By Marina Ottaway, Special to CNN
Editor’s note: Marina Ottaway is a senior scholar at the Woodrow Wilson Center. The views expressed are the writer’s own.
Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki has emerged as the clear winner of the Iraqi parliamentary elections. His State of Law coalition has won at least 92 seats of the 328 seats in the Council of Representatives, three times as many as the next largest party. In the 2010 elections, in contrast, al-Maliki lost by two seats to Ayad Allawi’s Iraqiyya Party, a coalition of secular Shia and Sunni organizations that has now completely disintegrated.
There is therefore no doubt that al-Maliki will be asked by the president (when parliament can agree on one) to form the new government. In 2010, he had to battle with Allawi for months to get that chance. But putting together a coalition with the needed 164 votes may prove even harder than in 2010, when the process lasted nine months, only coming to an end with an agreement to form a government of national reconciliation in which all parties participated.
This time, al-Maliki has already announced that he does not want another government of national unity, but he will find it difficult to get sufficient support. After four years of increasingly authoritarian rule, the prime minister has little backing among Sunnis and Kurds, and has even failed to unite Shias behind him. Eventually, al-Maliki will probably succeed, but not without making major concessions that would give him a third term as prime minister but also change the country toward a confederal form of government.
The Shia parties of Ammar al-Hakim and Muqtada al-Sadr (theoretically now retired from politics but still quite involved) have a combined 65 seats and are on record as opposing a third term for al-Maliki. So is Allawi’s Wataniyya coalition, which secured 21 seats. The Kurdish parties, with 62 seats, are also against him and threatening to organize a referendum on independence if he stays on as prime minister for a third term. And there is no love lost between al-Maliki and the major Sunni parties. If all these declared opponents remain lined up against him, al-Maliki would face an opposition bloc block of about 180 seats and thus could not prevail. (Figures are not precise because some seats are still object of disputes)
So, can he get the support of some his present detractors? In the case of Hakim and Sadr, the answer will come from Tehran. If Iran continues backing al-Maliki, as it did in 2010 together with the United States, it will press all Shia parties to stay together. Al-Maliki could then put together a majority with the help of smaller parties. But a predominantly Shia government would be weak, encourage Kurdistan to move toward independence, and increase anger – and with it the influence of Islamist radicals – among Sunnis.
Kurdish parties, which are negotiating as a block, would probably agree to back al-Maliki if offered what they really want: an agreement by Baghdad to let Kurdistan export its oil and gas directly, though paying Baghdad the 83 percent of revenue both sides agree is the central government’s share. With a pipeline linking Kurdish fields directly to Ceyhan in Turkey, and two and a half million barrels of oil stored there waiting to be sold, Kurdistan can export oil. An agreement with Baghdad has proven elusive so far, but in an attempt to press the Kurdish authorities into submission, al-Maliki has suspended the payment of Kurdistan’s share of oil revenue, causing anger and increasing pro-independence sentiments among the Kurds. But if he allowed Kurdistan to export its oil and gas directly, implicitly agreeing on their interpretation of the constitution, the Kurds would likely be willing to back him and shelve the idea of independence for the time being.
Such an agreement would have far reaching ramifications for Iraq because a growing number of provinces, including all Sunni and even some Shia ones, are talking openly of following the example of Kurdistan and becoming autonomous regions, as the constitution in theory allows.
Kurdistan, much criticized in 2005 for insisting on a constitution that granted them autonomy at the expense of Iraqi unity, is now seen by many as the example to be emulated – compared to the rest of Iraq, Kurdistan is a model of stability and its economy is flourishing. If Baghdad recognized the right of Kurdistan to export its own oil, other provinces would demand the same and Iraq would turn into a federation with a weak central government or even a confederation. There is much talk of such a solution, particularly in the embattled Sunni provinces.
Elated by his victory, al-Maliki is sounding uncompromising, and although he has declared that he is open to work with any political party, he has made it clear that it would be strictly on his own terms. For example, he has told the Kurdish party that they are welcome in a government coalition as long as they accept his interpretation of the constitution, thus renounce their ambition to export oil independently.
Ultimately, all sides will try to stare each other down before they finally start bargaining in earnest. But while at the end of the process al-Maliki will probably still be prime minister, Iraq will be a different country.