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Can a small fraction of an electorate impose the head of a government in a democratic system?

The question is posed in Iraq where the Shiite Alliance decided last week to ask the newly elected parliament to approve Ibrahim al-Jaafari the incumbent prime minister as head of a new government.

Strictly legally speaking, there is nothing wrong with that. The Shiite Alliance, which won 128 of the 275 seats, is the largest bloc in the new parliament. And, under the new democratic constitution, approved in a referendum last October, the bloc with the biggest share of seats in the parliament has the right to nominate the head of government.

Politically, however, allowing al-Jaafari to continue as prime minister could prove a setback for Iraq’s new democracy.

Al-Jaafari is the leader of one wing of the Al-Da’awah Party, an Islamist movement which, after decades of internecine feuding, declared its reunification two years ago in what was been seen by many observers as a purely tactical ploy.

It is not easy to assess the exact electoral strength of Al-Da’awah because the party entered the election as a coalition for more than a dozen parties and groups. But most polls indicate that, were it to contest an election alone, Al-Da’awah would not garner more than 12 per cent of the votes.

Al-Jaafari’s nomination was approved by 64 votes against 63 votes for his chief rival Adel Abdul-Mahdi. Of the alliance’s 128 seats only 30 are known to belong to Al Da’awah. So the rest of the votes for al-Jaafari came from the Fadhila (Virtue) Party, which has 20 seats, and the group around the pro-Iranian militia maverick Muqtada al-Sadr. The largest component of the alliance, the Supreme Council of Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI), voted for Abdul-Mahdi.

All this shows that al-Jaafari represents a minority within the Shiite constituency. It is hard to see how a broad national coalition could be led by someone with so limited a support base.

Worse still, al-Jaafari’s surprise return seems to have been caused, at least in part, by his rivalry with Abdul-Aziz al-Hakim, a junior cleric who heads the Shiite Alliance. According to reports al-Jaafari had said he would not stand for premiership provided al-Hakim was prepared to hand him the presidency of the alliance. While personal ambition is no sin, even in democratic politics, the new Iraqi democracy is still too fragile to let individual career calculations to determine the big picture.

Al-Jaafari’s opponents describe his stewardship of Iraq’s affairs over the past 10 month as , at best, lackluster and, at worst, disastrous. They contrast his performance with that of Iyad Allawi, the man who headed the interim government from June 2004 until last spring, and find al-Jaafari wanting.

Part of that criticism may well be justified. Iraq was, and still is, passing through difficult times. It has to cope with frustrated hopes, a belated bitterness about the presence of foreign troops, and the constant presence, though now reduced, threat of terrorism.

Against such a background al-Jaafari did what he could, though not certainly what most Iraqis had hoped for.

Nevertheless, the return of the Arab Sunnis to the political mainstream and their acceptance of the new democratic rules are, at least in part, the fruits of much labour on the part of al-Jaafari. He must also be credited with having outmanoeuvred the Arab League states, forcing them to accept new Iraq as a reality.

It was also during al-Jaafari’s premiership that agreement on forgiving most of Iraq’s foreign debt was finalised, throwing a buoy at the Iraqi economy.

Also unfair is the claim that al-Jaafari is somehow “Tehran’s man”. That claim is based on the fact that al-Jaafari spent part of his long exile in Iran. But people forget that the British part of al-Jaafari’s exile was even longer. It is also hard to see how al-Jaafari could be “Tehran’s man” while being one of the favoured candidates of the United States Embassy in Baghdad. Far from being “Tehran’s man” al-Jaafari is an Iraqi patriot with a strong record of fighting the Saddamite regime.

All in all al-Jaafari’s record as prime minister could get an average mark. And that, under the circumstances is not bad at all. But al-Jaafari would do Iraq a greater service if he were to drop out of the race for premiership. Despite his election by the Shiite parliamentary bloc, he could, his ego saved from the humiliation of being discarded by his own camp, decide to withdraw his candidacy.

There are several reasons why al-Jaafari should make room for someone else.

The first is that the new political landscape, which includes all Arab Sunni parties for the first time, could do with a new face at the centre. To many Arab Sunnis, al-Jaafari is the face of their confusion and humiliation at a time that they could not accept the death of the old system while they feared the emergence of the new one.

Secondly, al-Jaafari has become identified with a number of politics that will not work in the new Iraq. He is still clinging to economic ideas suitable for a rentier state rather than a modern economy open to global currents. Al-Jaafari presents his economic policy under the old label of a “welfare state.” His performance in practice, however, has been closer to pork barrel politics than European-style welfarism.

Thirdly, he has managed to win the distrust of both those who wanted a thorough de-Ba’athification campaign and those who, by contrast, who want all but a few dozen ex-Ba’athists to be reintegrated into the new system.

Finally, al-Jaafari has been ambivalent about the need to disarm and dissolve the various militias, including several Shiite outfits, whose very presence is a permanent challenge to the authority of the new Iraqi army and police. One reason for al-Jaafari’s position on this issue is his increasing reliance on Muqtada al-Sadr’s notorious the Mahdi Army whose links with Iran and the Lebanese branch of the Hezbollah anger most Iraqis.

Fortunately, the new Iraqi constitution provides adequate mechanisms for a broader debate on the issue of who should head the government. As the largest bloc the Shiite Alliance has the right to propose but has no right to impose a prime minister. The prime minister, and indeed all members of the Cabinet, must be approved by a majority of the parliamentarians. This allows the Kurds, the Arab Sunnis, the secular Shiites led by Allawi, and the independents to have a real say in forming the new government.

There is some pressure, part of it coming from Washington, to speed up the formation of the new government. Iraqis, however, should take their time and make sure that they form a government based on a genuine national consensus rather than narrow, sectarian calculations.

Because the new government will be installed for four years it is important that it be based on a policy package backed by the broadest possible forces in new Iraq.

Amir Taheri

Amir Taheri

Amir Taheri was the executive editor-in-chief of the daily Kayhan in Iran from 1972 to 1979. He has worked at or written for innumerable publications, published eleven books, and has been a columnist for Asharq Al-Awsat since 1987. Mr. Taheri has won several prizes for his journalism, and in 2012 was named International Journalist of the Year by the British Society of Editors and the Foreign Press Association in the annual British Media Awards.

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