Monday, 25 June 2012 12:31

Amid continued threats about a forthcoming questioning of Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki, allies of the Iraqi premier have embarked upon what seems to be a pre-emptive move: A formal request for a parliamentary debate on the performance of parliament speaker Usama al-Nujayfi, with a focus on alleged “constitutional infractions”.

To some extent, the Maliki-Nujayfi struggle has the characteristics of a tit for tat escalation between Maliki’s Shia Islamist State of Law bloc and Nujayfi’s secular and Sunni-backed Iraqiyya. True, this is not the first time there has been tension between the two. But it was mainly after the issue of a Maliki no confidence vote came on the agenda earlier this spring that the idea of sacking Nujayfi as parliament speaker became a prominent issue.

One aspect to keep in mind regarding a potential attempt to oust Nujayfi is that the modalities for getting rid of the parliament speaker are not covered in the Iraqi constitution. Instead, the process is governed by the law on the replacement of deputies. The relevant clause was adopted in a revision of that law in 2007 and the relevant paragraph says parliament can sack its speaker with an absolute majority based on a reasoned request from a third of its members.

In today’s Iraqi parliament, those numerical requirements translate into 163 MPs for sacking the speaker (same as for sacking the PM) and 109 for calling the vote. It is noteworthy that there is in some ways thus a stricter requirement for introducing a no confidence vote against the speaker than against the PM (the latter can be called by 65 members following questioning initiated by 25 MPs). It is noteworthy also that the request from State of Law that has been filed is not an outright call for a vote on his ouster. Rather they are talking about a debate “preparatory to his sacking”. No more than 25 signatures are required for this (61-7-b of the constitution).

Maliki allies say they will ask Nujayfi about his alleged interference in the Exxon Mobil issue in Nineveh as well as supposed “sectarian partition schemes” for Iraq. It may well be possible that State of Law may successfully call the vote for sacking Nujayfi by garnering the required 109 signatures for a vote. To succeed in reaching the 163 threshold for actually replacing him, however, they need a lot more votes than they currently have. In particular, many of those Iraqiyya deputies who supported Maliki on disputed territories may be reluctant to go as far as voting down their former ally Nujayfi. Indeed, the somewhat cumbersome approach of calling for a debate before a no confidence vote on the speaker (when no such preceding debate is legally speaking needed before he can be sacked) seems to indicate that State of Law at present may be unable to even reach the 109 mark required for a direct, straightforward vote on Nujayfi.

Perhaps the most important gain for Maliki in this relates to initiative. It is remarkable that despite all the talk about questioning Maliki, a formal request for doing so has yet to be filed. This in turn means that the issue of Nujayfi’s own status as parliament speaker is now higher up on the agenda and the parliament presidency will need to come up with reasons if they want to procrastinate the debate about Nujayfi.

Meanwhile, the most promising news from the first session of parliament in the new parliamentary cycle that began on Saturday was doubtless related to numbers: No less than 248 out of 325 deputies showed up. This is actually very high for Iraq; hopefully it signifies a new trend. In today’s session parliament there are no major votes on the agenda but attendance figures are once more reported in the same high range around 250. If this trend stabilises, it could mean more in the long run than the continued war of words between Iraqiyya and State of Law.