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Parliament Approves the Second Maliki Government

By Reidar Visser (www.historiae.org)

21 December 2010

In a recent press conference, Ala Makki of Iraqiyya complained that the standard of Iraqi students sent on scholarships abroad was not always as good as it should be. The problem, Makki maintained, was that the system of quota-sharing whereby ethno-sectarian groups are allotted percentages of the places available based on their proportion of the population (muhasasa) meant incompetent students were frequently sent abroad simply in order to fulfil the quota requirements.

Makki’s comments are of course eminently relevant also with respect to another process in which his own Iraqiyya is taking part these days: The enduring Iraqi government-formation saga. With the vote in Iraqi parliament today in favour of around 35 ministers that will serve in the next government of Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki, it seems clear that the goal of satisfying narrow party interests has taken precedence over the idea of creating governance for Iraq. Not only is this an XXL-sized and unwieldy government, there is even more to come: Several portfolios, including key security ones like defence, interior and national security, have yet to be apportioned and are held as temporary deputyships by other ministers pending their allocation to individuals. Highlihting the extent to which this is a collection of party nominees rather than a carefully crafted government team, many of the names of the nominees were presented to Maliki by the various party leaderships just 24 hours before his publication of the government, and with some of the current vacancies being caused by the failure of the various parties to present competent candidates. In those cases, a place-holder deputy has been appointed among the approved ministers, sometimes by someone from the same party that had been promised the post.

That said, from the perspective of Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki of the all-Shiite National Alliance, the process has been handled quite masterfully. From a situation where both the Kurds and the secular Iraqiyya entered the negotiations with ambitious agendas, he has managed to create an end game where many from the other parties were forced to abandon their principles (or at least saw them consigned to an uncertain future), with only the thirst for power in the shape of high government office remaining. The “robust power-sharing arrangements” and checks and balances that the United States has been calling for are nowhere to be seen; instead there are simply ministers – and a whole lot of them. Signifying the extent to which Maliki has managed to turn the tables, after months of talk about the need to check his tendency of centralising his own power in the security forces, the parliament today voted by a big majority to let him personally take care of the three most important security ministries for the time being.

As for how the individual players fared in today’s appointment, the outcome is a mixed one. It is logical to start with Iraqiyya, which was the big winner in the now distant 7 March elections. On the one hand, Iraqiyya has travelled quite far from its original negotiating position: They lost the premiership, and the future (and indeed the coming into existence) of the projected “national council for strategic policies” seems uncertain at this point since it is predicated on consensus on that thorny issue in the Iraqi parliament. Additionally, they have signed up to participate in a government which is based on agreements with the Kurds that contradict everything Iraqiyya stands for in terms of Iraqi nationalist policies. On the other hand, though, Iraqiyya has also scored some significant victories. First it secured the important speakership for Usama al-Nujayfi last November. Today, it was given what is by far the greatest slice of influence in the next government alongside that of Maliki’s own State of Law faction within the National Alliance. Rafi al-Eisawi has been given the all-important ministry of finance, and there are other high-level appointments for Salih al-Mutlak (deputy premier), Izz al-Din al-Dawla (agriculture), Muhammad Tamim (education), Abd al-Karim al-Samarraie (science and technology), Muhammad Allawi (communications), Ahmad al-Karbuli (industry) and Salah al-Jibburi (minister of state). Not all of these portfolios are equally important, but as a group these ministers will be the only point of gravity that could potentially form a challenge to Maliki’s own main backers (which include Jasim Muhammad Jaafar, a Turkmen, as sports minister, Muhammad Shiya al-Sudani of Maysan as minister for human rights, Ali al-Adib as minister for higher education, Husayn al-Shahristani as deputy premier, Ali al-Dabbagh and Safa al-Din al-Safi as ministers of state , plus a more technocratic but probably still reasonably Maliki-friendly new oil minister, Abd al-Karim Luaybi).

On the other hand, the Kurds have achieved relatively poor representation, with only one “hard” ministry (foreign) given to Hosyar Zibari. The other ministries given to them include health, commerce, women’s affairs, and, according to some accounts, civil society! Some reports said the Kurds wanted to press Maliki to sign an approval of their famous 19 demands, and some reports said they got the coveted signature. Signature or not, the problem for the Kurds are likely to be their comparatively minor role in the next government and the fact that most of their demands, such as the passage of an oil law, is predicated on both consensus within the unwieldy government and action by the Iraqi parliament.

The other assumed kingmaker in this process, the Sadrists, also have seen relatively modest results, with just two ministers proper (Nassar al-Rubayie for works and planning and Muhammad al-Darraji for housing and development), plus one minister of state (Abd al-Mahdi al-Mutayri). They are however expected to be remunerated for their backing of Maliki through high offices in some of the southern governorates, from where some leading Daawa people (such as Muhammad al-Sudani) now join the central government in Baghdad instead. Fadila received even less (Hasan al-Shammari at justice and a female minister of state), but the truly remarkable development in the Shiite camp must be the relative marginality of ISCI and Badr. Hadi al-Amiri was reasonably loyal to Maliki during the internal rivalry in the National Alliance and he has been awarded the transport ministry. Other than that, there is Hasan al-Sari who continues as minister of state for the southern marshlands (he is “Hizbollah in Iraq” rather than ISCI though), but not much else except possibly one of the less known new ministers of state.

Similarly, the smaller Sunni-oriented parties and the minorities achieved only symbolic representation, much as expected. What remains is thus a cabinet with a core of State of Law plus Iraqiyya. The big irony is of course that this could have been achieved as a government of a political majority instead of a national unity or “partnership” government, but now these two parties will have to put up with some 20 ministers that are not really needed (and who probably would not have managed to start any revolution had they not been included). There are already signs that Maliki is trying to gradually liberate himself from some of the kingmakers behind his second premiership (Sadrists, Kurds), but to what extent he will go all the way and make Iraqiyya his principal coalition partner in terms of deciding policy is an open question. Rather than risking an open rupture with the Kurds, he might instead prefer to pursue the Chinese water-torture strategy that he has adopted so far: Procrastination and indecision on matters like oil and Kirkuk, but at the same time solidifying his own power base as gradually as possible. Everyone said he would not be able to do that twice, and today everyone voted for a government that could in fact enable him to do it.

Finally, a word on the non-ministries that are supposed to be part of the deal but were not part of today’s vote: the deputy presidents. These are being talked about a lot, but they belong to the same category as the non-existent council for strategic policies: They are subject to future legislation by the Iraqi parliament. A draft law for the deputy speakers say they may be given whatever powers the president chooses to delegate to them from his own, which is not much since he now holds only symbolic power himself. Tragically, the Iraqi press keep talking about Adel Abd al-Mahdi (ISCI) and Tareq al-Hashemi (Iraqiyya) “keeping their current positions as deputy presidents”, which could not have been further from the truth. The deputies in the presidential councils and the deputies to the ordinary president are like apples and oranges, or like comparing ministries with peerages. (Possibly indicative of this trend is the increasing tendency of minorities to make claims to these positions, including Turkmens and even Basrawis of African descent). For Iraqiyya in particular it could be a potential problem that their two most popular politicians in terms of numbers of personal votes, Allawi and Hashemi, have still not been given any influence in the next government, although Iraqiyya as a whole did better than expected as far as standard ministries are concerned. Today, all elaborate “power-sharing” proposals were pushed into the future and Iraq remains saddled with a majoritarian system of government no matter how much its politicians talk about consensus arrangements. This looks contradictive and potentially dangerous right now, but in the very long term the failure of the Iraqi politicians to adopt American-sponsored crazy-quilt proposals for elaborate power-sharing could in fact provide them with the key to a better – and not least smaller – government for their people.

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