The Middle East Channel

The Race for the Iraqi Presidency

The Race for the Iraqi Presidency

As post-election maneuvering gets underway in Iraq, commentators have focused on the battle for the Prime Minister’s office.

The discussion circles around which electoral coalition will be tasked with forming the next government, Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s State of Law list or a potential anti-Maliki front led by the former prime minister ‘Iyad ‘Allawi and his Iraqiyya list. But before Iraq even gets to that point, a seemingly lesser struggle over the selection of the next president will first have to be resolved. This process will provide important clues as to the post-election cohesiveness of various political blocs and shedding light on the contours of the broader government formation process.   Will the Kurds retain their cohesion and return current President Jalal Talabani to another term, will the Sunni Arab Vice President Tareq al-Hashemi stake his claim, or will a surprise candidate emerge in the horse-trading to come?

It is only after a president has been selected that an individual from the leading electoral coalition will be tasked with forming a government. According to article 70 of the constitution, following the selection of the speaker of parliament and his two deputies (itself a consequential parliamentary decision), the parliament must turn to the task of selecting a president. If no candidate for the post is able to secure a two-thirds majority of parliamentarians in the first round of voting, then the two leading vote getters will be forced into a second round of voting that will be decided in a simple run-off.

Within Iraq’s parliamentary structure, the presidency was conceived as a largely ceremonial role, and its clearly-delineated substantive powers were transitory in nature.  With the expiration of the tripartite Presidency Council, which is composed currently of a Kurd, a Shiite and a Sunni, and its legislative veto, the role of the presidency might take on even greater substantive powers due to the murky constitutional guidance on the actual powers of the presidency. With no upper house of parliament in place resulting in an unchecked parliament, the incoming president will almost certainly test the bounds of his power to review and potentially veto legislation. In this sense, it is hard yet to know how significant the new president will be.  

Current president Jalal Talabani, the leader of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) and a veteran of the Kurdish struggle against Saddam Hussein, has played the role of elder statesman with aplomb and has often sought the role of mediator on the national stage.  The Kurdish control of the presidency has been an important symbolic victory for the Kurds in signaling their inclusion in a heterogeneous post-Saddam order no longer based on a chauvinistic Arab nationalism.

The Kurds’ privileged role in post-invasion Iraq is a result of their solidarity on the national stage, their close relations with the United States, and early boycotts of the political process by Sunni Arabs. But their favored status has been eroded as Sunni Arabs have turned to the political process more fully and as the discourse of Iraqi nationalism has found its unifying theme in opposition to expansive Kurdish claims for power, resources, and territory. As such, the contest to name the president will be important as a signifier of parliamentary strength and cohesion, as the prospect of political fragmentation of the various electoral lists will shadow the government formation process. The presidential slection could also be an early indication as to the likely path for forming a government.

While Talabani has generally been able to balance the conflicting demands of statesmanship with the narrower concerns of protecting Kurdish interests, it is difficult to imagine any other Kurdish figure filling this role or garnering the necessary Arab support to secure it. For some time Talabani had indicated that he would not seek another term as president, but in recent days he has announced his intent to seek the presidency. His decision raises the stakes of the challenge to the Kurdistani Coalition (the alliance between the PUK and the the Kurdistan Democratic Party) from the upstart Goran movement.

Goran, a recently-established party founded by dissatisfied breakaways from the PUK, indicated previously that it would oppose Talabani’s candidacy. Such brash pronouncements were predicated on the reformist Goran slate’s shocking humiliation of the PUK in the June 2009 Kurdistan Regional Government elections, where it netted approximately 25% of votes and 25 seats. The PUK’s poor showing tested the resiliency of the KDP-PUK alliance, with some in the KDP coming to question the wisdom of the power-sharing agreement between the parties. Much will now depend on how Goran adjusts its goals after what appears to be a less impressive than expected showing in last Sunday’s parliamentary elections. If Kurdish cohesion fractures now, the effect of Goran’s first challenge could be to diminish Kurdish power in Baghdad.

Talabani will not lack for rivals. Tareq al-Hashemi, the Sunni vice president and former leader of the Iraqi Islamic Party and the Tawafuq bloc who signed on to the Iraqiyya list, has made it clear that Iraq’s president should be an Arab—presumably such statements mark the opening foray in his own quest for the post. For Hashemi to succeed he will have to overcome the fragmentation of the Sunni political community and unite the various leaders who have dispersed and joined various electoral alliances. This issue is particularly acute as true cross-sectarian politics has not yet taken full root in Iraq, and the lack of communal solidarity in parliament has played a significant role in further diminishing the Sunni community’s parliamentary weight.

With Iraqiyya trying to fashion itself as a vehicle for Arab nationalist expression that would be the primary political outlet for Sunnis, the contest for the presidency will be a test of the coalition’s ability and, perhaps, more importantly, its willingness to unify behind a Sunni Arab candidate.

This is a difficult task because of the diffuse nature of Sunni representation, which could lend itself to co-optation and deal-making in the coming weeks and months, particularly as al-Maliki attempts to woo individuals and sub-lists with the prize of patronage.

Talabani’s chances to retain the post remain strong as long as the Kurds provide a united national front in Baghdad. He will be further aided by the Kurds’ continuing centrality to the process of forming a government. Al-Maliki would be unwise to try to unseat Talabani at such an early stage, pushing the Kurds toward an anti-Maliki coalition. By the same token, ‘Allawi might very well choose to exercise his own influence judiciously with a strategic end goal of the premiership in mind, eschewing the expenditure of political capital on the contest for the presidency. Despite his Sunni Arab allies’ wishes, he might be particularly wary of alienating the Kurds and sabotaging his own chance of becoming prime minister—but such a course will risk his own fragile electoral coalition. In this light, ‘Allawi’s opening decision on filling the presidency will offer an important clue as to his chosen path for attempting to assemble a parliamentary majority.

In short, while making predictions on Iraqi politics is often treacherous terrain, the procedural road to forming a government will aid Mam Jalal’s prospects for retaining his post and notching an early victory for the Kurds.

Michael Wahid Hanna is a fellow and program officer at The Century Foundation.