Maliki consolidates power, and critics fail to keep pace
On Tuesday, Prime Minister Nouri Al Maliki chaired a successful cabinet meeting in the northern, Sunni-dominated city of Mosul. There had been call for a Kurdish boycott but multiple sources confirm that at least the Kurdish deputy premier did in fact participate. One report claimed just three ministers (and two Kurds) were absent, and only then because of travel abroad.
After completing the cabinet meeting, Mr Maliki returned to Baghdad where the Iraqi Oil Ministry's fourth bidding round went ahead on Wednesday. The gathering of foreign oil companies in Baghdad marked the conclusion of a three-year process aimed at ramping up Iraq's energy production and regaining a leading status in the international energy market.
Meanwhile, less than 80 kilometres away, in the Kurdish capital of Erbil, other Iraqi politicians had a different agenda on Tuesday. Here, the discontent among the Kurds, the secular and Sunni-backed Iraqiyya bloc and the Shiite Islamist Sadrists were gathering to discuss their next move in a campaign to withdraw confidence in Mr Maliki. In their view, the prime minister's increasing tendency of concentrating power in his own hands represents a threat to the very idea of democracy in Iraq and can be rebuffed only through his removal.
Which of these two very different visions will prevail is difficult to say at this point. However, it cannot escape notice that Mr Maliki enjoys some strategic advantages as the incumbent. It is his enemies who need to make the next move to change the status quo, and they have certainly experienced some problems lately in agreeing on exactly what to do.
First, in late April, critics gathered at Erbil and issued a 15-day ultimatum to Mr Maliki to adhere to previous political agreements that led to the formation of his second cabinet in December 2010 (most of which he had since chosen to ignore, not entirely without justification since much of this was constitutionally problematic in any case).
When the ultimatum expired in mid-May, another meeting was held in Najaf, with a second ultimatum being framed more or less as an order to Ibrahim Al Jaafari (the parliamentary head of the Shiite bloc to which both Mr Maliki and his current enemies in the Sadrist camp belong) to find a new prime minister candidate. But after a meeting of the Shiite alliance Mr Jaafari issued a reply to the Najaf ultimatum, making it perfectly clear that the alliance as a body had no intention of replacing Mr Maliki.
Having seen two of their bluffs called, the onus is now on the Erbil gathering of Mr Maliki's critics, who need to come up with a course of action that will avoid loss of face. A third summit in the Kurdish resort of Dukan on Wednesday did not issue any decisive statement.
Theoretically, the most viable alternative is to stop working through the Shiite alliance, which after two tries is evidently unable to deliver what the critics want. The more realistic option involves going straight to a vote of no confidence in the Iraqi parliament.
Having the vote is easy - it can be proposed by the president or a mere fifth of parliamentary members. But the absolute-majority threshold for succeeding (163 votes) is more difficult. The Iraqi parliament of 325 members is on average filled by around 200 deputies; accordingly any realistic no confidence bid should have a buffer of at least 10 extra votes to compensate for votes likely to be lost because of absenteeism. Even if all the Sadrists (who hold 40 seats) and the Kurdish alliance (43 plus a maximum of 13 deputies of smaller Kurdish groupings) should vote, the main question relates to Iraqiyya, which has already formally dwindled from 91 to around 85 as a result of defections.
Additionally, at least a dozen of the remaining 85 have made it clear they have no intention of joining a no confidence motion. This means a no confidence vote may come to rely on smaller Shiite parties like ISCI or Fadila, but even they could prove insufficient if the Iraqiyya segment sceptical of a no-confidence vote continues to grow.
At least some of the Iraqiyya deputies who remain undecided will probably try to consider the whole question through the lenses of ordinary Iraqis. From their perspective, the contrasts stand out. In Baghdad, there is a government working to complete a set of deals with foreign companies designed to ramp up oil production. And in Kurdistan - an area where Arabic is understood by a dwindling number of people - is an anti-government gathering made up to a considerable extent by people who talk about Kurdish independence much of the time and whose sole remaining link with Baghdad is the annual budget they receive, mainly from oil produced in southern Basra.
At the same time, those wavering Iraqiyya deputies will likely see problematic aspects with regard to Mr Maliki's tenure. They may agree on the need for a strong central government, but may also be concerned that it is about to get just too strong and heavy-handed.
Alas, on both sides of the political divide are signs that ad hoc solutions are being proposed entirely without reference to the Iraqi constitution. Mr Maliki's critics think they can simply replace him with someone more likeable without going through the entire constitutional procedure of appointing a new prime ministerial candidate and then forming the next cabinet from scratch. For their part, defenders of the prime minister warn of a possible "popular revolt".
At a minimum, it is to be hoped that whoever wins the latest political tug of war will adhere to constitutional procedure in their fight to prevail. A failure to do so is likely to trigger some of the more alarmist scenarios circulating.
Reidar Visser is an historian of Iraq who blogs at gulfanalysis.wordpress.com