The new Iraqi parliament met briefly on Sunday and failed to make much progress apart from agreeing to meet again on Tuesday.
One interesting aspect of the proceedings that has failed to receive much attention concerns the stance of the pan-Shiite alliance on the issue of electing a speaker before a comprehensive agreement including the positions of president and prime minister has been reached. The Iraqi constitution envisages this kind of sequenced and piecemeal approach (instead of the package deals that were done in 2006 and 2010), and for the first time in Iraqi post-2003 history, there has this year been a degree of actual support for this kind of approach – from Iraqi voices and players in the international community alike. At least some members of the pan-Shiite alliance have also highlighted this possibility, probably fully aware that if they stayed unified, the Shiites in theory have enough votes (more than an absolute majority of 165 deputies) to impose whatever speaker they would like to have.
Interestingly, though, the Shiite bloc has refrained from pushing through any particular speaker candidate to enable a separate speaker vote. Indeed it has been reported that it was members of the Shiite alliance that played a role in having the parliament session on Sunday adjourned following failure to arrive at a more comprehensive agreement on the other leadership posts. This apparent reluctance to go ahead with the speaker election is interesting since it breaks with the trends of majoritarianism sometimes evident in the Shiite alliance (and especially in the State of Law bloc of Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki). Instead, there have been some rather contrived suggestions by members of the Shiite alliance to impose particular conditions for the selection of the speaker. In one version, Maliki’s legal adviser Tareq Harb suggested that a speaker could be elected “from the smaller lists and temporarily”. How, one wonders, can Harb see this to resonate with his avowed orthodox approach to the Iraqi constitution? Then on Sunday, Hanan al-Fatlawi, another Maliki ally, suggested the speaker could be elected from among some of the tiny religious-minority lists in the Iraqi parliament (such as various Christian lists, Shabak and Sabaeans).
What this all suggests is that the Shiite alliance remains worried about giving away the speaker seat to a Sunni whom they don’t fully trust – Salim al-Jibburi (from the Iraqi Islamic Party in Diyala) having been the most prominent candidate so far. This in turn relates to a broader contradiction between majoritarianism and consensus models that continues to afflict the Shiite alliance. It goes back at least to the spring of 2011, when, after having sometimes promoted majoritarianism in the preceding period, the State of Law coalition pathetically demanded the creation of a third vice-presidency to make sure they had a say even within that minor office. Despite all the persisting talk of “political majority”, it seems the Shiite alliance has lately been fully preoccupied with dividing the spoils of the elections in the traditional way – with heated discussions about who should be the Shiite deputy speaker (Humam Hamudi of ISCI is a forerunner) and who should be the Shiite deputy president (it seems this may go to a Sadrist).
In all of this it is worth noting that despite weather problems (that some suggested dovetailed rather conveniently with Kurdish threats to boycott the Iraqi parliament), the short session on Sunday was actually rather well attended. Press reports talked about 225-235 (out of 328) deputies present, but the official parliament record says 270 which is very high compared with averages from the previous parliamentary cycle. What this means is that there are more than enough deputies present to complete a vote on a speaker, which requires an absolute majority. Maybe Iraqi politicians should now try to liberate themselves from past practices and just go ahead with the speaker vote, as indeed the Iraqi constitution stipulates? Such a move might in itself potentially produce new dynamics and alliances that are capable of affecting the current deadlock in the key question of who should be the next Iraqi prime minister.