Iraq moves towards political stability after deadlock
After months of deadlock, the world's most ambitious oil producer is edging nervously towards political stability, writes James Gavin
AFTER eight rudderless months, Iraq at last has a prime minister (PM) designate: the incumbent Nouri al-Maliki. But the political stalemate that followed national elections in March 2010 and left the political balance of power evenly poised between Maliki's Shia-backed State of Law coalition and the Iraqiyya bloc, led by his Sunni-backed opponent, ex-PM Iyad Allawi, could still hamstring the new administration's capacity to govern effectively.
With long-term ambitions to lift oil exports and the need to keep drawing investors into its economy, it's a step in the right direction for Iraq. President Jala Talabani has given Maliki 30 days to form a government.
The positives first: with Allawi, a one-time protégé of the US administration, ensuring his nominee Osama al-Nujaifi's election to the parliamentary speaker position, the path has been cleared for compromise over the top job. Maliki now has broad political support for a second elected term, including from the US and Iran.
As part of the wider power-sharing deal agreed by the country's political elites on 11 November, Allawi will head a new National Council for Higher Strategic Policy, while veteran Kurdish leader Jalal Talabani has been granted a second term as president. Allawi's role as head of the new statutory body to oversee security is a concession to the former PM, after he failed to regain the top job, despite winning the largest number of seats – 91 – in the Council of Representatives.
But the early signs are not encouraging for the stability of the government. Allawi claimed after the first preliminary session that this was not a true power-sharing government and would not last long. Then he walked out of the chamber. He told reporters the formula for power sharing and the issue of devolution had been distorted.
The new administration will be highly diverse, representing virtually all political opinions and ethnic/sectarian groups. Although it brings together the four largest factions, including Kurds, Shia and Sunnis, this could prove its undoing. A patchwork-quilt coalition could struggle to evolve a coherent governing narrative if it is wracked by internal division. That the new speaker, the staunchly Sunni al-Nujaifi, from northern Mosul province, is widely disliked by Kurds represents one potential fissure.
Much will hinge on Maliki's attitude to the Kurdish parties. In the protracted political bargaining process over the past eight months, the PM came under strong pressure to grant concessions to the Kurdistan Regional Government on key issues such as autonomy over oil exports. With Arab nationalist al-Nujaifi having a big say in setting parliament's agenda, Maliki's ability to reach out to the Kurds could be compromised.
Then there is the thorny issue of the role of the new National Council for Higher Strategic Policy, ostensibly intended as a check on Maliki's power. Here, too, there are big divisions: while Maliki views it as a purely advisory body, Allawi sees it as an arena where national security and vital economic decisions can be debated – and vetoed. But if the body ends up being sidelined, Allawi's influence will be restricted to control of the parliamentary agenda, which may not be enough to satisfy his MPs and guarantee their support for the coalition.
There is a stack of pressing issues for the new government: for one, it has effectively run out of money. On taking office, the finance ministry told al-Nujaifi it no longer had money to make welfare payments to widows, the unemployed and other needy citizens.
Then there are big decisions that have been put off for months, or years, which need action. Driving project implementation is a priority, particular upgrading infrastructure and improving electricity and water supplies. Power outages have worsened in 2010 and the government must fast-track expansion programmes if it is to win popular support.
With large amounts of the 2010 capital budget left unspent because of the failure to form a government for eight months, there should at least be funds available to direct towards critical economic sectors. A draft 2011 budget must be passed. Iraqi officials say it is based on $73 a barrel oil and exports of 2.3m barrels a day (b/d), including 150,000 b/d from Kurdistan. But the IMF dammed a previous draft of the budget for its optimistic oil-export and price assumptions, and has urged the authorities to contain next year's fiscal deficit to 8% of GDP.
Violence remains a significant concern, with persistent terrorist attacks, the latest wave targeted at Christian communities. Maliki's new government will have to show material progress in bolstering security if it is to rebuild Iraq's shattered infrastructure. Better security could help in speeding the delivery of basic services, such as electricity and water.
After eight months of drift, expectation will be high for the new administration. But there are clear limits to what it can achieve. Maliki is beholden to a loose political alliance that lacks common cause and much of his influence rests on the support of Iran, which helped broker the deal that led radical Shia cleric Moqtada al-Sadr to support Maliki.
This is not a recipe for political stability and continuity: yet, if the alternative is further drift and stagnation, it is an option that most Iraqis will gladly accept, for now.