seat) is a foregone conclusion since probably no one else wants to have anything to do with that controversial movement.
That’s 102 seats. For their part, the combined parliamentary strength of the Kurds is mostly assessed to be above 60 seats, certainly if pro-Kurdish minority representatives from the north are included. Accordingly, Maliki and the Kurds are now so close to securing the absolute majority needed to seat a new government (165 seats) that it would be very easy for them to secure a few extra MPs without having to involve any other big bloc. Also, by virtue of their relatively disciplined parliamentary contingent, the Kurds are probably in a better position to deliver actual votes to Maliki in parliament than any combination of smaller Arab-dominated parties would be able to. All of this is different from 2010, when State of Law plus the Kurds would have fallen short of 163 votes, the absolute-majority mark in the 325-member parliament back then.
This scenario offers a potential negotiation dynamic that is very different from the outcomes that have dominated the discussion thus far – i.e. a political majority government of pro-Maliki centralists against decentralizers among the Kurds, ISCI and Nujayfi; or a quasi political-majority government of Maliki and at least one of the big parties (Nujayfi, Allawi, Hakim, Sadr) that would be prepared to join him bilaterally in opposition to the others; or an anti-Maliki coalition along the lines that challenged him in the first part of 2012; or a decision on the next PM inside a reconstituted grand Shiite alliance, perhaps followed by another oversized partnership government.
Nonetheless, despite all the talk about these scenarios (and perhaps a revived Shiite alliance in particular), the only thing that has actually happened on the ground since the election result was announced is that State of Law has continued to grow steadily, attracting also some parties with more secular leanings that wouldn’t fit particularly well in the Shiite Islamist National Alliance at all. Indeed, it is likely that such smaller parties on the Sunni side could also be subsumed by the State of Law alliance. It is noteworthy that despite the strong regional tensions, parties favouring dialogue with Maliki instead of maximizing the sectarian conflict won multiple seats in key Sunni governorates such as Anbar. Indeed, it could be argued that the vote for the smaller pro-sahwa lists and the secular Iraq coalition in Anbar – altogether 130,000 votes and 6 seats – was a vote in favour of rapprochement with Maliki. If movements like these get included in the next Iraqi government, the contention frequently seen in Western media to the effect that “Iraqi Sunnis lost the elections” would lose even more of its limited relevance. True, the option of Maliki’s enemies forming some kind of grand coalition against him still exists, but with Maliki’s recent growth they are running out of time: Once Maliki reaches around 125 deputies, it will be near mathematically impossible for his adversaries to form a bigger parliamentary bloc without the Kurds. With trends like these, the chances of Maliki acting bi-laterally instead of multi-laterally in the government formation process certainly go up.
Of course, the Kurds will not sign up to a a third Maliki premiership just for the sake of forming a slimmer government. Like in 2010, they will have specific demands, including the general relationship between Baghdad and the Kurdistan federal region, oil policy issues, payment for Kurdish armed forces as well as disputed areas.
There are key differences from 2010, though. Firstly, the Kurdish demands have grown more radical. No longer are questions about the validity of contracts of foreign oil companies most prominent on the agenda. The Kurds have recently opened up separate pipelines to Turkey and want Baghdad to approve this move without any interference. Second, the Kurds have already seen what happened with lofty promises in the Erbil agreement of 2010, which largely remains unimplemented. Surely they will fashion their demands to Maliki in ways that can prevent a repeat of that disappointment this time.
In practice, it will not be too difficult for Maliki to reverse much of his anti-Kurdish political majority rhetoric if he instead can form the new government on the basis of some kind of landmark agreement with the Kurds that can lead to satisfaction on both sides. The problem though, given the increasingly radical nature of the Kurdish demands, is to find concessions that are in the spirit of the Iraqi constitution of 2005 as a union between Iraqis, rather than practical guidelines for the implementation of a divorce.
Some such potential concessions within the framework of a federal state still exist. Firstly, there are things Maliki could offer on disputed internal boundaries that would involve one-off concessions to the Kurds in some of the less disputed of the disputed territories in the north, though without Kirkuk and a comprehensive article 140 settlement (which is likely to take many years to be implemented even under the rosiest of circumstances). Second, there is the recurrent issue of payment for the Kurdish security forces. Since these forces also serve in domestic and internal roles, their payment over the federal budget is not particularly logical. Still, if such an arrangement can serve as glue in the Iraqi federation, it is far better than deals that would remove the oil sector entirely from Baghdad’s sphere, effectively making Kurdistan an independent country but without a suitable legal and constitutional framework. Thirdly, there are the oil contracts with foreign companies operating in Kurdistan, which Baghdad have yet to formally approve. It could be argued that one-off approval of these contracts could be a suitable concession if an appropriate framework for cooperation for future foreign contracts could be established as part of the compromise.
All of the above are compromises that would retain the essence of the Iraqi constitution of 2005 and would be sellable also to Maliki’s domestic audience (which should not be forgotten after they gave him more than 700,000 personal votes). Above all, though, if Maliki and the Kurds want to cut a separate deal, it is important that both sides exercise realism in order that another Erbil paper tiger, and the concomitant dysfunctional government it produced, can be avoided.