Reidar Visser, a savvy Iraq analyst on the Gulf Research Unit at the University of Oslo and editor of the Iraq blog historiae.org, has just written a great piece in The National newspaper on the fate of Iraq's triumvirate executive council.
Here's the gist of his article. Back in 2006, the government headed by Prime Minister Maliki was formed under a transitional framework that mandated the following: the Iraqi president would be selected by a 2/3 supermajority in the Iraqi parliament. The two vice presidents would also be approved in the same vote. So not only was a supermajority consensus required to establish the three man executive council, but it was essentially a package deal. Furthermore, the dominant political parties agreed that the executive trinity should reflect Iraq's three main ethno-sectarian groups. Needless to say, the process of hammering out a consensus deal that could survive the supermajority vote took a long time. Only after the executive council was approved by parliament could the Iraqi president ask Maliki to form a government. Back in 2006, this process took an agonizingly long six months.
However, as mentioned above, the rules that guided the process in 2006 were only meant as a transitional mechanism. The new rules stipulate that Iraq's president not need a 2/3 parliamentary supermajority to be elected - only a majority. In addition, the president and vice presidents are to be elected on different votes (it's no longer a package deal). Beyond that, there is no stipulation that the executive triumvirate be comprised of a Shi'i, Kurd, and Sunni Arab. Given these new rules, it will be much easier to select a president and vice presidents. This means that the formulation of a new government following the March 7th elections should happen a lot faster than in 2006.
This change also has significant implications for identity politics in Iraq. Sectarianism has governed the political dynamic in Iraq since 2003. I'd like to emphasize that this in no way was inevitable; rather, the policies pursued by Bremer's CPA during the crucial years of 2003 and 2004 enshrined sectarianism into the Iraqi political system. Because of this sectarian political dynamic and the salience of identity politics in recent years, the dominant political parties were united in nothing more than the desire to cling to power. All of the parties involved in the ruling coalition had conflicting interests; there was hardly any ideological coherence among them. This explains why the past four years have seen hardly any real political accomplishments.
However, abandoning the principle of a supermajority means diminishing the number of special interests that need to be accomodated simply to form a cabinet. This creates space for alliances to form around horizontal forms of association (issue based) rather than vertical ones (identity based). In short, it will be easier for coalitions to find ideological coherence.
At stake here is how Iraq chooses to define itself. Does it see itself as a compartmentalized nation, consisting of monolithic ethno-sectarian groups? It seems that the Iraqi exiles who returned in 2003 see Iraq that way; it was they and their U.S. allies that promoted and entrenched this sectarian political dynamic. It should also be noted that Iran has a vital stake in perpetuating a sectarian political system in Iraq. As long as that system continues, their Shi'i allies (primarily ISCI and other smaller Shi'i groups) have an advantage. However, Iraqis could make an attempt to transcend this dynamic by eschewing an ethno-sectarian quota for the executive council. Abandoning this quota could signal a shift in the nature of the political dynamic. It could trigger a salience of issue-based rather than identity-based politics. Then again, the upcoming election may not even settle the issue or offer any tangible indication as to where the political dynamic is heading. We'll start to find out in two weeks when the polls close and the drama heats up.