Iraq's Prime Minister Maliki eyes early elections

By Crispin Hawes

Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki is losing patience with his fractious coalition and is trying a number of tactics to force it into line, including ceding concessions on some contentious issues designed to win over Sunni factions and weaken political opponents. The current political impasse has delayed much legislation, preventing progress on issues such as ongoing power shortages that are damaging the economy and the quality of life for most Iraqis. While Maliki has threatened to call new elections in an effort to sway his coalition, a vote is unlikely this year, as is any long-term easing of the current political impasse. A vote is possible, however, in 2013, one year before the next elections are currently scheduled.

Maliki continues to perform well in Iraq's limited opinion surveys, despite strong negatives in some parts of the country. His relative popularity results from his reputation for forceful government, and Maliki now views the legislative deadlock as a major problem that could undermine his position. As a result, Maliki wants his coalition to pass important legislation and has shifted his focus from backroom negotiations to openly confronting his political partners and rivals.

Maliki is also preparing the ground for elections. His chief tactic has been to allow the reinstatement of Sunni officers in the military and security forces, a decision reached in June and intended to ameliorate some of the anger among Sunnis. Maliki is not allowing across-the-board reinstatement and instead has instructed the military to focus on recruiting expelled officers from Anbar province. The political goal is to undermine support for the main political opposition Iraqiya.

Maliki has threatened snap elections, in large part to spur his coalition into action. He can do this because opinion polling indicates he would have won an election held in July this year, while some of his most fractious allies and opponents would have performed particularly badly.

The tactic may well result in some legislation being approved, a step that could add further gloss to Maliki's reputation for forcefulness. But a resolution on important issues, such as the long-running dispute between the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) and the Baghdad government over the legality of disputed oil contracts, will almost certainly be delayed until the next government. And even if some legislation is approved in the near term-which would be enough to delay any snap general election-structural issues will encourage tensions to eventually resurface.

As a result, Maliki is unlikely to make good on his threat to call elections this year, but is actively considering calling early polls in 2013. Despite his skepticism of opinion surveys, the consistent results could tempt him to schedule a vote a year ahead of schedule in an effort to maintain his position atop the delicate balance of forces in Iraq. Early polls would probably also favor his more coherent State of Law party list over other coalitions, such as Iraqiya.

Crispin Hawes is the head of Eurasia Group’s Middle East and North Africa practice.

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