On Aug. 26, the Iraqi judiciary resolved a six-month controversy concerning a law passed to limit the terms of the president, prime minister and parliament speaker in an attempt to prevent current Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki from running for another term. The Federal Supreme Court, the body authorized to interpret the constitution, declared the law unconstitutional, landing a severe blow to Maliki's opponents, who had failed in June to round up enough votes for a parliamentary vote of no confidence.
Although the controversial law targeted the speaker and president as well, the law was clearly aimed at the prime minister. Passed in January, it stipulated that “for the purposes of the implementation of the law's provisions, a full term is one that ends upon exemption, resignation, withdrawal of confidence or upon the dissolution of parliament.” The text clearly showed that Maliki's opponents had personalized it, which prompted its referral to the Federal Supreme Court a few days after it was passed.
Some observers believe that Maliki heeded, at least in part, the advice of close associates who urged him to postpone the appeal against the term limits law and pave the way for compromise and resolution by reconciling with Iraqi Kurds, considered to be his fiercest opponents. Indeed, Maliki broke the ice with them in June and restored relations, which had been strained to the point of deploying tanks and soldiers on the border of the Kurdish region in late 2012.
The reconciliation took on broader implications when the federal court, one day before its decision on the term mandates, abolished an article providing for normalization with the Kurds and scrutinizing voter registrations as a precondition for local and legislative elections in Kirkuk province, which the Kurds are demanding be annexed to their region.
Now that Maliki is free to run for a third term, he has to work on two levels to secure another mandate. First, he has to convince Iran and the United States of the importance of his remaining in office. Second, he must build a new coalition that includes Sunni, Shiite and Kurdish forces to secure an overwhelming majority in parliament.
Maliki's opponents have not been standing by idly while preparing for the blow from the federal court. They forged trial alliances in provincial elections, through which the Sadrist movement and Ammar al-Hakim's party, the Islamic Supreme Council, took control over a number of important provinces, in particular Basra and Baghdad. They also managed to attract the Mutahidoun bloc, led by Osama al-Nujaifi, to their coalition.
This coalition is not, however, based on clear understandings other than an a desire to remove Maliki and prevent him from running for a third term. The alliance became the rightful heir to the Kurdish, Iraqiya list and the Sadrist movement coalition to withdraw confidence from the prime minister. Today, however, Kurdistan Regional Government President Massoud Barzani has left the coalition, and Ayad Allawi is no longer active on the political scene. Hakim is new to the alliance.
The anti-Maliki camp managed to pass the law limiting presidential terms by a majority of 170, which is more than the 163 votes required to withdraw confidence from the prime minister. Although Maliki's opponents have managed to embarrass the prime minister on more than one occasion, it has consistently failed to overthrow or entirely exclude him.
Maliki is known for having the ability to unravel alliances and draw close to his rivals. In fact, he brought down the Iraqiya list while keeping its leader, Allawi, separate from the conflict. This led the Mutahidoun list to steal the spotlight from Iraqiya and Nujaifi, the current Speaker of parliament, and assume the influence and status of Allawi.
While Maliki succeeded in restoring amicable relations with Barzani, he also managed to break through to Hakim’s party by adding the Badr organization, headed by Transport Minister Hadi al-Amiri, to the State of Law coalition, becoming allies in the April provincial elections.
Now that the game of cat and mouse has ended between Maliki and his rivals, three years after they agreed to grant him a second term in 2010, the moment of truth has arrived on changing the rules for the 2014 parliamentary elections.
Insistence on passing a law such as the one limiting the terms of prime ministers shows that the opposition is confused and immature. The overturning of the law, however, affirms that the judicial system is subordinate and dependent on Maliki, regardless of its legal justifications. In addition, the insistence of the prime minister on challenging the law does not reflect a keenness to preserve the constitution but a twisted attachment to the premiership.
Many observers believe that what is more important than whether to grant Maliki a chance at a third term is the necessity of ridding the government of the structure of partnerships and quotas, the failure of which Iraqis have experienced since 2004. The country's problems in terms of services and security should compel the coalitions to come to an agreement on a number of issues prior to the next parliamentary elections.
First is tasking the candidate of the coalition that wins the elections, rather than the coalition that assembles the largest number of members, with forming the government, within one month pursuant to Article 73 of the constitution. In the past, coalitions have fought fierce conflicts and taken too much time before naming a prime minister. Although there is a constitutional justification for tasking the latter, it contradicts the philosophy of the parliamentary system. The candidate of the coalition that wins the election enjoys more flexibility in forming the cabinet. Amending Article 73 will eradicate the tension and confrontations that have marked the relationship between Maliki and his parliamentary rivals. It would also normalize political and constitutional life.
The second issue is the necessity of the winning coalition to allow its candidate full freedom in selecting ministers and to resist insisting that inept, partisan individuals receive ministerial portfolios. This would facilitate holding the prime minister and ministers accountable and limit the rampant corruption in state institutions, which have been transformed into partisan fiefdoms above control.
The third issue involves coming to an agreement that the losing coalition will serve as the parliamentary opposition and will help improve the state's performance by forming a shadow government tasked with following up on the daily operations of cabinet members.
If the powers in Iraq were to agree to these changes, the fact of one person occupying the position of prime minister for more than one term would become insignificant, as other parliamentary systems. During the kingdom of Iraq, which ended in a bloody military coup in 1958, Nouri al-Said served as prime minister 14 times despite objections and accusations leveled by his rivals. In the end, Said was executed and his body dragged through the streets of Baghdad.
Mazen al-Zeidi is an Iraqi journalist and activist. He is also an elected member of the National Syndicate for Journalists.
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