Sunday, October 17, 2010

What has Iraq's elite learned from the current political crisis?

The inability of Iraq's political elite to agree upon forming a new government does not bode well for the process of democratization following the highly successful March 2010 Council of Representatives (national parliament) elections. Still, the efforts of the major political actors and parties to form a new government has taught Iraq's politcial elite some important lessons .

First, it is clear ethnic and confessional identities alone carry relatively little weight in helping candidates achieve their goals. The best evidence of this is the intense competition that has been ongoing within the main Shi'i political parties, the State of Law Coalition, the Iraqi National Alliance and the Sadrist Trend. When Iran recently pressured Muqtada al-Sadr to throw the support of the his 40 seats the Sadrists won to al-Maliki, despite his hostility towards al-Maliki for suppressing his Mahdi Army militia in 2008, the other main party in the Iraqi National Alliance - the Supreme Iraqi Islamic Council (ISCI) - immediately began negotiations with al-Maliki's main competitor, Ayad Allawi, head of the secular al-Iraqiya List, which won the most seats in the March election. This development, along with al-Maliki subsequently distancing himself from Sadrist support after they demanded military and security portfolios in exchange for their support, clearly indicate that the unity that the Shi'i parties demonstrated in the December 2005 parliamentary elections through the United Iraqi Alliance was a temporary phenomenon and has now dissipated.

Second, the inability of ethnoconfessional groups to create cohesive alliances is actually beneficial for Iraq's political system It undermines the possibility of a confessional system on the Lebanon model from being established in Iraq. The inability of the large Shi'a parties to coalesce in a unified bloc has worked to inadvertently undermine sectarianism. At the time of this writing, ISCI's head, Ammar al-Hakim, is visiting the two most important Sunni states, Egypt and Saudi Arabia, where he is attempting to drum up support for Ayad Allawi's efforts to impose conditions on all the major political parties that will prevent any of them from being excluded from receiving major portfolios in any government that is formed (al-Hayat, Oct, 12). Thus al-Maliki's efforts to relegate al-Iraqiya to a marginal role in the next government seems doomed to fail. That al-Hakim, the leader of what once was Iraq;s most sectarian party, is now cooperating with Allawi, Iraq's most secular political leader, is clear evidence that the desire for power and influence is cross-cutting ethnoconfessional identities.

Even the Kurds, who have maintained a unified bloc, still have to cope with the new Gorran (Change) Movement which won 8 seats in the March elections and continues to challenge the authority of the two main parties nthat control the KRG, the Kurdish Democratic Party (KDP) and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK). Clearly, the KDP and PUK no longer exercise the power and influence in Baghdad that they did in 2005.

While their 57 seats give them the possibility of playing a kingmaker role in the formation of the national government, namely allowing an Arab coalition to reach the 163 votes needed to form a government, the Kurdish parties, like their Arab counterparts, also realize that they will need to become more creative than simply throwing their votes to any coalition that promises to meet their demands, such as holding a referendum on the disputed city of Kirkuk. As their power wanes on the national scene, they will need to develop closer ties to those Arab parties with whom they share broad interests that affect all of Iraq if they are not to become further marginalized in the future.

Third, one of the most striking aspects of the post-election maneuvering has been the rapid shift in alliances - sometimes from one day to the next - as the major political actors and parties try and calculate what moves will best enhance their ability to maximize their power in the new government. As parties shift their contacts from one party to another, we see that all the major players have entered into dialogue with each other at one point or another.

This process has demonstrated the importance of negotiations to all the political parties, something unheard of in Iraq since the parliamentary elections of the 1950s, prior to the toppling of the Hashimite monarchy in 1958. While these negotiations have not brought about a new government, they have demonstrated two things: that no one ethnoconfessional group can now or in the foreseeable future dominate Iraqi politics, and that developing an inclusive political coalition represent s the best path to power. In short, there are some pistive lessons to be learned from the current political stalemate in Iraq

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