Iraq's big deal: the coming national unity government

Faced with the problem of how to share the offices of power between rival blocs, Iraqi politicians are rearranging the constitutional weights to achieve a balance of power acceptable to parliament's largest factions. Will the result be unity or stasis, asks Mohammed Hussainy

Despite the foggy political landscape in Iraq, leaders of the various political blocs have been sending signals to imply that the Iraqi political powerhouses are about to forge a major deal in order to put an end to the post-parliamentary-elections conundrum of forming a new government. No single side has been able to settle the standoff in its favor. Such a deal will not be a mere political one; it will rather be a constitutional deal by virtue of introducing constitutional amendments that would facilitate the potential agreement among the major blocs.

The Iraqi political powerhouses in general, and Maliki’s State of Law Coalition (SLC) and Allawi’s Iraqiyya List (IL) in particular arrived to the conviction that no single side will be able to form a parliamentary alliance and a new government on its own. Such a conviction or belief has contributed to bringing closer the views of both sides; they were both keen on not walking away empty-handed from the muddle of forming the new government, particularly that this alleged government would be formed in circumstances that differ from its predecessors in the sense that it comes against the backdrop and aftermath of the official pull out of the US troops from Iraq.

What is currently going on behind the scenes in Iraqi politics – as leaks suggest, is that a national unity/partnership government is being brought up so as to represent all major blocs in the Iraqi parliament (Council of Representatives). A serious dialogue about the nature and characteristics of such a would-be government has indeed been launched through written proposals that various blocs exchanged; each bloc expressed its point of view vis-à-vis how to form and, more importantly, how to take decisions within that government.  

Yet the anticipated deal does not only include forming the government in the narrow sense of the word – I mean here forming the executive branch - talks include reaching out to other key state agencies spearheaded by the offices of the President of the Republic and Speaker of the House. Against this backdrop, a new entity or body would be formed and dubbed “The National Council on Strategic Policies” (NCSP). Such a feat would require introducing constitutional amendments since it is no where stipulated in the Iraqi constitution that such a Council be formed. A way out can still be found in Article 108 of the constitution which maintains that “other independent commissions may be formed and regulated by a law when needed and deemed necessary.” However, the alleged NCSP would not gain enough constitutional power should it be formed under this article; it will not, as such, be able be an integral part of the key state institutions like the cabinet, CoR or even the yet-to-be-formed federal council.

The pillars of the deal are manifested in Maliki’s insistence on keeping hold of the office of Prime Minister as he relatively succeeded in presenting himself as a key candidate for the said office notwithstanding other options – recently, these options receded to include only the vice president and prominent leader in the Higher Islamic Council, Adel Abdel-Mahdi.  However, the latter option finds little resonance within the Iraqi political milieu – only to add yet more power to Maliki who has recently called for the need to turn a new page with all sides. Such a call might be interpreted as Maliki’s attempt to prompt others to overlook his previous term of office and disregard it when it comes to forming a new government. In return, Maliki would offer guarantees to ensure that the power-brokers who will be forming the government would become real partners in making decisions; he would also assure these power-brokers that he will not run the government unilaterally regardless of any prior attitudes toward him. This tendency has become evident as Maliki talked about the possibility of having the Sadri Movement join a Maliki-led government; he also reiterated that Sadris are more than welcome – that they should even be encouraged and supported to become engaged and integrated in the political process in proportion to their political weight. Seen as possible political courting on Maliki’s side, these statements come in the wake of the often tense relationship between the two sides that has even escalated to level of fighting at certain stages.    

By contrast, the Allawi-led Iraqiyya List insists on having a share in power that is parallel to its gains during the recent elections.  Although it has slightly backed off and no longer explicitly insists on having Iyyad Allawi serve as the next prime minister of Iraq, the IL still refuses to relinquish two issues: the first is that it has to be a true and active partner in power, and second is to lead one of the key state institutions such as the office of the President of the Republic. Iraqiyya also demands that its role in power has to be commissioned through constitutional and ethical guarantees that would shun any attempts to marginalize its role in the future. The decision IL has taken to concede its demand to head the next government came as a result of a realistic evaluation of the various forms of potential political alliances within the CoR – particularly follows Maliki’s success in forging an alliance with the National Coalition.  

Regardless of the strength of this coalition or lack thereof, the very fact that it has been forged prompted the Iraqiyyah to approach the political milieu with more caution and realism.   

What should not be overlooked in this regard is the sum of other blocs’ attitudes and computations; these are by no means less important that those of SLC and IL, for both Maliki and Allawi realize how much they badly need the Iraqi National Coalition (manifested in its two components of the Sadri Movement and SIIC) and the Kurdistan List.  

The latter can under no circumstances whatsoever give up its special demand to have its candidate, namely Jalal Talabani, continue to hold the office of the President. In other words, any agreement to be forged with the Kurdistan List has to include renewing the term of office for the current president Talabani; Maliki has actually been quite astute in this regard, publicly stating that any deal to form a new government must include renewing the term of office for President Talabani. Thus, Maliki managed to signal his genuine desire to head a government that would represent and engage all Iraqi blocs in running the political process in the country – such statements count as value added and additional points in favor of Maliki and against Allawi and his list. 

In light of the above, the features of the constitutional political deal might become more discernable during the weeks to come; the essence of such a deal would manifest in forming a national partnership government led by Maliki. It would be a government where other members play a genuine role in making instrumental decisions; that role would be guaranteed in a written agreement that would be binding to all sides provided that the term of office be renewed for President Talabani while a new NCSP would be introduced by virtue of a constitutional amendment that would endow the new council political weight in making key decisions in the country. Allawi is likely to be heading this new council while the office of CoR Speaker would also be given to a Sunni candidate from the IL. It is also necessary that representatives of the Iraqi Coalition, particularly the Sadri Movement and SIIC, and the Kurds be assigned sovereign cabinet portfolios as well as other key positions in the CoR and NCSP without prejudice to the potential of activating the Federal Council and offer its chairmanship to one bloc under the agreement.

With reference to the current political situation in Iraq, the advantages of such a possible deal would be in bringing to an end the inter-bloc conflicts, running the country in a joint manner and opening the door before needed constitutional amendments especially as a handful of other articles need to be so amended in the current Iraqi constitution.
The potential downside to this deal entails that the government could become defunct – when it comes to making key decisions, as a result of the multi-lateral nature of running the country. In addition, making such decisions will first and foremost take into consideration the best interests of the blocs rather than those of the country; the result might be a lower quality of decision-making when compared to the expectations of Iraqi citizens since these decisions will be the products of deals rather than address genuine needs. Forming the government in such a manner would entail the absence of robust opposition from outside the government and the marginalization of less powerful blocs in the CoR – hence, their interests would be undermined and might spur negative repercussions in the future.  

The success of such a deal will remain a work in progress for some time; it will depend on the ability of the Iraqi politcal power-houses to agree on the guarantees that ensure partnership in decision-making and amendments. It is a feat that can be neither described as easy nor as uncomplicated. And yet all indicators point to the fact that there is a genuine desire among all sides to find a way out, for the current situation serves no one, especially after everyone has realised that the outside regional and international interventions will not lead to a solution that would satisfy all involved; on the contrary Iraq’s politicians have come to realise that excessive external influences would only render the Iraqi political milieu an even more complicated and difficult habitat in which to flourish.

About the author

Mohammed Hussainy is a Jordanian writer specialising in Iraqi issues who writes for the Arabic language Al Ghad newspaper and Al Arabiya.net.

He is the director of the Identity Center in Amman, Jordan, which aims to encourage political participation in Jordan and the wider Arab world.