Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s State of Law coalition gained 92 seats, falling short of the 165 required for a majority, but still putting him in a strong position to form a new government. It is too soon to see who is best placed to form it as internal and external factors will influence the negotiations.
However Maliki’s prospects are by no means solid, given his opponents’ determination to prevent a third term. Much will depend on whether he can win back old allies or make new ones; if his opponents are able to re-group and establish common ground to unseat him; and the role of external actors, such as Iran and the United States.
Maliki’s bloc has gained almost three times as many seats as its closest competitors, the Sadrist Movement, which gained only 34 seats. Several blocs have questioned the legitimacy of the results. Some have stated their intention to launch legal appeals, which will further delay the formation of a government. According to the Independent High Electoral Commission, the process can take up to a month, which means that final results may not be released until the end of June – two months after the elections.
The opposition’s options
A significant obstacle to a third term for Maliki would be the formation of a ‘grand coalition’ of the main opposition blocs. This would consist of his biggest critics, some of them former allies, including Moqtada al-Sadr (Sadrist Movement), Ammar al-Hakim (Mowatin), Iyad Allawi (al-Wataniyya) and Osama al-Nujaifi (Mutahidun). In a first, notable move in that direction, the often-divided Sunni Arabs have formed the Etihad (Union) coalition. This strengthens their position and could set an important precedent.
The president of the Kurdish Regional Government (KRG) and leader of the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP), Masoud Barazani, has also made it clear that he opposes a third term for Maliki and threatened a referendum on renegotiating the region’s relationship with Baghdad. Disputes over oil, territory and budgets have soured relations between the KRG and the central government over the past four years.
Barazani has also stated his intention to try and work with other parties to form a government under a new leader, to build better relations with the central government. However, the Kurdish position is complicated by the relative success of his political opponents in Kurdistan, reflecting the deepening political divisions in the region. Nonetheless, if the Kurdish parties are able form a united front against Maliki, it could prove to be detrimental to his chances of retaining the premiership.
Maliki will be able to secure the support of the smaller parties, which will add to his already sizeable bloc, but this will not be enough and he will need to gain the support of one of his major opponents. He may try to revive the National Alliance coalition that brought him to power in 2010, reuniting the Shi’a political blocs to include at least one of the al-Sadr’s movement or al-Hakim’s Mowatin bloc. However both have been strong critics of Maliki throughout the elections. In 2010, they were strong-armed by Iran to align with him and it is unclear whether the same fate awaits now. The stance of the US and Iran could play a decisive role, as it has throughout Maliki’s second term, during which he has benefitted greatly from their support.
Maliki is also likely to target the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) of Jalal Talabani, the president of Iraq, in an effort to weaken the Kurdish opposition to him. Once again Maliki would offer the presidency to a member of the PUK. The third largest party in Kurdistan, Gorran, will also be a target as it looks to break the PUK–KDP duopoly in the region.
It is crucial for Iraq that an effective and representative government is put in place as soon as possible. Another drawn-out negotiations process will only result in further instability and uncertainty. Although it will be difficult for the opposition to form a broad coalition, they must first overcome their ideological differences, the sole notion of opposing a third term for Maliki alone will not provide a new government with the stability it needs.
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