Behind Iraq’s Selection of a New Speaker

With the election of a new speaker of parliament earlier this week, the Iraqis have begun the formal process of forming its next government. On Tuesday, Shiite, Sunni, and Kurdish parliamentarians appointed a new speaker of parliament, bringing them one step closer to determining the fate of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki. Nevertheless, the procedure had commenced absent a comprehensive agreement on the status of candidates for the presidency and premiership, which carries the risk of future political deadlock down the road.

Some may argue that the former speaker of parliament, Osama al-Nujaifi, gave up his position to pressure Maliki to step aside and yield power to an alternative candidate. But more realistically, Nujaifi no longer desired the speakership. While it remains an influential position in Iraq’s politics, it has become toxic in today’s highly sectarian environment for any rising Sunni politician. Indeed, because the speakership incurs pressures to behave as a national figure, Nujaifi was sometimes mistaken for an individual co-opted by the prime minister. As a result, his credibility within the Sunni community had taken a hit over the course of his tenure.

In comes Salim al-Jabouri, a moderate Sunni Islamist politician from the ethnically mixed province of Diyala, as the new speaker of parliament. His election cut through the sectarian and political divide, suggesting that a comprehensive agreement over the presidency (among the Kurds) and premiership (among the Shiites) had been reached behind closed doors. Sadly, the appointment of a new speaker was the result of political strategy, not compromise. In other words, Iraq’s political factions had begun the constitutional clock on the government formation process, but for different reasons, each believing they hold the advantage in the end.

In Iraq, there are two competing game-plans being described behind the scenes.

For Maliki and his supporters, officially starting the process without having to yield to an alternative Shiite candidate all but guarantees that the prime minister is on track to a third term. Moreover, according to several Iraqi politicians, Maliki holds several criminal files against Speaker Jabouri that could potentially be used to blackmail him–providing one explanation as to why Maliki is comfortable with him elevated to the post. Some opposing Maliki refer to Jabouri as a “Maliki Sunni,” which led rumors that Sunni parties made him sign a document prohibiting his support for a Maliki power bid, no matter what the prime minister does to him.

For the anti-Maliki camp, their playbook is based on shifting political pressure towards his coalition, and intensifying the internal divisions in selecting an alternative Shiite candidate. By running out the constitutional clock to form a legal government, his detractors believe the window will close before Maliki has garnered enough allies to push him through the finish line. Despite winning a plurality, Maliki currently does not have the majority support to form a governing coalition. If he cannot establish the necessary alliances in time, the second crack at forming a government would then go to an alternative candidate.

Sunni parties likely recognize that the current political paralysis in Baghdad is working against them. Given the dynamics of the insurgency, they do not want Maliki to have control of the game clock. If too much time passes, the fear is that the Islamic State in Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS, or the Islamic State)—an al-Qaeda splinter group that recently declared an Islamic caliphate in Iraq and Syria—will continue absorbing elements of the “Sunni rebellion.” This undermines the negotiating power of Sunni political leaders at the table in Baghdad, which is only relative if the Islamic State is a curable disease, not an untreatable cancer. As head of a caretaker government, Maliki will likely take as much time as needed to assert himself, militarily and politically, as the Shiite nominee.

Whatever the case, the game to form the next government is in play, and while each side believes they have the advantage, nobody has the full picture and everyone operates with blind-spots. According to various Iraqi sources, the Iranians continue to back Maliki’s candidacy for now. Nevertheless, nobody truly knows Tehran’s calculus outside of its basic interest in keeping the Shiite political class united. The prospect of breakaway Shiite parties joining with Sunni and Kurdish counterparts to form a new alliance making up the “largest bloc” is a possibility if Maliki insists on staying, but something Iran will certainly work to prevent from happening.

Going forward without a comprehensive agreement over a future prime minister is very risky, and each side is gambling on their perceived advantage. Since it is still unclear if Maliki will concede power in the end (even if the Iranians shift against him), the election of a new speaker has sped up the process in an uncertain direction. The Iraqis are now pushing their foot on the accelerator without a degree of certainty if there is a tunnel or a brick wall on the other side.

Ramzy Mardini is a nonresident fellow at the Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East.

Related Experts: Ramzy Mardini

Image: Salim al-Jabouri (C), new speaker of the Iraqi Council of Representatives, and the two deputy speakers Haidar Abadi (L), a Shi'ite member of Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki's State of Law bloc, and Aram Sheikh Mohamed (R), the head of the Kurdish Gorran bloc, address a news conference in Baghdad, July 15, 2014. Iraqi politicians named Jabouri, a moderate Sunni Islamist, as speaker of parliament on Tuesday, a long-delayed first step towards a power-sharing government urgently needed to save the state from disintegration in the face of a Sunni uprising. (Photo: REUTERS/Ahmed Saad)