There is only one rung at the top of Iraq's political ladder, but neither of the two major contenders is willing to cede that position to the other. The result is a stalemate in the formation of the new government, and the prospects for a breakthrough are increasingly dim.
The stalemate is not driven by disagreement on principles or political philosophy. It is basically driven by two individuals – current caretaker Prime Minister Nouri Al-Maliki and former prime minister Ayad Allawi, who emerged from recent parliamentary elections with a slight advantage over Al-Maliki in terms of the number of seats each will control in the next parliament – 91 and 89, respectively.
Nothing dramatizes the stalemate more than the inability of these two leaders, whose partnership in the next government is essential for achieving a measure of stability in the country, to agree on the time or venue for a meeting to iron out the issues in forming a new government. Various intermediaries have been involved in efforts to bridge the gap between the two, to no avail. Al-Maliki insists that a meeting with Allawi is contingent upon Allawi renouncing his demand to be the next prime minister; Allawi, on the other hand, insists that as the leader of the parliamentary group with the largest number of seats, he should be the one to lead the government.
The stalemate between Allawi and Al-Maliki is not the only fly in the ointment; other factors also contribute to the prolonging the process of forming a new government – ironic in the wake of what is considered to have been relatively transparent and competitive elections. Here are some of these factors:
- Despite the completion of a vote count and a partial vote recount, because of pending appeals by Al-Maliki's and Allwai's lists concerning the count, the Supreme Constitutional Court has thus far been unable to ratify the election results, as required by the constitution. In the absence of this significant judicial action, the parliament cannot convene to elect a president, and it is the president who must designate a member of parliament to serve as prime minister and form a new government.
- Al-Maliki, the leader of the State of Law, has entered into some form of understanding with the Iraqi National Alliance under the leadership of Ammar Al-Hakim, to join forces in parliament to ensure the selection of prime minister from amongst them. The two groups command 159 seats. In the 325-seat parliament, a majority of 163 seats is required to form a government. Al-Maliki and Al-Hakim were counting on the support of the Kurdish alliance with its 45+ seats to push them over the top.
- Unexpectedly, although hardly anything is unexpected in the charged political environment currently prevailing in Iraq, the most significant Kurdish leader, Masoud Barazani, president of the Kurdistan Regional Government, stepped forward to emphasize the importance of strictly following the constitution. He said that because Ayad Allawi's slate was voted the largest number of seats, Allawi should, under the terms of the constitution, be given the chance to form the new government. While acknowledging that it is unlikely that Allawi will be able to garner the necessary votes to form a government, Barazani thought that nevertheless it was important for Allawi to try in order to remove from the political equation the contention that Allawi had been denied a post to which he was "entitled."
- Annoyed by the Kurdish change of heart, Al-Maliki's spokesman Ali Al-Dabbagh said, responding to Barazani's contention that Allawi should be given a chance to exercise his right under the constitution, that the State of Law opposes the attempt "to subject the country to experiments not supported by the various parties." He added that if any group objects to Al-Maliki assuming the post of prime minister, it can join the opposition in parliament. Hardly a conciliatory rebuttal.
- Iraqi President Jalal Talabani maintains that it was the marja'iya, the highest Shi'a religious authority in both Najaf (Iraq) and Qum (Iran), that is pressuring the two major Shi'a groups, i.e. those under the leadership of Al-Maliki and Al-Hakim, to unite. He claims that neither Iran nor Saudi Arabia has been trying to influence the process of forming the new government. Talabani's statement of non-interference by Iran and Saudi Arabia can easily be questioned.
- A political luncheon hosted by President Talabani last Thursday and attended by all major political groups failed to lead to a breakthrough, because Allawi himself was absent and there was no agreement on any substantive issue. In fact, the luncheon seems primarily to have been an attempt by Talabani to fortify his position to remain president of Iraq for a second term. In terms of this purpose, the luncheon seems to have succeeded.
In short, the political stalemate surrounding a new government in Iraq prevails and the proverbial light at the end of the tunnel is not yet visible.
* Dr. Nimrod Raphaeli is a senior analyst at MEMRI.
 Al-Mada, Iraq, May 22, 2010.
 http://al-iraqnews.net/new/political-news/10030.html, May3, 2010.
 Al-Hayat (London), May 22, 2010.
 Al-Rafidayn, May 23, 2010.
 Al-Sharq Al-Awsat (London), May 23, 2010.