Prashant Rao, AFP
Last updated: 11 June, 2012

In Iraqi politics, years pass but little changes

It is mid-June and Baghdad is locked in political intrigue — will Nuri al-Maliki retain the premiership? Or will rival blocs overcome historic animosity and band together against him?

No, the year is not 2012, but 2010 — months after parliamentary elections, Iraq’s parliament was finally convening for the first time, with a political process in deadlock as parties jostled for power.

But with half a parliamentary term having expired in the two years since, many of the same issues remain unresolved and little in the way of significant legislation has been passed, with a power struggle at the top commanding attention while pressing issues have fallen by the wayside.

“They are so busy with the conflicts between themselves, they don’t care,” said Mahmud Othman, an independent Kurdish MP, discussing the current row.

“There is no concern about electricity, services, the environment, all these things. They have neglected all of it, it’s a matter of them being busy with their own conflicts.”

He continued: “Since the last elections, there have been ups and downs, but no problem has been solved. This is a government of partnership in name, but practically speaking, there is no partnership. These people are in the same government, but they are not in agreement.”

“It’s been going on like this for the past two years.”

After March 2010 elections, Iraq’s parliament did not convene until June, and a government was not in place until December, at the time setting a dubious world record for the longest period after polls without a new administration.

But though a national unity government was finally approved, there was little agreement on policy between parties that were often on opposite ends of the spectrum on issues as basic as supporting a strong central government versus a heavily federalised structure.

Rival parties grudgingly agreed in 2010 to a second term for Maliki, but sought to curtail his powers by creating a strategy council that would rule on key issues, and by allotting ministers to a wide array of blocs within the unity government.

In recent months, and especially since US troops completed their withdrawal from Iraq at the end of last year, that fragile power-sharing deal has teetered on the brink of collapse.

Key positions such as the ministers of defence and interior remain manned by interim choices, and rivals of Maliki, ranging from his Sunni Arab deputy premier to powerful Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, have decried him as a “dictator” and sought to unseat him via a vote of no confidence.

But as he was two years ago, Maliki remains in the driver’s seat.

President Jalal Talabani said Saturday that the premier’s rivals lacked the votes necessary to unseat him, and Maliki afterwards invited his opponents to the negotiating table.

The row appears far from over, however, as the anti-Maliki camp held a meeting Sunday to discuss other ways to remove him and warned that their efforts had just begun.

“It does feel like deja vu all over again,” said Crispin Hawes, Middle East and North Africa Director for the Eurasia Group consulting firm.

“It’s always possible that he could be ousted. But that requires the stars to align very precisely. It requires a degree of skill at herding cats that only he (Maliki) has so far demonstrated in post-Saddam Iraq.”

“If you asked, would you put money on him being PM in two months, I would absolutely put money on it,” Hawes said. “Nobody has got the same number of options that he has.”

There are however key changes in Iraq’s political landscape that have emerged in the past two years, which appear to support the view that Maliki could survive efforts to unseat him.

“Compared with June 2010, the Iraqiya bloc is more fragmented,” said Reidar Visser, an Iraq analyst and editor of the website.

“A similar but less pronounced split can be seen among the Kurds.”

Maliki’s national unity government includes, among others, Iraqiya and the Kurdish faction, along with his own pan-Shiite alliance.

The relative disunity within those two key groupings could make it difficult to gather the 163 MPs required to pass a vote of no confidence against the premier, along with concerns over the uncertainty that would follow such a move against Maliki.

“There seems to be a ‘muddle-through’ scenario,” Visser noted. “At the end of the day, this kind of fudge will likely appeal to players who have too many interests inside the government to run the risk of dissolving the cabinet and have a new one appointed.”

But even with questions over whether a no confidence vote would actually eject Maliki from power, some of Iraq’s MPs are keen to go ahead, to express dissatisfaction with a government that one says has accomplished little in its time in power.

“It is a failed government,” said Safia al-Suhail, an independent MP who was elected as part of Maliki’s slate but later broke away.

Referring to Iraq’s various political blocs, she added: “They should all be blamed.”