Iraq’s parliament will meet Wednesday to elect a new president, a crucial step toward naming a new prime minister and government, but questions are growing about whether anyone can save the country after the collapse of its army and the loss of as much as half its territory to the radical Islamic State.
In a sign of the erosion of political order, 100 people are competing in Wednesday’s vote _ for a post whose occupant in past years was determined in advance by the top power brokers.
“Tomorrow’s vote will be devoid of any political deals,” Salim al Jubouri, the speaker of the parliament, a Sunni Muslim, said Tuesday. “We will evaluate nominations with complete equality.”
The most prominent candidate is Barham Salih, a former prime minister of the Kurdistan Regional Government, a moderate politician who has lines out to nearly every other faction.
Like nearly all the Sunni and Kurdish parliamentarians and most Shiite Muslims, Salih is highly critical of the current prime minister, Nouri al Maliki, for mismanaging relations with Kurds and Sunnis and for the corruption in the security services, which is blamed for their rout last month at the hands of Islamic extremists throughout northern and western Iraq.
By tradition, the speaker of parliament should be a Sunni, the prime minister a Shiite and the successor to the outgoing president, Jalal Talabani, should be a Kurd from his Patriotic Union of Kurdistan party.
But this time, Kurds have announced a referendum on independence and are halfway out the door. The PUK has named two candidates, Salih and veteran politician Fouad Massoum, and there may be a third.
Those who’ve tossed their hats in the ring include members of the National Alliance, a grouping of the major Shiite parties, starting with Maliki’s State of Law coalition. Kurdish officials say they’ll have no dealings with the new president if he or she is a Shiite.
Whoever is elected – and the vote might stretch into next week – it’s anything but clear that a new president can prevent the state from breaking up. The first challenge will be to manage the political process, which translates into replacing Maliki with a Shiite who’s acceptable to all religious and ethnic factions. It’s a difficult task, as Maliki emerged from the April 30 elections controlling the biggest bloc _ with 93 seats in the 328-seat parliament _ but far short of the majority needed.
The facts on the ground also present an immense challenge. The Iraqi military has proved incapable of pushing back Islamic State forces, which have shown themselves adept at shifting their combat units and heavy weapons back and forth across the border with Syria, where they now hold more than 35 percent of the country.
Where the military has attempted a response, it’s been accused of using indiscriminate force, including the use of barrel bombs _ improvised explosives dropped from high altitudes. There was more of that Monday and Tuesday, as the Reuters news agency reported that government shelling and airstrikes, which included three barrel bombs dropped on Fallujah and two on nearby Garma, had killed 19 people.
Then there’s the personality issue. Salih, while widely respected, has spent little time in Baghdad in recent years and doesn’t have the extensive ties with Sunni and Shiite politicians that Talabani had. Talabani himself has been off the scene for more than 18 months, recovering from a stroke in Germany.
“Everyone loved and respected Talabani, and they all have a long, long history with him,” said Dana Asaad, the editor in chief of Awene.com, a Kurdish website. “Barham Salih cannot have the influence on all the different players that Talabani had. I don’t think there is another Kurd who can play that role.”
Asaad said the first test would be whether the Kurds could agree on a single candidate. “If they cannot get their act together, how are they going to have a united way forward in the parliament?” he told McClatchy.
Under a sequence outlined in Iraq’s 2005 Constitution, drafted when the United States was an occupation force, the president must be elected by the end of July, and the biggest parliamentary bloc, in this case the National Alliance, must name its candidate for prime minister within 15 days after that _ by mid-August.
It’s also possible that with the Islamic extremists at the gates of Baghdad, parliament _ after holding an elimination round Wednesday _ will vote for a president the same day and that a new president will press for an urgent vote for a new prime minister.