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Once again, the Iraqi compass points north

The votes are in and the Iraqi coalitions have entered a complex process of deal making and realignment. Little can be predicted with any certainty, but the Kurdish parties look set to regain their place as kingmakers in Baghdad.
Mohammed Hussainy
19 March 2010

With the final count yet to be released, it is impossible to predict with any certainty  what forms the leading coalitions will take in the council of representatives. To the same effect, the coalitions that ran for the elections are currently keen on re-forming their internal structures.  The only surety is that the Kurds are set once again to be the “casting vote” in Iraq’s political formula – a rerun of the post-election scenario of 2005.  At the time, the weight of the Kurdish bloc in the council of representatives could not be overlooked by any other coalition that sought to form a government; a sense of déjà vu now prevails in Baghdad.

Unlike the other political powerhouses in Iraq, the Kurds have known their share of parliamentary seats long before campaigning even began; voters in the three Kurdistan Region governorates return only Kurdish blocs; likewise, votes in favor of the Kurdish Coalition will pour in from the Kurds who reside in Diala, Mosul, Kirkuk and Baghdad.  Projections show that the Kurdish bloc will be able to secure a number of seats that is very close to what they managed to win in 2005.

Indications of a possible coordination between the Goran “Change” (led by Nusherwan Mustafa) on the one hand, and the Kurdistan Coalition (the strongest Kurdish coalition formed of the Kurdistan Democratic Party /KDP led by Mesut Barzani and Patriotic Union of Kurdistan/PUK, led by Jala Talbani) on the other, have become more evident as warmer relations overcome the former fissure between the Kurdish factions. Kurds will once again be able to enter the council of representatives as a unified force. Their disputes shall remain confined to the region, where the Kurdistan Coalition forms the government and the Goran “Change”List leads the opposition.

The political and electoral reality is that the other major political blocs will not manage to secure a majority inside the council of representatives from which to form a future government.  Coalition building remains their only option.  Naturally, successful coalition-building does not come free of charge; power will come at a high price, in the form of political trade-offs. It is common knowledge that the three major blocs will be competing for the premiership of the next government.  They include the State of Law coalition (led by the incumbent prime minister, Nouri Maliki), the Iraqi List (led by Iyyad Allawi and including other key figures like Vice-President Tareq al-Hashimi and the banned leader of the Iraqi Dialogue Front, Saleh al-Mutlaq) and the National Coalition comprising key Shi'ite forces like the Supreme Islamic Council (led by Ammar al-Hakeem), the al-Sadr movement, Ahamad Chalabi and the former prime minister, Ibrahim al-Jaa'fari.   

Any coalition will not be able to secure the required majority unless the Kurds come on board; hence, forces wishing to form the next government will find themselves compelled to deal with and address Kurdish demands that can be summarized in three key points: enforcing the federal regime in Iraq, retaining the office of president and control of Kirkuk. Arab politicians courting the Kurds will have to address these three key issues with the utmost seriousness. The Kurds will demand a clear framework for the implementation of their conditions so that they do not fall  prey to the procrastination trap used to such effect by Baghdad governments for the last four years.

As much as it is difficult to anticipate the forms of the future coalitions, some scenarios can still be discerned when approached from the perspective of Kurdish relations with the other key political powers.  We can also develop potential projections for the forms of the upcoming coalitions based on the premise of the relevant stakeholders’ common interests.  Yet, we should not forget the complex relationship that exists among theses powers, the twists and turns of which will shape the coalition-building process.  In addition, we cannot disregard the presence of one constant and unchangeable factor: the impossibility of a coalition between Maliki and Allawi.  Both leaders seek to become the next prime minister of Iraq and form the new government accordingly.  Hence, the bloc that forms a parliamentary majority will most definitely be formed without one of the two entities – The Rule of Law Coalition or the Iraqi List.

In light of these variables and indicators, the parliamentary blocs will turn north to seek the support of the Kurds for a government-forming majority.  Current political activities seem to be supporting such a trend; Adel Abdel Mahdi, a key leader of the National Coalition, recently met Jalal Talbani and Mesut Barzani in a move that can only be read as a form of early coordination for a possible coalition. The truth of the matter is that the Kurds feel better off and more relaxed about the prospect of an agreement with the National Coalition, for both sides have common interests manifested in their conviction that the federal regime of the Iraqi State must be activated and enforced while devolving more of the central government powers to the federal regions. Besides, the National Coalition does not mind seeing a Kurdish president of Iraq – as long as the president's mandate and powers remain within their current limits. Kirkuk would perhaps remain the unresolved issue that no two sides will agree upon entirely; it would be no surprise, however, if both sides were to strike a deal about Kirkuk as part of a grand bargain given the necessity of coalition building.  

The retraction issued by Tareq al-Hashimi to explain his prior claim that the president should be a Sunni Arab is in the same vein.  Al-Hashimi emphasized the profound and robust relations he has with President Talbani as well as his respect for the Kurds as one of the key components that form the Iraqi people.  But the statement was only released under pressure from the leader of the Iraqi List Coalition, Iyyad Allawi, who feared that al-Hashimi would undermine the chances of building a coalition with the Kurds.  Allawi tries to promote himself as an acceptable ally of the Kurds by relying on his position vis-à-vis the Kirkuk issue when he served as prime minister.  He fears that the stringent attitudes and positions of some of his key allies on federalism, the presidency, and Kirkuk might negatively impact his ability to form a coalition in which he would reclaim his position as prime minister and which friendly correspondence between the Iraqi List and the Kurdish Coalition had gone some way to secure.

When it comes to their attitude toward Nouri Maliki, the Kurds remain cautious.  Their previous experience has left them with the impression that he works for a more centralized state with a strong role in regional affairs. Furthermore, Maliki has long disregarded the Kirkuk issue, which made the Kurds grow weary during his term in office.  Nonetheless, a Kurdish coalition with Maliki remains a viable option, particularly if an inter-Shi'ite agreement (between the Rule of Law and the National Coalition) is reached. It remains unlikely that the Sadr faction will join Maliki's coalition following the harsh anti-Sadrist measures he has put in place.

As for the other blocs that are more likely to be represented in parliament, indicators foretell that the Tawafuq Front (Consensus) and Unity of Iraq blocs will not be in the enviable role of the Kurdish parties. It should be emphasized that the coalition which will form the next government will approach these powers to have them represented so that the new government would appear committed to an inclusive national politics.  A case in point in this respect would be the Sunni Arab Tawafuq Front, which is unlikely to refrain from joining a coalition that will give them the position of parliamentary speaker, as has been the case in recent years.

Given the weaker position of the Sunni Arab parties, the Kurds have everything to gain from working in a unified bloc and overcoming their internal conflicts and divisions. Together, they will gain a huge political weight in the new council of representatives – they will, thus, remain the kingmakers in the Iraqi political muddle, so long as their internal conflicts remain just that: internal!

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