Early elections in Iraq?

Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri Al-Maliki is seeking early elections in a bid to secure a third term in office, writes Salah Nasrawi
Iraq’s Shia Prime Minister Nuri Al-Maliki, who is facing growing opposition from Sunni Arabs and Kurds in his country, has renewed his suggestions that Iraqis should go for early parliamentary elections in an apparent bid to outmanoeuvre his rivals and maintain his grip on power.
Iraq has been gridlocked by crisis since the US withdrawal in December 2011, and this has paralysed Al-Maliki’s government and is increasingly pushing the ethnically and sectarian divided country to the brink of chaos.
Al-Maliki, perceived by Iraq’s Sunnis and Kurds and even by many Shias as an affront to Iraq’s stability and nation-building efforts, would most likely benefit from early elections because he wields enormous powers, oversees many state organisations involved in elections, and controls the state-owned media, the army and the security forces.
Arab Sunnis and Kurds have been protesting against what they consider to be Al-Maliki’s dictatorship and have boycotted the government, and occasionally the parliament, to press their demands for greater autonomy and a larger say in national decision-making.
On Saturday, Al-Maliki said holding parliamentary elections three or four months before the scheduled date in late 2014 would help rescue Iraq’s political process, which he described as being in “intensive care.”
“There should be an early election because the government is dysfunctional and the political process is on hold,” he told a rally of his supporters in the Shia holy city of Najaf.
Al-Maliki also said a “majority government” should be formed after the upcoming elections, instead of the kind of national partnership government that took power in Iraq following the ouster of former president Saddam Hussein in the US-led invasion in 2003.
Iraq’s Sunni speaker of parliament Osama Al-Nujaifi, a staunch critic of Al-Maliki, dismissed the suggestion and insisted that early elections would require Al-Maliki’s resignation and the appointment of a non-partisan government to supervise the polling.
The Democratic Current, a small liberal-oriented group, also rejected elections overseen by Al-Maliki.
Meanwhile, a four-month-old Sunni uprising against Al-Maliki is showing no sign of abating.
Since late last year, tens of thousands of Sunni protesters have been rallying after Friday prayers in Sunni-dominated cities and neighbourhoods against Al-Maliki’s government.
At the centre of the crisis are Sunni grievances that they are being sidelined and their efforts to seek greater autonomy from the central government ignored.
Sunni dissatisfaction with the government started with complaints about its failure to provide services and jobs and the mistreatment by the Shia-controlled security forces of Sunni detainers, but protesters later revamped their demands to wanting the devolution of state powers.
Many Sunnis are now calling for the revoking of the US-orchestrated political process in the country that they believe has empowered the majority Shias at their expense.
They are pushing for a new constitution that they say should end their perceived neglect and marginalisation. Some Sunnis have even declared that they should secede from Iraq and seek autonomy outside it.
Several ministers from the mostly Sunni Iraqiya bloc have either resigned or suspended their participation in the government to protest against what they call Al-Maliki’s increasingly dictatorial behaviour.
Things are also in a crisis situation in the northern Kurdish region of Iraq.
Kurdish ministers and legislators have been boycotting the cabinet and the parliament over disagreements with Al-Maliki’s handling of government affairs.
One recent quarrel was over state budget allocations, after Al-Maliki was able to gather enough votes in the parliament to pass a law on this despite Kurdish protests against blocking payments to oil companies operating in the Kurdish region.
A delegation from Al-Maliki’s bloc who met with the President of the Kurdistan regional government Massoud Barzani last week failed to convince him to send the Kurdish representatives back to Baghdad.
Fouad Hussein, Barzani’s chief of staff, later said that the Kurdish leader had made it clear to the delegation that the Kurds would seek self-determination if they were not treated as equal partners in the government.
“It is either make or break,” he told the London-based Asharq Al-Awsat newspaper on Sunday.
Relations between the country’s Kurds, who make up about 20 per cent of the population, and the Shia-led government have worsened over other long-running disputes, including power and resource-sharing.
Oil and territorial disputes lie at the heart of a long-running feud between the Kurds and the Baghdad government.
The Kurds have been pursuing separate oil-and-gas exploration deals with foreign companies, and they have started selling oil on international markets in independent export deals.
The moves have aggravated tensions with Baghdad, which considers the sales to be illegal and a challenge to its claim to full control over Iraq’s oil.
In defiance, the Kurdistan government on Friday shipped its first direct cargo of crude oil to the international market. The cargo, about 30,000 tonnes and worth around $22 million, was pumped from an oilfield near Kirkuk and trucked over Iraq’s northern border with Turkey.
Iraqi Deputy Prime Minister Hussein Al-Shahristani, one of Al-Maliki’s strongest allies, said that the federal government considered such oil exportations to be “smuggling operations.”
The Kurds, meanwhile, are seeking help from the United States, which they fear might be siding with Al-Maliki by assuming that he can be shoed-in to remain Iraq’s prime minister.
On Sunday, the Kurds dispatched a delegation to Washington for talks with the Obama administration on the Iraqi crisis. The visit came on the heel of remarks made by Brett McGurk, US secretary of state special advisor for Iraqi affairs, that Washington may have no objection to Al-Maliki’s bid to form a majority government.
“No matter which solution the political leaders in Iraq choose, we will support it as long as it abides by the constitution, even if it’s a political majority government,” McGurk was quoted as saying after meeting Al-Maliki in Baghdad.
Although the US embassy in Baghdad played down the statement, the Kurds seem to be worried about McGurk’s increasing role in Washington’s Iraq diplomacy.
McGurk, nominated as US ambassador in Iraq before being turned down by Congress because of sex allegations, is also seen by Al-Maliki’s Sunni opponents as close to the Iraqi premier.
Last month, a Kurdish delegation held talks with senior US officials in what was described by the head of the delegation, Khaled Shwani, as “a bid to solve the current problems plaguing the country”.
Shwani, a prominent Kurdish parliament member, was later quoted by the local press as saying that Iraq’s problems could be solved by “the establishment of three federations in Iraq” based on the “project of US Vice president Joe Biden”.
In 2007, and while serving in the US Congress, Biden introduced a non-binding bill for “decentralising” Iraq into three entities, one Shia, one Sunni and one Kurdish. The bill was approved by the Senate by 75 votes to 23.
Many Iraqis perceive that the Biden proposal is aimed at paving the way for the breakup of Iraq, and Shwani’s remarks seem to be designed to rekindle a debate in Washington on Iraq’s future in favour of Kurdish ambitions for independence.
All this should have made Al-Maliki more careful about how to end Iraq’s increasing political chaos by reaching out to his opponents instead of throwing the country into more uncertainty.
The Kurds, the Sunnis and even his own Shia co-religionists such as radical Shia cleric Muqtada Al-Sadr, will consider any third term by Al-Maliki as a reward for his failure by giving him yet more power.
In January, Al-Sadr’s followers joined Sunni and Kurdish representatives in the parliament to pass a law blocking Al-Maliki from a third term.
Al-Maliki challenged the bill in the federal courts and many Iraqis believe that he will exert pressure on the judiciary, as he has done many times in the past, to make the court veto the law.
Two worries continue to dog the country. The first is that Al-Maliki will succeed in mobilising Shia support for his ambitions for a third term, and thus increase sectarian polarisation in Iraq.
The second is that Al-Maliki will try to play on rivalries within the Kurdish and Sunni camps to muster enough support for his plans for early elections.
This will mean that the elections will end in another failure in nation-building efforts, and Iraqis will emerge from the process far more divided than they were before along sectarian and ethnic lines.

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