Despite Claims of a Governing Bloc ‘Nucleus,’ Iraq’s Crisis in Government Looks Set to Continue

Kirk H Sowell

The efforts of Iraq’s current prime minister, Haider Al Abadi, to secure reelection kicked into high gear last Sunday when the Supreme Court announced it had completed reviewing all appeals related to the May 12 election. Later that day, Al Abadi and a group of other leaders met to try to form a coalition, but came up well short of the 165 MPs needed to secure a parliamentary majority. They claimed they had 136 seats – clearly not enough, but at least close. The problem was, they in fact had far fewer. As a consequence, the crisis in government is not about to end anytime soon.

The constitution requires that within 15 days of the Supreme Court’s ratification of results, the president must convene parliament and for it to elect a speaker. Within 15 days of that, the president must designate the nominee of the largest bloc to form a government. Al Abadi duly gave a sternly worded speech on Sunday calling on the president, Fuad Masum, to call parliament to meet.

Al Abadi’s Nasr coalition had come in weaker than expected, in third place with 42 seats, behind the Sairoon bloc backed by Muqtada Al Sadr and the Iran-aligned Fatah Alliance headed by Hadi Al Amiri. Al Abadi’s confab on Sunday sought to pull together enough support to form a majority coalition. They failed to do that, but put a brave face on it and called themselves “the nucleus of the largest bloc” – in Iraqi politics, the defining character of a majority is, confusingly, a coalition of coalitions. In addition to Al Abadi and Al Sadr, other key figures that attended the meeting included Hikma leader Ammar Al Hakim, three important individuals from Ayad Allawi’s Nationalist coalition and the former governor of Najaf, Adnan Al Zurfi.

Assuming that Al Abadi’s Nasr coalition has held together, the bloc would have 136 of the 165 seats needed – which it claims it has. The problem is, the Nasr coalition is coming apart.

It was never a unity of Al Abadi loyalists, but a collection of factions and Dawa party figures who thought they could ride Al Abadi’s coattails to office. (Many from Dawa actually backed former premier Nouri Al Maliki’s State of Law coalition.) Three factions within the Nasr coalition boycotted the Sunday meeting – the Fadhila party, national security adviser Falih Al Fayyad’s Giving Movement and former defense minister Khaled Al Obaidi’s Banners of Good.

The reason for this is the calculus that lies behind political horse trading. The system to allocate offices is tied to the number of seats a bloc holds. Positions like that of the prime minister naturally is worth more, and so a coalition with factions more loyal to their own leaders than to the coalition leader faces a conflict of interest when the coalition leader wants to be prime minister.

Word of the unwillingness of some faction leaders to sacrifice themselves for the sake of Al Abadi had been circulating for weeks. But it became explicit last week when Al Fayyad met with Al Maliki to discuss government formation. While that meeting did not lead to an agreement between the two, the fact that Al Fayyad had met Al Maliki in his capacity as head of his own faction, and not as a member of Al Abadi’s Nasr, signaled a split. Shortly thereafter, Fadhila also openly signaled a split with Al Abadi. In an interview with the TV network Al Hurra, its leader, Ammar Al Toama, spoke in veiled, but unmistakable, terms about divisions within Nasr. Asked point-blank whether he endorsed Al Abadi’s reelection, Al Toama refused to do so. Given that Nasr recently met to issue a statement affirming its support for Al Abadi’s reelection, this signaled an open split.

The third Nasr faction to dissent against the coalition was Al Obaidi’s group of Sunni MPs from Nineveh. They are important as their victory gives Al Abadi’s coalition cross-sectarian legitimacy – all of Nasr’s winning candidates outside Nineveh are Shia. While Al Obaidi, like the Fadhila party and Al Fayyad, has not formally withdrawn from Nasr, his candidacy for parliamentary speaker puts him in an inevitable conflict with Al Abadi. While the speaker’s position is much less powerful than the prime minister’s, it is the most important office reserved for Sunnis, and no bloc with a mere 42 seats can hold both positions.

Finally, the group’s claim to have a near-majority is undermined by the fact that Al Allawi’s coalition also has a defector. Former speaker Salim Al Jiburi has apparently gone his own way.

Thus, instead of having 136 MPs – a 26 seat deficit from the target – the group appears to have 110, a more daunting shortage of 55 seats. That will make for some complicated negotiations and increases the likelihood that when parliament opens in early September, it will not elect a speaker and begin government formation as constitutionally required.

Indeed, parliament could well fail to make quorum, and negotiations could drag on into the autumn.

Kirk H Sowell is a political risk analyst and the publisher of the biweekly newsletter Inside Iraqi Politics. Follow him @uticarisk.