DAMASCUS - Iraq's Sunni Vice President, Tarek al-Hashemi, has proven to be
everything Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki feared him to be - and more. Since
coming to power in 2006, Maliki has often blocked heavyweight Sunnis from
rising through the upper echelons of power, believing that they are a natural
threat to the post-2003 order in Baghdad - natural-born opponents to the
newfound Shi'ite supremacy in Iraq.
This week, Hashemi - whose relationship with Maliki has never been good -
turned the tables on the prime minister, vetoing the much-debated election law
that was recently passed in parliament. His single vote - he and the president
and another vice president have veto power over parliament - meant that
January's parliamentary elections would have to be postponed, and the
possible drowning of the prime minister's chances of re-election.
Hashemi claims the election law does not properly represent Iraqis living in
the diaspora, granting them no more than 5% of the 323-seat parliament.
According to numerous records, including those of the government, well over a
million Iraqis live outside of Iraq, most of them Sunnis. To grant them proper
representation, they ought to be given 15% of the seats, Hashemi argued.
Frantically, Maliki responded. On Thursday evening, the Constitutional Court
(over which Mailik has plenty of influence) overruled Hashemi's veto, calling
The problem will now be returned to parliament, which on Saturday will vote on
two options: it can send the same law that Hashemi vetoed back to the
three-member presidency council, where it is likely to be vetoed again - or it
can amend the law to address Hashemi's concerns.
Under the constitution, however, parliament can override a second veto with a
three-fifths majority, which it probably could amass if most Shi'ite and
Kurdish lawmakers chose to.
The other members of the presidential council are President Jalal Talabani and
Adel Abdul Mehdi, a Shi'ite from the Supreme Iraqi Islamic Council.
An upset Maliki criticized Hashemi's veto as a "dire threat" and called on the
High Electoral Commission to continue preparing for the elections. However, the
commission, unable to by-pass constitutional procedures, announced it was
halting all preparations until matters were resolved.
Other heavyweights, including Kurdistan President Massoud Barzani, have
expressed anger at the election law, claiming an imbalance in Kurdish
representation; he threatening last week to boycott the elections altogether.
If the veto stands, not only will the elections be delayed, but a
constitutional vacuum will emerge, given that the current parliament's tenure
will have expired, and no legislative body would be voted in to replace it,
thereby dragging Iraq into political chaos. Also, the United States is due to
begin to draw-down of combat forces 60 days after the election.
Iyad Samarrai, parliament's speaker, said it would be "advisable" to hold
elections on time, noting, however, that a delay did not necessarily mean a
security vacuum. The court's overruling of Hashemi's veto, he added, was not
binding for parliament since it had asked for the court's say on the matter,
and never filed an official complaint to legal authorities.
Although Washington has not yet commented on the crisis, General Raymond
Odierno, commander of US forces in Iraq, noted that a postponement "could delay
the planned US draw-down of combat forces".
Hashemi clearly did not cast his veto from nowhere - it represents a political
current in the Sunni community, that is, those who do not want the election law
to pass as it stands.
It is unclear whether regional heavyweights Iran and Saudi Arabia are in any
way behind the tug-of-war between Sunni and Shi'ite lawmakers. Originally
behind closed doors, but now in the open, Sunnis, complain that although they
will all run and vote in January, or whenever, they will fail to control
parliament, for demographic reasons as they number fewer than the Shi'ites.
They thereby cannot change the status quo imposed on them by the post-Saddam
When Sunnis boycotted the political process in 2005, they suffered a tremendous
setback - parliament was packed with Iranian-backed Shi'ites. Since then,
heavyweights in the Sunni community have called on their followers to run for
office, claiming that only then will they be able to wrestle control of a state
that they consider naturally theirs.
Sami Moubayed is editor-in-chief of Forward Magazine.