Iraq’s Political Stalemate Breaks Record

BY Larisa Epatko  October 1, 2010 at 2:55 PM EDT


Shiite parliamentary bloc members announce Nouri al-Maliki as their candidate for premier. Photo by Ahmad al-Rubaye/AFP/Getty Images

As of Friday, Iraq has the unfortunate distinction of taking the longest of any country to form a government, analysts say, as talks and political jockeying continued for the 208th day after elections.

The Washington Post reported that the previous record was held by the Netherlands, which took 207 days after elections to form a government in 1977.

Iraq’s elections on March 7 gave the sectarian bloc led by former prime minister Iyad Allawi a narrow victory over the ruling Shiite government under current Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, but not enough for a majority in the 325-seat Council of Representatives.

Since the elections, leaders of the main blocs have been negotiating who will become prime minister, as Iraqi citizens get more and more frustrated about the lack of progress.

The top U.S. commander for Baghdad, Brig. Gen. Rob Baker, warned Wednesday that the impasse could encourage more violence.

Friday did see some developments as powerful Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr threw his support behind al-Maliki’s coalition and the main Shiite bloc in parliament named al-Maliki as its candidate for premier.

Joost Hiltermann, deputy program director for the Middle East and North Africa at the International Crisis Group, said al-Sadr’s backing strengthens al-Maliki’s standing but he still needs to form a coalition government.

“There’s a lot of maneuvering going on and a lot of talking and seeing who will blink first. It’s all about who will be prime minister. And so far Mr. Maliki has held up very well,” Hiltermann said in a telephone interview.

The number of seats needed for a majority in parliament is 163, and the Kurds could help either of the main blocs reach that level. However, the other groups are having trouble agreeing to the Kurds’ demands, including control of Kirkuk and management of their own oil fields.

The Kurds “would accept Maliki but only if his power were clipped, which Maliki doesn’t accept,” said Hiltermann. So an alternative arrangement could be the Shiites who don’t go with al-Maliki could join the Kurds and Allawi’s bloc, which would produce a more ideological alliance, he said.

Meanwhile, without a functioning national government, laws can’t be passed, including a budget needed for local governments to do their work, Hiltermann said.

But even if a national government were to form, the risk of disaffection and even violence would still exist.

“Even if we get a government based on one large bloc with the Kurds brought in, will they make a significant and meaningful effort to reach out to the bloc that is cut out? I think failing to do that could lead to violence, because parties are based on communities and not on anything else,” said Hiltermann. “So we’ll have to see, but bringing everyone to the table has proven to be so difficult.”