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Chess or Dominos? The Next Moves in Iraq’s Political Game
2010-10-22 14:55:25
By Dr Michael Knights, Vice President and lead Iraq analyst at Olive Group.

On 1 October, Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki received the endorsement of just over 140 parliamentarians, drawing close to the 163 votes needed to be re-appointed. I’m on record as predicting that this step will most likely bring about a new Maliki-led government, but I also know that no-one should count their chickens yet. Embracing complexity and uncertainty, then incorporating them into your business plan is the key to successfully operating in Iraq. In the chess game of Iraqi politics, Maliki has his opponents in check: so how will they react to his latest move?

The first thing to note is that nothing has been set in stone: no binding political alliances were signed on 1 October by the National Alliance, the collection of Shiite groups that nominated Maliki as their candidate for prime minister. Any of the groups who backed Maliki can renounce their support at any time. What initially matters is how many endorsements Maliki has the day after the new president of Iraq is appointed by parliament. At that moment, the weight of declared support for Maliki will influence the president as he chooses the leader of the largest coalition (kutla in Arabic) to be the prime minister designate, charged with the first shot at forming a government within thirty days.

Even then, the political lists have the opportunity to switch their support away from Maliki or whoever else is leading the largest bloc. What matters most is the number of votes that the aspiring premier can secure when parliament gathers to ratify the prime minister. If he succeeds in getting 163 votes or more, the prime ministerial candidate is appointed. If he gets less than 163, the president passes the baton to the head of the second-biggest coalition (as he sees it) and a new 30-day deadline is set. One might ask oneself: what are the relative advantages of going first versus going second? Does an invitation to take the first shot at government formation represent a potential trap at worst and a hazardous proposition at best?

Maliki’s challenges

We may rest assured that all these thoughts have been going through Maliki’s mind since the polls closed on 7 March, if not before. Now the issue is no longer academic. Maliki’s challenge is to hold his 143 or so supporters together, and at the same time to secure the backing of two other groups of allies. The first is the Kurdish-led lists, whose conglomeration of 57 seats would seal the deal for Maliki or could join with Iyad Allawi and other inveterate opponents of Maliki to push them just over the 163-mark. Recognizing their pivotal position, the Kurdish leadership will take a tough negotiating position and will probably hold Maliki in suspense about their eventual alignment until the very last moments of government formation. Though it may be hard for the Kurds or Allawi’s predominately Sunni Arab Iraqiyah movement to countenance an alliance, both sides know that nothing is impossible in Iraqi politics and they recognize the leverage they will gain from keeping the prospect alive.

Maliki will also push to splinter Sunni Arab components away from Iraqiyyah and to pull in smaller Sunni and cross-sectarian parties like Tawafoq and Unity of Iraq. Maliki’s need to woo such groups is a reminder that Iraqi politics is not just a numbers game: there are also important intangible commodities at play such as the need to make at least a token effort to develop ethno-sectarian diversity and consensus in the government. Though Iyad Allawi might struggle to work within a Maliki-led government, many of the sub-components of Iraqiyyah do have a breaking point and could conceivably answer Maliki’s siren call to join the government for the sake of “national unity” (and some ministerial appointments).

In other words, Maliki now has to start the complex and uncertain process of forming a government, almost seven months after election day. As an analyst who speaks to Iraqi politicians every week, it is my sad duty to relay that almost no pre-negotiation has been undertaken and the process is practically starting from scratch.

Future twists and turns

It would be tempting to imagine that the process of government formation will now be linear and rapid, but that would probably be over-optimistic. The government formation process may still throw up more than one surprise and could last for many months.

For instance, Maliki could seek to move as quickly as possible, working with the Kurds to ratify parliamentary speakers and re-appoint President Jalal Talabani. There is certainly a public appetite for forward movement and some international pressure, though this counts for much less in today’s Iraq. On the other hand, there are lots of reasons why Maliki might want to move at a more deliberate pace. If Talabani is re-appointed, Maliki’s bloc loses one additional piece of leverage over the Kurds or alternative bidders for the presidency. Worse yet, due to the lack of constitutional or legal clarity over the definition of the largest coalition (kutla), the president has a great deal of discretionary power for this one fleeting moment of the Iraqi political cycle: Maliki would have to wonder whether Talabani could be relied upon to select the prime ministerial candidate according to Maliki’s instructions.

Then there is the ultimate political rollercoaster – the interregnum of up to thirty days between the nomination of a designate prime minister and the parliamentary vote to ratify the premier. This period could be a moment of high drama and grave danger for the head of the largest bloc. His adversaries could be counted upon to reveal their juiciest counter-offers in an effort to collapse the effort at government formation and earn for themselves the next chance. The candidate’s allies could likewise use this period to extract the maximum concessions from the designate prime minister, possibly engaging in brinksmanship until the final days or even hours before the deadline. Such circumstances will likely bring out the most dangerous and stubborn tendencies in Kurdish leaders such as the KRG president Masoud Barzani. The risk of miscalculation and last-minute defections would be very high. It is quite possible that the first attempt to form a government could fail.

These factors suggest that Maliki might be in no hurry to expose himself to the risk of an immediate hasty stab at government formation. It might be far more sensible to pre-negotiate as many aspects of government formation as possible – to set up the giant domino set – and then to watch them fall in rapid succession, to reduce the risks of the deal collapsing during a long-drawn-out version of the process. This would ensure that a deal was solid before he risked his one shot at the prize. For companies seeking to enter Iraq’s market, the potential for added delay in government formation will no doubt be unsettling. On the bright side, a deliberate approach could avoid the pitfalls of one or more failed attempts to form a government, or the longer-term risk of a tottering coalition that might succumb to a vote of no-confidence at any moment. The second round of constitutionally-mandated elections often make or break a democracy and Iraq will be no exception.

Until next time,



Dr Michael Knights is Vice President and lead Iraq analyst at Olive Group, the first security company to operate in Iraq, operating as an Iraqi company (Al-Zaytoon) since 2003. He has worked on Iraqi political and security risks since the mid-1990s, first as an oil and gas journalist and later as an academic, receiving his PhD on Iraq at the Department of War Studies, King’s College London. Since 2003, Dr Knights has run the Washington Institute for Near East Policy’s Iraq programme, advising US government agencies on Iraq policy and publishing a series of books on local politics and security in Basrah, Maysan, Dhi Qar and the northern provinces including Kirkuk. Since joining Olive Group in 2006, he has consulted on community and stakeholder engagement with most of the major oil and gas and construction companies entering Iraq.