A few days ago, the President of the semi-autonomous region of Iraqi Kurdistan and a considerable political force within Iraq, Massoud Barzani, announced that his party would not participate in another government led by the current Iraqi Prime Minister, Nouri al-Maliki.The Iraqi Kurds are not the only ones to have made this kind of announcement. The Sadrist movement, led by cleric Muqtada al-Sadr and represented in Parliament by the Ahrar bloc, has also said they don’t want to see their former ally, al-Maliki, given a third term as Prime Minister.
Another of al-Maliki’s most important former allies, the Muwatin, or Citizen, coalition which represents the interests of the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq, led by another cleric Ammar al-Hakim, has expressed similar sentiments.
Both of the latter are mostly composed of Shiite Muslims, the same sect as al-Maliki. Meanwhile al-Maliki’s long time opponents – mostly Sunni Muslim blocs and parties as well as some secular blocs – have also said they won’t contemplate a third term for al-Maliki.
Al-Maliki’s bloc has won around 94 seats and it’s highly likely this share will increase to over 100 – anything from 102 to 110, analysts suggest - as the big bloc attracts smaller parties to its ranks to try and form a coalition big enough to be allowed to form the next government.
Meanwhile all of those who oppose a third term for al-Maliki number more than enough to form a government – they have around 180 seats out of Iraq’s 328 seat Parliament. And some have suggested, perhaps rather optimistically, that these groups could form a kind of grand coalition because they all have the same focus: keeping al-Maliki out. Such a coalition could be described as grand because it would cross most of Iraq’s ethnic and sectarian boundaries, uniting all those who usually jostle for political power for their own sector of Iraqi society; it would herald a true post-sectarian age for Iraqi politics.
All of the different groups – the Iraqi Kurdish, the Sunni Muslims and the Shiite Muslims – have their own agenda and their own external and internal influencers.
So is such a coalition even possible? Those who think it is point to last summer’s provincial elections in Baghdad. There the two major Shiite Muslim parties – the Sadrists and the Citizen bloc – joined together with two Sunni Muslim blocs to form a majority on the provincial council. And in doing this, they wrested control of the Baghdad council from al-Maliki’s State of Law bloc, which had previously been in charge here.
On the other hand those who think some sort of a grand coalition is a pipe dream point out that the strongest and most lasting political alliances Iraq have always been based on sectarian or ethnic commonalities. Political alliances or agreements that cross those historical sectarian or ethnic boundaries – such as the agreements that saw al-Maliki form a government in 2010 – have tended to fall apart under pressure.
And, although most of the political groups may have the desire to get rid of al-Maliki in common, internally there are rifts.
For example, the various different Sunni Muslim parties have differing opinions on whether to work with al-Maliki or not. Two of the groups – the National Iraqiya bloc led by former Iraqi Prime Minister Ayad Allawi and the United bloc led by Osama al-Nujaifi – have both said they want al-Maliki replaced at any cost and that they won’t allow the Iraqi government to be run by Iran – the Shiite-Muslim-led theocracy is seen as a major al-Maliki supporter. And they have threatened to try and form a Sunni Muslim region – independent of federal Iraq in a similar way that Iraqi Kurdistan is – if al-Maliki gets back into power.
Meanwhile the Al Arabiya bloc, which is led by Deputy Prime Minister, Saleh al-Mutlaq, and another smaller Sunni Muslim bloc called Solution, both still believe it is possible to work with al-Maliki. They say that it is better for Sunni Muslims to be represented in the Iraqi government than not, and that change in the interests of the country’s Sunni Muslim population will be possible from within.
Al-Maliki’s former Shiite Muslim allies – the Sadrists and the ISCI – may have a similar aim – they both want to get rid of al-Maliki - but the way they express it is very different. While Muqtada al-Sadr has been direct and confrontational, Ammar al-Hakim of the ISCI has been more diplomatic.
In fact, Habib al-Tarfi, an MP for the ISCI’s Citizen bloc, led by al-Hakim, told NIQASH that his party is still considering joining forces with the other Shiite Muslim parties.
Even the Iraqi Kurdish appear somewhat divided on the issue. While Barzani and his party, the Kurdistan Democratic Party, or KDP, seem committed to getting rid of al-Maliki and have threatened to try and form their own state if al-Maliki gets back into power, the other major Iraqi Kurdish party, the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, or PUK, isn’t quite as strident. It’s also well known that the PUK has a better relationship with al-Maliki than the KDP.
So al-Maliki is most likely trying to leverage those differences of opinion. He has started negotiations with those parties who say they are against him - but maybe not quite as against him as some of the others. This includes the Iraqi Kurdish PUK, the Shiite Muslim Citizen bloc and the Sunni Muslim Al Arabiya. So here too, Iraqi politics is actually working across sectarian and ethnic lines – but this time in al-Maliki’s favour.
There’s a major lack of trust between all political parties and it may be possible for al-Maliki to exploit this by offering potential coalition partners high ranking positions or ministries to run.
But let us imagine that a grand coalition is able to be formed – or at least, some sort of governing alliance that makes it possible to take al-Maliki’s job away and sideline his State of Law coalition. Who would replace him?
Running the country would still be very difficult. Currently the State of Law bloc is insisting on al-Maliki as Prime Minister. Even if they don’t get back into power they have so many MPs in Baghdad – almost a third of the Parliament – that they could easily obstruct any political work they want to. In fact, this has also been a big problem on Baghdad’s provincial authority, where the aforementioned cross-sectarian coalition was formed to boot the State of Law members out. There are still enough of al-Maliki’s men on the council to make the council’s work difficult.
This brings up another big issue. Should al-Maliki leave the job of Prime Minister there are still literally thousands of his supporters in key positions. Many of his supporters have been rewarded with senior positions in the military or in bureaucracy in return for their loyalty to al-Maliki. In fact al-Maliki’s followers are currently directly responsible for some of the most important ministries in the country, including those overseeing economic and defence matters.
This is another button that al-Maliki is pushing. “If al-Maliki is removed, then his followers, who are doing the government’s work, are going to disrupt things,” one of the Shiite Muslim politicians involved in government formation talks told NIQASH.
Additionally al-Maliki is seen as being closest to Iraq’s most important international contacts, like Iran and the US. Iran would doubtless like to see a Shiite Muslim, with close ties to them, in power in Iraq again – although it does seem that if the other Shiite Muslim parties can form a different coalition and come up with an alternative leader, they won’t stand in the way either.
The fact that al-Maliki has consolidated and centralized power for himself and his party members has now become a reason to fear his departure – so the question as to who could really replace him remains.
Months ago it was suggested that someone from al-Maliki’s own political party could take over his role, as long as everybody else promised not to hold al-Maliki accountable for actions undertaken while he was in power.
In the end it seems that whoever is proposed for the post of Iraq’s next prime Minister won’t necessarily need the biggest number of seats in Iraq’s Parliament to qualify for the job. No, the most suitable candidate will not only have to have good relations with Tehran and Washington, he will also have to convince Iraq’s Shiite Muslims that he can do the job, he will have to guarantee Iraq’s Kurds that they will get their due and he’ll need to reassure Iraq’s Sunni Muslims that they won’t be marginalized further.