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Forming a New Iraqi Government

Author: Lionel Beehner
December 20, 2005

Introduction

The December 15 elections in Iraq for a four-year, 275-member parliament were, for the most, successful, say Iraq’s leaders. Voter turnout, particularly among Sunnis, was high by Iraqi standards. Early estimates show that more than 10 million Iraqis—or some 70 percent of the registered voters—cast ballots last Thursday. Violence was also relatively low, notwithstanding a few explosions in central Baghdad. And accusations of voter fraud and other abuses have been minimal. In a series of speeches, President George W. Bush called the elections “a major step forward,” but admitted they are not a cure-all forIraq’s ongoing violence.

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What is the timeline for forming Iraq’s government?

Iraqi officials predict the ballot-counting will take around two weeks. The new government is supposed to assume office by December 31, but Richard Lugar (R-IN), chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, warned last week that Iraq’s government might not be up and running for at least four months. According to Nathan Brown, senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, the parliament has fifteen days to convene once the results are certified by the Independent Electoral Commission for Iraq (IECI).

What is the process for picking Iraq’s top government positions?

Once in power, the parliament’s first order of business is to select a president and prime minister. This requires selecting a so-called presidential council, comprising a president and two vice presidents, which must be approved by a two-thirds majority in parliament. Experts say the presidential council will likely be made up of a Kurdish president and two vice presidents, one Shiite and one Sunni Arab. The presidential council then selects a prime minister, ostensibly the leader of the largest bloc represented in parliament, who must then win parliamentary approval. Experts say the prime ministerial post will likely go to a Shiite, while the speaker of the parliament will be a Sunni. The prime minister, once approved, has thirty days to nominate a cabinet, which comprises approximately thirty ministerial portfolios and includes the two deputy prime ministerial posts. The cabinet, whose makeup will not necessarily reflect the ethnic breakdown of parliament, must be approved by a simple majority.

Which political faction fared best in the elections?

Results are not finalized. But with roughly 89 percent of the ballots tallied in Baghdad province, the biggest of Iraq’s eighteen governorates, Iraqi officials say the main Shiite bloc, the clergy-backed United Iraqi Alliance (UIA), has won roughly 58 percent of the votes. The UIA is a collection of mostly conservative Islamist parties—some with alleged ties to Iran—that favors strictly enforcing the new Iraqi constitution, strengthening Iraq’s regional governments, and prosecuting ex-Baathist criminals. Experts predict the political coalition will take at least 120 seats—it currently holds 140 seats in parliament—allowing the alliance to pick the prime minister. The alliance’s main party, the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI), has said it would not support the nomination of current Prime Minister Ibrahim al-Jaafari, whose tenure has been criticized by Shiite clerics. The early frontrunner, experts say, is Adel Abdul Mahdi, Iraq’s interim finance minister and a high-ranking SCIRI member.

How did the Kurdish bloc do?

Preliminary results suggest the Kurdistan Coalition List fared well, though its representation in parliament—roughly a quarter in the interim government—is likely to shrink because of the surge in Sunni voting. The bloc, which consists of the Kurdish Democratic Party (KDP) and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), looks likely to win around fifty-five seats in the new parliament. Its splinter group, the Kurdistan Islamic Union (KIU), will probably take five seats. The KIU recently broke from the alliance over accusations the main Kurdish parties wielded too much power in Kurdistan’s politics. Both blocs, however, say they will vote in unison on major Kurdish issues like federalism and the status of Kirkuk, an oil-rich city. It looks likely that the position of president, a largely ceremonial post, will go to a Kurd. Some say Jalal Talabani, Iraq’s current president, may retain his title, though recent press reports suggest he wants more political power. “There is a bit of debate going on because Talabani is not just a figurehead,” says Howar Ziad, Iraq’s ambassador to Canada.

How did Sunnis fare?

One of the biggest surprises of these elections, experts say, is the high turnout of Sunni Arabs, who comprise at least 20 percent of Iraq’s population and largely boycotted the interim elections last January. Even in Ramadi, a Sunni insurgency stronghold, turnout reportedly eclipsed 75 percent; in Fallujah, the turnout was as high as 95 percent. Experts expect Sunnis to win at least fifty to fifty-five seats in parliament. The main Sunni political bloc, the Iraqi Accord Front, has three main goals: expelling U.S. forces from Iraq, ending de-Baathification, and amending the constitution, which the group’s spokesperson, Zafir al-Ani, recently called a “readymade recipe for civil war.” 

Which parties fared worst?

So far, it appears the political bloc of interim Deputy Prime Minister Ahmed Chalabi, the National Congress Coalition, has fared much worse than expected. Preliminary results in Baghdad seem to indicate that Chalabi’s political bloc—a loose collection of mostly liberal, secular, and Shiite parties that defected from the UIA—only won 1 percent of the vote. Other secular Shiite coalitions fared only slightly better. The Iraqi National List, led by former Prime Minister Ayad Allawi, may win between twenty and twenty-five seats.

How much behind-the-scenes jockeying is expected by political players?

Lots, experts say, particularly given that UIA does not look likely to win a majority of the seats. Because the cabinet’s executive officers require two-thirds parliamentary approval, many of the main political leaders will need to set aside ethnic and ideological differences to make political deals and form coalitions. Some experts predict radical shifts in alliance formations. For example, the UIA, which needs around ten more seats for a majority, is reportedly already reaching out to members of Allawi’s Iraqi National List and the Sunni-led Iraqi Accordance Front to forge a political partnership. Allawi’s group, which includes a number of ex-Baathists and shares several common interests with the main Sunni groups—among them ending the de-Baathification process and pushing for a strong central government—may link up with the main Sunni bloc. Another scenario, though highly improbable, is a so-called national-unity government comprising leaders of all the major political blocs. Others predict that the secularist Shiite parties, which have a long history of political feuding, may partner up with the Kurdish coalition to prevent Iraq’s leadership from becoming too Islamist. Such behind-the-scenes negotiations are likely to last for several weeks, if not months, until a new government is formed.

What is the process for amending the constitution?

By April, Iraq’s parliament is expected to put forth a series of reforms to the country’s constitution. But significantly altering the document, a primary goal for most Sunni politicians, is a complex process, Brown says. Parliament must first form a committee, which then proposes a package of amendments. Next, the parliament votes on the amendments as a package, not individually, and this requires a simple majority. If passed, the bloc of amendments must then win approval from the public in a nationwide referendum, similar to the one held on the constitution October 15. “[The system’s] structured so that the constitution will not develop significant changes,” Brown says.

What about investigating instances of voter fraud?

There have been some complaints of voter irregularities, by both Sunni and Shiite leaders, most of them leveled against the UIA. More than 200 complaints were filed before December 18, the deadline for registering an irregularity with the IECI, according to the Christian Science Monitor. Moqtada al-Sadr, a radical Shiite cleric, has called for an independent commission to be formed to recount the ballots. Saleh al-Mutlaq, a prominent Sunni leader, claims there was voter obstruction in several polling stations in Sunni areas. And two days before the December 15 elections, Iraqi border police seized an Iranian tanker reportedly filled with thousands of forged ballots. A spokesperson for the IECI told the Christian Science Monitor that voter irregularities would be investigated by the electoral commission but that no re-votes would be held.

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