Tuesday, June 7, 2016

Iraqi Parliament Update: Quorum Reached as Reform Front Fractures, Kurds Lose Leverage

By Emily Anagnostos

Key Takeaway: The Council of Representatives (CoR) successfully reached quorum and convened two sessions on May 29 and May 31. The CoR struggled to reach this threshold since members formed a rump CoR on April 12. Despite the limited success of May 29 and 31, the CoR has not returned to its pre-April 12 state and many political blocs remain withdrawn. The CoR will not likely soon resolve fundamental issues in the political process needed to pass legislation required to acquire the critical International Monetary Fund (IMF) loan or address security breaches in Baghdad, which will likely require a reorganization of security forces in the capital. The sessions also exposed underlying fractures in the Reform Front between hardliners and compromisers, which will weaken the opposition bloc in the CoR and lead to the reintegration of some members to their original parties. The Reform Front is also in danger of losing its tenuous legitimacy and leverage as a nascent political party if the Federal Court strikes down the constitutionality of the rump CoR, the Reform Front’s predecessor. The CoR has already demonstrated that it can and will leave the Reform Front behind to continue to function. Additionally, Kurdish parties have lost their leverage over Baghdad as some Kurdish members ended their boycott without any promise of requested financial assistance. The failure to secure these funds has underscored the limit to Kurdish parties’ power in the Iraqi Government when operating outside the umbrella of the Kurdistan Alliance.

Council of Representatives meets quorum on May 29

The Council of Representatives (CoR) reached quorum and held its first meeting in a month on May 29, marking the slow thawing of political parties’ opposition to the political process. The CoR had fractured on April 12 when a group of members calling for the resignation of the three presidencies – Prime Minister Haidar al-Abadi, President Fuad Masoum, and CoR Speaker Salim al-Juburi – formed a rump parliament. The rump parliament passed a vote to dismiss Juburi on April 14 and denounced the CoR under Juburi as illegal. Even with the rump CoR acting separately, the legal CoR chaired by Juburi still managed to convene a session on April 26. At that meeting, attending members voted in five new ministers as a part of PM Abadi’s ongoing efforts to reshuffle the Council of Ministers. The success of the April 26 session in face of the rump CoR’s obstruction prompted it to disband and reform as an opposition bloc on April 28. The bloc, the Reform Front, immediately boycotted the CoR, as it maintained the fundamental principle of the rump CoR that Juburi was not the legal Speaker.

The legal CoR lost momentum between April 26 and April 30, likely because the April 30 session was set to vote on major ministerial positions that political blocs, including the Kurds, were unwilling to relinquish. Several parties, including the Kurds and the Sadrist Trend-affiliated Ahrar Bloc, refused to attend the session, so it failed to meet quorum. Sadrist protesters then stormed the Green Zone on April 30, leading to a mass exodus of political parties from parliament. The protests had severed any chance of regaining the momentum of the reshuffle process. The political process subsequently froze in Iraq for nearly a month as each party set specific conditions for its return.

Juburi met with political leaders prior to May 29 ostensibly to discuss the agenda for the CoR session and likely to mobilize members to meet quorum. He stated that the session would be held “in solidarity” with security forces in Fallujah, who were then on the verge of entering into the city limits. This language set a patriotic tone, which many have cited as the reason why enough individual CoR members and political parties attended the session. An unconfirmed number of Kurdish members attended; Kurdish members withdrew from Baghdad on May 1 after security forces failed to protect the CoR from protesters on April 30. The returning members were likely affiliated with the Patriotic Union and Kurdistan (PUK) and Gorran, who have shown a greater inclination to return to Baghdad than the leading Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP). The PUK also previously announced on May 22 that it would attend any future CoR session, indicating that Kurdish participants were likely from the PUK. The Sadrist Trend-affiliated Ahrar Bloc did not attend the session and continued to demand a vote on a technocratic Cabinet in order to secure its return.

Initially five members short, the May 29 session ultimately reached quorum. PM Abadi made a surprise visit to the session, where he spoke of operations in Fallujah and Mosul and announced his intent to soon present the rest of the ministerial nominations for a CoR vote. Like Juburi, PM Abadi used the operation in Fallujah to call for political solidarity. He will likely continue to try to capitalize on the patriotic ethos in order to reset the political conditions and pass both required legislation and his reform agenda. PM Abadi also needs the political climate to remain stable to provide basic security throughout the country as ISIS attacks are likely to increase during the holy month of Ramadan. The CoR session failed to address both the ministerial reshuffle further and the legislation needed to receive the IMF loan. The IMF had stipulated on May 12 that the Iraqi Government reduce its 2016 federal budget as a condition for receiving major loans from both the IMF and other international financial institutions. Reducing the federal budget requires parliamentary legislation.

The May 29 session unanimously voted to extend the legislative term one month and adjourned until May 30. That session was postponed one day on the prospect of larger numbers of CoR members joining the session, primarily those from the Reform Front. Juburi stated that there were “positive signs” and that he had received a “serious letter” from the Reform Front on the need to hold a unified session. The session did meet on May 31, and several Reform Front members attended. However, the CoR announced that it was on a legislative holiday, usually taken during Ramadan, and that the May 31 session was an extraordinary one. At the session, members further discussed operations in Fallujah but still did not address the IMF loan or the cabinet reshuffle. Juburi announced that the CoR would adjourn until July 1, with the possibility of holding extraordinary sessions when needed. Since May 31, the political scene in Iraq has fallen silent.  

Reform Front may split over Federal Court’s strategy of delay

The Federal Court convened its first session on May 25 to rule on the constitutionality of the April 14 and April 26 CoR sessions. The rump CoR voted to dismiss Speaker Juburi on April 14, and on April 26 the legal CoR approved the five ministers under PM Abadi’s Cabinet reshuffle. The Reform Front maintains that the April 14 session met quorum while challenging that the April 26 session chaired by Juburi met quorum. Likewise, the legal CoR rejects the April 14 session as legitimate and upholds the constitutionality of the April 26 session.

The Federal Court is likely pursuing a strategy of delay in order to force political parties to come to an organic agreement. If the strategy fails, a court ruling could further complicate the political crisis and will likely result in blowback. The Federal Court thus ruled on May 25 that experts were needed to assist in the case; it adjourned the session until May 29, which coincided with the resumption of the CoR. The Federal Court resumed the morning prior to the CoR session, swore in two experts for the case, and then adjourned until June 8 when the experts would present their initial findings. The court later announced on June 6 that the June 8 session would only discuss the appeals against the April 26 session, further delaying discussion of the April 14 rump CoR session. The CoR will be well into their legislative holiday by June 8, so the results will have no immediate effect.

The impending decision of the Federal Court is linked to the conditions of the return of the Reform Front as it refuses to return to the CoR as long as Juburi remains chair. This attitude, however, precludes the group from negotiating with other political parties who do not consider Juburi’s position as up for negotiation. Moreover, the Reform Front’s stringent demand that Juburi is removed is a high risk to take if the Federal Court rules in Juburi’s favor.

The Reform Front does not currently operate under a unified framework. The Front is divided between two dominant parties, elements of the Dawa Party that support former Prime Minster Nouri-al Maliki and members of Ayad Allawi’s Wataniya party. These two parties, as well as Maliki and Allawi, will use the Reform Front’s size and leverage to accomplish their own interests in the CoR. Both Maliki and Allawi will also try to commandeer the Reform Front as a vehicle for their return to power. Despite the political freeze, events continue to progress that require parliamentary participation and approval, including the impending IMF loan. Operations in Fallujah will soon require parliamentary discussion on reconstruction efforts and management of the internally displaced refugees (IDP). The CoR will not wait for the Reform Front to participate if it can achieve quorum without them.

The risk of being left behind in the CoR has also split the Reform Front between those who would and would not compromise with the CoR in order to return to the political process. Many hardliners in the Reform Front maintain that they will not return until the Federal Court reaches a decision, and they have stated that they will not accept any “political settlement” for their return. These hardliners have also denied reports that the Reform Front is discussing proposals on how to return to the CoR session if Juburi survives the Federal Court case. The Federal Court’s delayed ruling on the April 14 session further jeopardizes the Reform Front’s relevancy if it remains distant from the political stage for too long. The Front will also lose its leverage if the CoR can find a way to resume the political process without the opposition bloc.

The continued delay has forced the return of Reform Front members who cannot afford to wait for the Federal Court to come to a decision - a reported ten Reform Front members attended the May 29 session. Some of the members were reportedly from Anbar Province and had to attend the session because it dealt with Fallujah. The Reform Front’s boycott is incompatible with individual partisan responsibilities, and those members will need to remain active in the decision making process in order to serve their constituencies and further their unique party interests. The May 31 session also reportedly included several Reform Front members. A Reform Front member had stated that 15 members had elected to attend the session as an opposition party, rather than boycott the sessions until Juburi was removed from his position. These members may be under similar pressure to remain active in the political scene in order to achieve specific demands. Their participation may also suggest that the hardline approach is unsustainable as a party line and that the Reform Front does not have the vision to be a functional political entity.

If the Federal Court invalidates the rump CoR’s actions, the hardliners will likely remain divided between Allawi and Maliki while the compromisers will likely return to the CoR, either to their former political parties or as a weakened opposition bloc. If the Reform Front wants to remain a credible political entity in the CoR, it must create a political agenda that can exist outside the simple black-and-white framework of whether Juburi remains as CoR speaker.  

Kurdish blocs lose leverage in Baghdad

The Kurdistan Alliance withdrew from the political process on May 1, citing the failure of security forces to protect CoR members from the protesters on April 30. The Kurdistan Alliance later announced on May 5 that the conditions of their return were centered on financial concessions from Baghdad. The international community and major political officials in Iraq engaged the Kurdish parties the following two weeks to secure their return to the CoR, focusing the majority of these efforts on the PUK and Gorran, both opposition parties within the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG). The softening of the PUK and Gorran’s stance regarding the enticement of the impending IMF loan compounded by the announcement of a new political alliance between the PUK and Gorran on May 18 led to the fracture of the Kurdistan Alliance, as the leading KDP party remained opposed to returning to Baghdad. The PUK announced on May 22 that it would return to the next CoR session, breaking from the umbrella of the Kurdistan Alliance. It later appended its statement on May 23 to note that their return would follow negotiations alongside other Kurdish parties with PM Abadi regarding their demands.

Kurdish political leaders met with PM Abadi on May 28 to discuss conditions of their return, but they failed to extract any valuable concessions. The KDP was not present at that meeting. Pictures have shown only PUK parliamentary leader Ala Talabani, Gorran parliamentary leader Hoshyar Abdullah, and Gorran Second Deputy Speaker Aram Sheikh Muhammad with PM Abadi. A later report on June 6 confirmed that three Kurdish parties went to Baghdad and participated in the CoR sessions – the PUK, Gorran and the Kurdistan Islamic Union (KIU) as the likely third party – while two remained in Iraqi Kurdistan, the KDP and likely the Kurdistan Islamic Group (KIG).

Prime Minister Abadi (far right) meets with (l-r) PUK parliamentary leader Ala Talabni, Gorran parliamentary leader Hoshyar Abdullah, and Gorran Second Deputy CoR Speaker Aram Sheikh Muhammad in his office on May 28. Source:

The Kurdish Alliance previously enjoyed its power in numbers as it occupied nearly one-fifth of the parliamentary seats. The Kurds could leverage their unified size in the CoR in return for financial concessions. The splinter of the political process highlighted internal fractures within the Kurdistan Alliance, however, primarily between the PUK and Gorran and the KDP. When individual parties sought concessions from Abadi outside of the Kurdish Alliance, the parties no longer had the upper hand in negotiations. As such, the Kurdish blocs returned to the CoR without much to show for their month-long boycott. Kurdistan Islamic Union (KIU) parliamentary leader Muthanna Amin stated that PM Abadi during the May 28 meeting had not signaled any intention of granting the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) any portion of international loans. PM Abadi has not made any public indication to support or deny this accusation. The greatest incentive for the Kurdish parties to remain active in the political process was the prospect of receiving a significant international financial assistance, notably the IMF loan, which could drag the Kurds out of their own economic crisis and support ongoing military operations. Kurdish members may have returned to the CoR on May 29 without the guarantee of financial concessions in hopes that it can more easily extract concessions from within Baghdad than from Arbil. The Kurdish parties do not have the individual clout to seek negotiations in Baghdad, however, and are at risk of receiving less financial assistance from Baghdad than they did before. The federal government has effectively outlasted the Kurdish boycott and eliminated the Kurdish leverage over the government.  

The Kurdish parties will use the month-long legislative holiday to regroup, and it is likely that they will present on July 1 a more unified framework towards the federal government. PUK Second Secretary General Barham Salih stated on June 1 that the PUK would work to maintain relations with the KDP and stressed the need for coordination between all Kurdish political actors in the interests of Iraqi Kurdistan. KDP member and KRG Prime Minister Nechirvan Barzani reaffirmed the need for dialogue between Baghdad and Arbil. He stated that there is no intention for a KRG delegation to visit Baghdad, but that some Kurdish political actors may go “individually.” An unconfirmed source leaked on June 2 that the major parties in the KRG had reached an agreement to redistribute positions in the Kurdish government, suggesting that Gorran would resume the position of parliamentary speaker, and the KDP would give the position of prime minister to the PUK as President Masoud Barzani would stay in his position. This agreement would continue until 2017 elections. The report is unverified, but it suggests that the Kurds have witnessed the blowback caused by a lack of Kurdish consensus in Baghdad and are reevaluating how the Kurdish political parties operate in both Baghdad and Arbil.

The ongoing financial issues in the KRG will push the Kurds to resurrect the Kurdistan Alliance as the Kurdish parties are unlikely to give up demands regarding financial assistance. KDP member Najiba Najib spoke on behalf of the Kurdistan Alliance on June 4, calling for 17% of any financial assistance given to Iraq as a constitutional right. Iraqi Kurdistan, as a part of Iraq, legally stands to gain a portion of any financial assistance given to Iraq. The specific percentage is not constitutionally specific and 17% is the percentage of the Iraqi federal budget allocated the region each year. Najib had previously stated on May 10 that the “partnership between Baghdad and Arbil had collapsed.” Najib’s inflammatory rhetoric likely aimed to drive Baghdad to offer greater concessions in order to prevent political separation between Arbil and Baghdad. The KDP will likely try to restore the leverage that the Kurdistan Alliance had in early May when they announced the boycott in order to receive financial support from Baghdad.

The KDP, however, will also try to restore the Kurdistan Alliance in a way to benefits their party interests and reestablishes their dominance over the other Kurdish parties, most notably the PUK-Gorran Alliance, which formed on May 18. KDP member Kamal Kujar stated on June 6 that the split in the Kurdish parties over the return to the May 20 and 31 sessions was a “misunderstanding,” and that the PUK now “regrets” their return to Baghdad as PM Abadi did not guarantee any of their demands. Kujar announced that the Kurdish parties share a common “vision” of returning to Baghdad, but that the Kurdish people pressured the Kurdish parties to boycott the CoR and demand concessions from the federal government. The KDP will likely leverage the PUK’s failure to achieve concessions from Baghdad in order to pressure the PUK to return to a Kurdish agenda determined by the KDP.

The Ramadan holiday will likely witness internal Kurdish negotiations regarding the timeframe of a full Kurdish return to Baghdad and the political stance of the Kurdistan Alliance regarding the Iraqi Government. The KDP knows that the PUK cannot return to Baghdad successfully without it, so the group will likely use their own return as a bargaining chip to maintain their dominance in Kurdish politics in both Baghdad and Arbil. The PUK can undermine this leverage by threatening to return to Baghdad alone, but doing so would both undermine the group’s ability to gain concessions for Iraqi Kurdistan and alienate the party from the greater Kurdistan Alliance. The KDP could use the PUK’s misstep to reaffirm its preeminent position in the KRG and resume negotiations with Baghdad with the full force of the Kurdistan Alliance behind it.  

The conditions in Iraq by July 1 will likely require urgent action in the CoR, possibly allowing the Kurdistan Alliance to re-secure its leverage over Baghdad. Operations in Fallujah will likely have progressed into the city, and as ISIS is squeezed out it will increase attacks in other areas as retaliation. The financial situation is unlikely to improve given ongoing military operations, and the Iraqi Government will likely find itself burdened with an increased IDP crisis following operations in Fallujah. The Iraqi Government will no longer have the flexibility to further delay the CoR and political process to its benefit. Instead, it will need to meet the conditions of the Kurdish parties’ return in order to maintain a CoR quorum and pass needed legislation. The Kurdistan Alliance will likely have the opportunity to reform its conditions, and if it can present reasonable and feasible ones, the Iraqi Government will likely meet them.