Tuesday, February 15, 2005

Iraq - what's next? 

If you are confused about what the recently announced results of the Iraqi election mean, and what's in store in the short to medium term future (and many in the media seem to be, too), do yourself a favor and read James Robbins's latest piece in National Review Online. A few key points to keep in mind:

"The fact that the United Iraqi Alliance did not win an outright majority is good news. They will have to make a coalition with one or more of the smaller parties in order to form a government. A two-thirds majority (184) is required to elect a prime minister and president, so that means attracting over fifty votes, assuming the 16 parties that make up the Shia list stick together."
Since Iyad Allawi's list is expected to win only around 38 seats, this means the Sistani-backed Alliance can effectively only pair up with the Kurds to do business, and the Kurds represent the most moderate and pro-Western element of the Iraqi mix. It is, of course, possible to cobble up a coalition involving the Alliance, Allawi's people plus extra votes from among the mini parties which have won a few seats each, but that might prove to be too difficult an exercise to accomplish in the first place, not to mention to keep alive for a year.

"The groups receiving the largest numbers of votes are not technically parties but assemblages of parties, some of which are larger and more influential than others. Each party coalition will now have to decide how many seats go to each of their constituent members. Some of the smaller parties are likely to receive only token seats, the majority going to the dominant partners. It will be difficult for those who are shut out this way to make much of a case since there is no certain method of determining how much each party's supporters contributed to the coalition's total. This will lead to intense bargaining among the various groups for the limited numbers of seats. It will be interesting to see if the coalitions maintain their cohesion when the assembly convenes. There are no rules that will force the parties to cooperate while governing, and variations on the blocs may emerge as issues are debated, particularly the new constitution."
The lists elected to the National Assembly are loose coalitions hastily put together in the months leading up to the election; they are light years away from being political monoliths like the established American political parties. Hence the lists, including Sistani's Alliance, are likely to fracture over time. A similar process has taken place in Poland in the aftermath of democratization. The umbrella group of "Solidarity" might have won the first democratic election, but a few years later the post-communists were back into power as "Solidarity" dissolved into myriad of big and small political parties. This process of evolution and reconfiguration continues to this day, more than 15 years later.

There are both good and bad aspects to it, and I'll be the first to make a "brave" predictions that whatever happens over the next twelve months, it will be another case of heads-I-win-tails-you-loose for the (mostly) left-wing critics of the war: if the main Shia block doesn't fracture, we'll be hearing complaints about the authoritarian and oppressive Shia dominance; if the lists do fracture, we'll be hearing about the political chaos and instability.

And perhaps most importantly:

"Drafting the permanent constitution is the principal, though not only, mission for the transitional national assembly... A referendum will then be held no later than October 15. The referendum is one of the key checks on the process of formulating the new basic law. It must be approved by a majority vote, and must not be rejected by two-thirds of the voters in three or more provinces. This gives Kurds and Sunnis a practical check on the will of the majority; they can defeat a constitution they disapprove of by marshalling local opposition and forcing a rewrite. This should deter more radical members of the UIA [United Iraqi Alliance] from suggesting a sharia-based constitution, which probably would not receive support from the majority of the Iraqi population anyway."
Similar considerations apply to another recent media and commentariat (shared by much of the Arab media) panic about Iraq becoming another Iran. But that deserves a post of its own.


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