Iraqi Political Theater, Even as Democracy Struggles
The New York Times
By Steven Lee Myers
BAGHDAD — Two dozen members of HYPERLINK “http://topics.nytimes.com/top/news/international/countriesandterritories/iraq/index.html?inline=nyt-geo” o “More news and information about Iraq.” Iraq’s newly elected Parliament, including leaders of most of the main coalitions, actually met in Parliament here on Sunday.
“The people have cast their votes,” one of them, Mahmoud Othman, told the rest. “We cannot ignore them.”
In fact, they can and have, and after the unofficial rump session on Sunday of a body elected more than six months ago but still not functioning, it was clear they might continue to do so for some time to come.
Iraq’s political deadlock has now become so protracted, so intractably mired in byzantine machinations, that it has resulted in scenes like Sunday’s, the political theater of a struggling democracy. Members demanded that they should convene a session, only to emphasize that they were not doing so officially and that their own party leaders, including some in the room, were the reason.
“I don’t want to name names,” said Jafar al-Mousawi, a member of the largest Shiite alliance, which remains paralyzed by bitter disagreement over picking the next prime minister, “because the simple people on the street know what’s going on.”
Perhaps, but even the leaders at the meeting expressed conflicting views of what, exactly, was going on.
Nassar Rubaie, another member of the main Shiite alliance, said the alliance would meet again, in secret, to begin the process of choosing either Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki or Vice President Adel Abdul Mahdi as the candidate to be the next prime minister.
He said a decision could be made in a week, to which Mr. Mahdi later replied, with a look of astonishment, “Really?”
The impasse has now outlasted a hot summer marred by violent protests over the dearth of electricity. It has outlasted the withdrawal of tens of thousands of American troops ahead of President Obama’s declaration last month that the American combat mission was over, even if American soldiers have battled insurgents at least three times since then.
Iraqi and American officials have made assurances throughout that Mr. Maliki’s current government continues to function, that the security forces have a semblance of control over the violence ravaging the country.
A sense of crisis hangs over the country anyway, like the dust that choked the Baghdad sky on Sunday. So does popular frustration, tinged by fear of insurgent violence that has never been extinguished.
A HYPERLINK “https://www.iri.org/news-events-press-center/news/iri-releases-survey-iraqi-public-opinion-0” poll of Iraqis released last week by the International Republican Institute, part of the National Endowment for Democracy, found a sharp drop in public confidence after the election. Last December, 51 percent of those polled said Iraq was headed in the right direction; by June, 59 percent said it was headed the wrong way. The poll was conducted June 3 to July 3 throughout Iraq, with 2,988 Iraqis eligible to vote, and has a margin of sampling error of less than two percentage points.
Even as the lawmakers arrived at Sunday’s meeting inside the heavily fortified Green Zone, a thunderous blast shook the city, followed by a more distant rumble: two car bombs in neighborhoods to the west and farther north, killing at least 29 people and wounding more than 100.
“We woke up this morning and heard these huge explosions,” Hannah Edwar, the secretary general of the Iraqi al-Amal Association, a political advocacy group, told the legislators, pleading for action.
Her organization, whose name means “hope,” filed a legal challenge last week urging Iraq’s Constitutional Court to intervene and force Parliament to meet. The court heard the appeal and promptly scheduled another hearing — a month from now.
Ms. Edwar, one of several advocates who attended Sunday’s session, said Parliament should meet and do the nation’s business or step aside for a new election. “It’s nothing personal,” she told the lawmakers.
For those like her who hope the court can resolve the impasse, the way the Supreme Court resolved Bush v. Gore in 2000, a legal challenge amounts to a desperate test of Iraq’s fledging democratic institutions, still struggling to rule by law.
Even the court’s spokesman, Judge Abdul Satar Bayrkdar, expressed doubt in an interview on Sunday that Iraq could pass such a test.
“Until now we do not have a culture of the independence of the courts, the culture of accepting the other side of an argument, the culture of accepting failure or success,” he said.
The impasse, in essence, turns on Mr. Maliki’s fate. His State of Law coalition, which is Shiite, narrowly lost to a Sunni-Shiite bloc led by a former interim prime minister, Ayad Allawi, winning 89 seats to Mr. Allawi’s 91.
Nominally allied with the other Shiite party, the Iraqi National Alliance, Mr. Maliki remains in the best position to win another four years as prime minister. He is within striking distance of a majority of the new Parliament’s 325 seats, except that very few outside his own coalition want him to succeed.
Mr. Allawi’s coalition, Iraqiya, has had no better luck assembling a majority.
“Whoever wins the election should form the government,” said Mr. Rubaie, a follower of the populist cleric Moktada al-Sadr, whose bloc is part of the Iraqi National Alliance. “What happened in Iraq was that three parties won.”
The alliance organized Sunday’s meeting, responding to a palpable sense of frustration among Iraqis that their elected leaders are arguing while the city burns.
At the scene of one of Sunday’s bombings, Ali Yousif, a 37-year-old ophthalmologist, stood beside the ruined shell of his house, the second house of his to be damaged by bombings this year. “It is because of the situation, the political instability,” he said. “The people are paying for that.”
It took Iraq’s leaders six months to choose Mr. Maliki after the last parliamentary elections in December 2005, but those were far more violent and divisive days. This year’s election was supposed to herald a smoother, swifter transition of power.
Instead, the new members of Parliament have met only once, in June, for 18 minutes, though they collect salaries of $10,000 a month, along with $50,000 monthly for guards and protective services.
The gathering on Sunday, which included Shiites, Sunnis and Kurds, but no one from Mr. Maliki’s State of Law, amounted to little more than a gesture of deliberation, if not action.
Many of those who spoke acknowledged that the country’s myriad needs remained unaddressed while the new Parliament idled. Several noted that the Ministry of Finance was due to submit next year’s budget, which requires parliamentary approval, in three weeks. Other ministries continue to function without oversight. “The country can’t continue like this,” said Wail Abdul Latif, a former lawmaker who ran unsuccessfully for re-election.
Mr. Othman, the lawmaker, blamed the “10 to 12 leaders” who continued to jockey for a grand power-sharing bargain, including one pushed by the United States, and thus kept blocking a full session of Parliament, lest its members simply vote in someone else.
All expressed a desire to do something. “We should come here and make decisions,” Mr. Rubaie said, “and not only make speeches.”
After several more speeches, and no decisions, Sunday’s meeting ended, with a pledge to meet again on Monday and Tuesday.
Stephen Farrell and Duraid Adnan contributed reporting.Top