Three months after the inconclusive March 7 elections, Iraq appears to be heading for a broad-based coalition. The danger is that it will be so broad-based that although a government may well be formed, it will lack the determination or focus to allow it to take the difficult decisions that will certainly come its way.
Iraq is doing well, but it cannot afford a government that is willing to let the country drift. Far too many internal forces would take advantage of weakness in Baghdad, and there is the real likelihood that Iraq's neighbours will seek to boost their allies in the country for their own interests, rather than with any thought for the betterment of Iraq.
One hundred and sixty-three seats are required for a majority in parliament. However, the March election gave Prime Minister Nouri Al Maliki's State of Law coalition 89 seats, and former prime minister Eyad Allawi's Iraqiya coalition 91 seats. This almost dead tie meant that both coalitions rushed to seek the support of the third group, the 70-seat Iraqi National Alliance (INA), which includes 40 Sadrists.
The INA is a broad coalition of Shiite groups, which had been in alliance with Al Maliki's State of Law but had split with the government over Al Maliki's authoritarian style as prime minister. In the immediate aftermath of the elections, the INA refused to deal with State of Law, and the Sunni and more secular Iraqiya did not have much luck with the INA either.
The numbers therefore pointed to an alliance between the two bigger coalitions, forming a massive 180-seat majority between Iraqiya and State of Law. This also failed, despite strong US pressure for the two leaders to make a deal, as Washington is anxious to try to keep the INA out of power thanks to its friendships with Iran and its pan-Middle East Shiite ambitions.
Anyone dealing with Al Maliki is dealing with the sitting prime minister, who from a poor start when the government vacillated all over the place and the country was rocked by serious violence, managed to deliver a coherent government that improved security and reduced sectarian tensions, albeit with the legacy of having made some hard decisions and lost the support of some political groups, like the INA. In addition, his focus on national politics meant that Al Maliki failed to tackle some of the bread and butter issues, such as improving the supply of regular electricity and water, re-opening the schools around the country, and finding the investment to encourage entrepreneurs. This disappointed voters, which is partly why he did not get the majority many expected him to.
Al Maliki's and Allawi's personal rivalry makes it unlikely that there could be a coalition between State of Law and Iraqiya, although it is also almost impossible for Allawi's primarily Sunni Iraqiya allies to be excluded from government completely. The very influential Shiite leader Ayatollah Ali Al Sistani has kept out of the political bargaining, other than to insist that the new government should be inclusive. This means that the new government should include elements from the secular Sunnis, currently represented by Iraqiya; Shiites who are to varying degrees Iraqi nationalists, currently represented by Al Maliki's Dawa faction in State of Law and the INA; and the Kurds, who have merged their two factions to run a combined list.
But what is more likely to happen is that factions from within the broader alliances which make up the three big coalitions may break away to form a government. This will allow the three major sects — Sunnis, Shiites and Kurds — to be represented, but also leave some room for discussion about who would lead the government and who would head the major ministries.
Al Maliki seemed to be heading in this direction when he spoke to The Washington Post in late May, and commented that a government could not be formed without Iraqiya, whether as a bloc or as the Sunnis' representatives. He went on to offer a quite specific inducement, when he added that "the Iraqiya list and the Sunni component ... must be in the sovereign posts, not in secondary posts".
Michael Knights and Ahmad Ali of the Washington Institute summed up the best option for foreign observers in a recent paper: "For many policymakers in Washington and the Arab world, the ideal solution would be an exclusive alliance between Al Maliki and Allawi. In theory, this would ensure a strong federal state, a more favourable investment climate, cross-sectarian balance, and curtailed Iranian influence".
"Such a narrow majority government could pose a significant threat to the Kurds, however, given that it would be comprised largely of Arab nationalists with a record of opposing Kurdish interests. It would also likely lead to political paralysis, since the excluded factions would resort to no-confidence measures as a counterstrategy — only one-fifth of parliament [65 members] is required to initiate a vote of no confidence."