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Parties Eye Up Potential Partners

As post-election speculation takes hold, the big players – Shia and Kurds – consider their options, with cooperation seen as a better bet than confrontation.
By Gina Chon

Although official election results have yet to be announced, Iraq's political parties are already manoeuvring to secure positions in a new administration. With no one group likely to win an outright majority in the interim parliament, the talk is of coalition-building rather than competition.


One of the stronger possibilities is a coalition between Shia and Kurdish groups, both of which are certain to have benefited from high turnouts in the north and south of Iraq, and will be in a position to take the reins of the transitional National Assembly.


For the National Assembly ballot (as opposed to the regional elections also held on January 30), the dominant parties in the north, the Kurdistan Democratic Party, KDP, and Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, PUK, formed a joint list, while the main Shia parties coalesced into the United Iraqi Alliance. Both blocs also included smaller elements representing other religions and ethnicities.


"The Kurds and Shias are natural partners for each other," said Fouad Hussein, of the Iraqi Communication and Media Commission. "But it depends on the Shias: if they get 160 seats [out of a total of 275], then they will feel strong and won't need the Kurds.


"But if the Kurds can make a king, they can also destroy a king."


IWPR has learned from a senior Kurdish politician, who preferred not to be named, that early results place the Shia-led bloc in front and the Kurds second.


According to this source, the United Iraqi Alliance received 45 per cent of the vote and the Kurdish Alliance List 30 per cent. The Iraqi List led by interim prime minister Ayad Allawi came third with 15 per cent, and in fourth place was the People's Union, a bloc established by the Iraqi Communist Party, winning 10 per cent.


These early figures suggest that as expected, no single party or bloc received the two-thirds majority it would need to rule without a coalition partner.


Each bloc list or party will be awarded seats in the 275-member National Assembly in approximate proportion to its share of the national vote. That would mean – on present showing – that the United Iraqi Alliance would get about 124 seats, the Kurds 83 seats, the Iraqi List 41 and the People's Union 28.


A partnership between the Alliance and the Kurds would give them a two-thirds majority.


But Prime Minister Allawi, who has hinted that he could step forward as a secular Shia alternative to the Alliance, could seek to form a coalition with the Kurds or the People's Union in order to block the big Shia grouping.


Raja al-Khazay, a candidate on Allawi's Iraqi List, hinted at this possibility, saying, "The Kurdish list is some extent similar to the Iraqi List" – a reference to their common secular stance. But she refused to say whether the Allawi group was in fact pursuing this option.


The United Iraqi Alliance might itself go for another partner. Radha Jawad, a political bureau member of the Supreme Council of Islamic Revolution, SCIRI – one of the dominant Shia parties in the Alliance – has said negotiations are currently under way with the Kurds. But he indicated that talks were also taking place with other groups, including Sunni parties which boycotted the election.


Jawad said the Alliance plans to talk to the Iraqi List, too, given Allawi's Shia identity, said Jawad. "We have a good relationship with Allawi and his party, the Iraqi National Accord, as we have worked with them for the last two years. So I don't think Shia unity is in danger," he said.


Under the interim constitution, the National Assembly will appoint a president and two vice-presidents. In turn, the president and his deputies will choose a party or coalition to nominate a prime minister and form a government.


The United Iraqi Alliance is reportedly seeking the post of prime minister, which would mean the job would stay with a Shia. Kurds say they want the presidency, which could leave the other top position, that of National Assembly speaker, for a Sunni.


Sadi Pira, head of the PUK's office in Mosul, says the Kurds deserve to hold the presidency and at least one ministry, which might be defence, foreign affairs, oil, finance or internal affairs.


The PUK controls the eastern part of Iraqi Kurdistan while the KDP runs the west.


"We have achieved a high level of development in the Kurdish provinces, so we've shown that we are able to rule," said Pira.


While each group naturally seeks the maximum political advantage for itself, the Kurdish and Shia political groups are going out of their way to emphasise that the Sunni Arabs, too, will have a place at the table, even if they do not get the dominant role they once had.


"We are still insisting on forming a partnership government that includes all segments of the Iraqi people," Abdul Aziz al-Hakim, a leading Shia politician who heads SCIRI, said on Al-Arabiya television on February 1.


For the Kurds, Shafiq Qazaz, minister of humanitarian aid and cooperation in the KDP-run administration, said, "Sunnis are a very important part of the mosaic of Iraq, and they have to be accommodated.


"But they won't be rulers, and the game must be played both ways. The Sunnis can't be blamed for all the insecurity, but some Sunni elements are linked to it. And if they are to be part of Iraq, they have to abandon it."


The future political landscape is rapidly taking shape. Iraqi interim president Ghazi al-Yawar said at a February 1 press conference that the government will not be formed until the end of February or the first week in March.


But the absence of a new government will not prevent the National Assembly from convening its first sessions, he said.


The principal task assigned to the National Assembly is to draw up a constitution for Iraq, which needs to be ready in time for an October referendum.


The drafting process will almost certainly put severe strain on whatever coalition partnerships are in place by then. Groups which have cooperated to win a majority in the assembly are likely to fall out badly over such contentious issues as whether Islamic law should be written into the constitution, or what status should be accorded to the Kurdistan region.


But for now, the parties are still basking in the glow of elections that went better than most expected, and are maintaining the spirit of collaboration.


"The parties need each other, so they are cooperating," said Fouad Hussein. "After this part is over, they might use a different kind of language."


Gina Chon is an IWPR editor/trainer in Sulaimaniyah.


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