The Iraqi political class is preoccupied these days with the word ‘alliances’. Parliamentary elections are seven months away, yet everyone is scrambling to form exploratory committees to cobble together a viable slate, sometimes leading to a gathering of the strangest bedfellows. This activity is occurring against the backdrop of an unresolved mechanism for how the next national ballot is going to be held: closed slates, open slates, provincial slates, or a single national slate.

A new election law is supposed to be tabled on the parliament’s floor but it remains to be seen whether coalitions will coalesce before that happens, thus shaping the final outcome of the bill, or whether the law will take shape, and in light of its content coalitions, will come together in a way that best take advantage of it.

One of the committees is exploring a coalition between the Supreme Islamic Council, the vehicle of the Hakim clerical family, its affiliate the Badr Organization, and the Sunni Islamic Party. At this stage in Iraq’s political development, that proposed alliance is akin to science fiction. But this does not stop the recent adversaries from meeting over tea and niceties, to pass the time while other matters are clarified. What everyone is really waiting for is to see whether Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, who currently enjoys the largest cache of popularity, will return to the folds of an expanded Shiite United Iraqi Alliance bloc that carried him to power in the last ballot, or whether he will run on his own slate.

Maliki has a single demand that can not be met: He wants to be assured that he will be the UIA’s sole candidate for prime minister beyond the elections. This can not happen because the whole point of bringing Maliki back to the fold, from the perspective of the UIA’s political players like the Hakims, is to exploit his popularity and then to sideline him. Their argument will go as follows: the Da’awa Party, which Maliki heads, has had two members take the post of prime minister since the overthrow of the Saddam regime, and it is time to make way for other parties.

This approach seems to be supported by Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, who has signaled that his demand for supporting the UIA anew is that he would like to see a “change of faces,” as he is deeply disappointed with the current government’s failure to provide basic services, a failure that reflects negatively on him as the government’s chief patron. The Kurds, without whose numbers no cabinet is likely to be formed in the future parliament, have set their benchmark for cooperation with the UIA as the removal of Maliki, a man who has fanned the flames of antagonism against all of the Kurds’ pet projects.

Maliki realizes that this is the reality of his return to the UIA: that he will not be able to secure the premiership. So he has embarked on a series of initiatives to test the waters of what a slate of his own would look like. Chief among his concerns, as he wants to project an image of sectarian and ethnic inclusiveness, is to recruit credible Sunni and Kurdish partners. At this point, he can choose from a motley group of Sunni tribal figures, neo-Ba’athists and several liberals, such as Ahmad Abu Risha, Salih al-Mutlag and Mithal al-Alusi, all of whom are eager for an easy ride to the top on his coattails. Maliki is also waiting out the local parliamentary elections for the Kurdistan region due on July 25, where a likely future ally, Nawchirwan Mustafa who heads the ‘Change’ slate, is challenging the long-established hegemony of the two major Kurdish parties. If Mr. Mustafa does well enough, then Maliki is probably going to extend his patronage to him and bring him over to Baghdad.

What Maliki does not realize is that even in the best case scenario, one in which his solitary slate takes something like 70 seats in Iraq’s 275 parliament—there is talk of increasing the number to 300 to reflect demographic expansion—he still will not be able to form a cabinet. The president, who will be elected by two thirds of the parliament, will naturally turn to Maliki as the head of the largest coalition in parliament to pick a council of ministers, but a plurality of seats does not assure Maliki that he will be able to garner the simple majority needed to pass the parliament’s approval. If there is a determined opposition from the Kurds and the Hakims, and defections from the likes of Mutlag, then Maliki can kiss the prime minister’s portfolio goodbye—a likely outcome.

Whatever government takes shape sans Maliki will be shaky and liable to fall at the first hint of a defection from even the smallest of its constituent blocs. Furthermore, Maliki without a job is back to being Maliki the Da’awa Party apparatchik, and he will watch his popularity recede. Whatever ground Maliki loses will be someone else’s opportunity, and several players will make a move to fill the void. Such movement will probably result in the parliament annulling itself ahead of its full term, in preparation for early elections.

Interesting times are up ahead for Iraqi politics, and just to think that a short time ago Iraq had a rubberstamp parliament that rose to its feet in acclaim whenever Saddam’s name was mentioned.

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