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Is Maliki fighting a losing battle?

Maliki’s sectarian policies, outright hostility to the Kurds and inability to cope with IS have all combined to undermine his leadership

Iraq is experiencing a major constitutional crisis. The problem centres on Nouri al-Maliki, who has served as Iraq’s prime minister since 2006, and is refusing to accept that he might not secure a third term in office, after Iraq’s new President, Fouad Massoum, a Kurd, announced that a new government had been formed under Haider al-Abadi, who is also a member of Maliki's Shia Islamist Dawa Party.

True to form, Maliki has refused to accept the nomination, accused President Massoum of violating Iraq’s constitution, threatened to take legal action for not choosing him as the nominee, and deployed military units to Baghdad’s Green Zone, stating fears of a possible coup.

Since the parliamentary elections held last April, Iraq’s parliament has been deeply divided over who would lead the next government. Maliki, as the head of the largest bloc in parliament - the State of Law coalition - controls at least 92 out of 328 seats in Iraq’s parliament. This has convinced him that he is the only logical nominee as prime minister. Further contributing to this view, there are no other political parties with enough seats in parliament to present a viable alternative candidate.

To form a government in Iraq’s parliament, a party or coalition needs to control at least 165 seats. However, barring a clear majority - which Maliki does not have - the party with the largest number of seats is not guaranteed to form a government, rather the first group to form a coalition large enough to hold a majority does.

Since the start of the Islamic State (IS) crisis in early June, support among Shiite parliamentarians for Maliki’s third term has been declining rapidly. For instance, on 5 June, the Iraqi National Alliance - comprised of the leading Shiite forces, the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq (ISCI), the Sadrist Movement, the National Congress and the Reform Trend - issued a call for the State of Law coalition to withdraw its nomination of Maliki as prime minister.

As the IS-led Sunni insurgency in northern Iraq intensified over the course of June, cracks began to appear within Maliki’s own party. On 25 June, Maliki rejected proposals for the formation of a national unity government. Frustrated, leading members of the State of Law coalition turned on him. “It will be very difficult for Maliki to keep his position,” Abdul Karim al-Anzi, a prominent member of Maliki’s Law coalition, told the New York Times in late June.

“The prime minister keeps saying he has the biggest bloc, but the others are not satisfied to see him keeping his position. Kurds as well as Sunnis are asking to replace him” and have “serious objections” about Maliki staying in power.

Anzi was not alone in his views. Another prominent Shiite politician, Hussein al-Muraibi, who is the leader of the Fadhila party, agreed that Maliki needed to step down as “a goodwill gesture” to the other political blocs in parliament and pave the way for a more inclusive government.

Political deadlock

Further divisions became clear during July, when Maliki accused the Kurdish Regional Government (KRG) of turning its regional capital into the headquarters of the Islamic State, prompting the Kurds to demand an apology, boycott cabinet meetings, and halt flights to Baghdad. The Kurds also said they would refuse to participate in a Maliki-led government, further underscoring Maliki’s inability to form a broad-based government capable of representing the views of all Iraqis.

Soon thereafter, the political deadlock that had gripped Iraq since April was broken when parliament elected Salim al-Jubouri, a moderate, Sunni Islamist, as the speaker on 16 July. This was a major step towards the formation of a government and was quickly followed by Massoum’s election as Iraq’s president on 25 July. With a new president at the helm, Iraq’s constitution required parliament to form a new government within 15 days. The time is now up.                                    

Maliki’s refusal to accept the nomination of Haider al-Abadi and the deployment of military units to Baghdad’s Green Zone raises an important question about constitutionality. Does being the leader of the largest bloc in parliament guarantee the premiership? For those familiar with parliamentary democracies, the answer is a clearly no, and Maliki knows this perfectly well. Following Iraq’s 2010 election, Maliki’s coalition did not win the most seats, Ayad Alawi’s Iraqiyya coalition did. And yet, Maliki outmaneuvered Alawi politically and secured the premiership.

Today, a combination of Maliki’s divisive, sectarian policies, his outright hostility to the Kurds, and his inability to cope with the IS threat, have all contributed towards undermining his chances of securing a third term as prime minister.

Further, he has little support from Iraq’s most important allies. Secretary of state John Kerry made it perfectly clear on Monday that using force to secure a third term would not be tolerated. And the White House has made it known that it is supporting Abadi’s condidacy, with Vice President Joe Biden calling both President Massoum and the Prime Minister-designate today to congratulate them on the nomination. Meanwhile, Maliki’s allies in Iran have also called for him to step down in recent days and have been conspicuously silent about the crisis, with Fars News and the Tehran Times barely acknowledging what is happening in Baghdad.

This all suggests that Maliki is fighting a losing battle. Not only is the Iraqi constitution not on his side, he now has little political support among the key political blocs that make up parliament, including members of his own coalition. Furthermore, even if he were to launch a coup, he would plunge his country into existential crisis, at a time when his country is threatened by a Sunni insurgency. Furthermore, he has no external support and is bound to face resistance from both the Kurdish presidential guard and the United States. Ultimately, Maliki’s aggressive move to secure a third term in office only underscores the fact that he should no longer be the leader of Iraq. 

 - Bryan R Gibson recently completed a PhD in International History at the London School of Economics and is the author of Covert Relationship: American Foreign Policy, Intelligence and the Iran-Iraq War, 1980-1988 (Praeger, 2010).

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Eye.

Photo credit: Maliki with his supporters in parliament (AFP)

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