The Iraqi parliament is due to elect its new speaker today, after having narrowed the field to two candidates in the initial set of voting yesterday. The delicate power sharing agreements in place among Iraqi major political players had set aside the speaker’s chair for a Sunni member, but the question is ‘Which Sunni?’
While the post has been empty for almost two months since the last speaker resigned in the storm of controversy over his colorful coarseness, it seemed inevitable as early as a couple of weeks ago that the post would go to the Islamic Party, given that it had projected itself as the foremost power among Sunnis. But the provincial elections results nullified that notion after the IP’s very poor showing. New Sunni forces are ascendant, and Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki—whose star is also on the ascent—wants to lay the foundation for a long-term alliance with these new forces by rewarding them early with the speaker’s seat; this is to be a down payment on future, conditional rewards if these Sunnis step up to support Maliki against his Shia rivals and against the Kurds.
The IP’s candidate, Ayad al-Samarrai, received 123 votes (233 parliamentarians attended yesterday’s session), while his strongest rival, Khalil al-Jidou, who is backed by the coalition that did surprisingly well in the provincial elections at the expense of the IP, got 43. Three other candidates gathered 29 votes in total, and will not be able to run in the second round today. The Hakims and the Kurds threw in their lot behind Samarrai, a respected figure who also happens to be a member of a party that they are allied with.
But the most important number from yesterday’s results was that of the blank ballots, totaling around 40. These seem to be the votes cast by Shia parliamentarians who listened to Maliki hush-hush appeal not to back any of the candidates, which is really a maneuver to thwart the IP’s candidacy. Maliki’s stated position is that the IP already controls important position in the ruling coalition such as the vice presidency of the republic, and that it would be unfair for them to control the speakership too. However, what Maliki already knows is that the IP would be more than happy to see him undermined by a no-confidence vote in parliament, one that is furtively being planned for by the Hakims, Kurds and the IP.
Notwithstanding a meeting called for by Abdel-Aziz al-Hakim on Tuesday to discipline the Shia parliamentary bloc into backing Samarrai, today’s session could still see a flurry of blank ballots at Maliki’s instigation.
Some sources claim that the blank ballots indicate that there’s a ploy afoot. If Samarrai fails to pass the 138 vote threshold needed to affirm his claim to the speakership, then a legal mechanism kicks in by which the process is repeated again. Given that these procedures are all very new to the Iraqi parliament, one legal interpretation holds that Samarrai would be barred from running again, opening up the field to other candidates.
In that case, the candidate to beat could be Salih al-Mutlag, whose neo-Ba’athist coalitions swept most of the important Sunni constituencies in Baghdad and al-Anbar Province. Mutlag can now claim to speak with far more authority on behalf of the Sunnis, and he’s at political odds with the Hakims and the Kurds; his elevation to the role of parliamentary speaker would inoculate Maliki against any moves towards a no confidence vote leveraged against his cabinet.
The speaker, after all, is the one who decides whether to bring a motion of no-confidence to the parliamentary floor.