Iraq's parliamentary elections are now more than three months gone, but there are no signs the country will have a new government soon.
When the deputies elected on March 7 assembled in Baghdad for their first parliamentary session on June 14, they adjourned after less than 20 minutes. That short time was used to complete the official ceremonies that accompany any new parliament's opening, including the playing of the national anthem and the newly elected parliamentarians' collective taking of their oath of office.
But once those ceremonies were finished, there was nothing more for the deputies to do but disband.
Or, as Fuad Masum, the presiding parliamentary speaker, put it: "Since there is need for further consultation, this session will be considered open-ended."
There was nothing more to do because party leaders still have not hammered together a strong enough coalition to command a majority in parliament. And until there is one, there is no point in putting forward or voting on names for the government's top positions. In fact, the parties have still not even agreed on which has the right to try to form a government first, even though the Election Commission has confirmed one party as the March election winner. Legal Dispute
The hang-up is a legal dispute over whether the constitution gives the right to go first to the bloc that won the most election votes or to the coalition that has the largest number of deputies in parliament.
The dispute broke out after Iraq's Higher Federal Court recently ruled that it is the largest bloc in parliament that goes first. That ruling came as Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki's second-place State of Law allied this month with the third-place election winner -- a coalition of Shi'ite religious parties -- to form the new National Alliance bloc and suddenly obtain the most deputies.
Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki (right) meets with the head of the Al-Iraqiyah coalition, Iyad Allawi, in Baghdad on June 12.
Al-Iraqiyah, the cross-sectarian alliance led by former Prime Minister Ayad Allawi, has objected that the court has no jurisdiction in the dispute. Instead, it says, the power of decision belongs to Iraq's Constitutional Court, which has yet to be formed.
As the legal dispute rages, it has created enough uncertainty about how the government will be formed that many parties now seem to be trying to keep their options open.
The Kurdish bloc, the fourth-place winner with 57 seats in parliament, has previously publicly backed Al-Iraqiyah, as the bloc expected to take the lead in nominating a government. But now, representatives say, the legal dispute has added a "new element" into the political landscape.
"I think the issue now is purely legal," Kurdish Alliance parliamentarian Mahmud Uthman told RFE/RL's Radio Free Iraq on June 13. "If the legal experts, including the Higher Court, decide that Allawi's Al-Iraqiyah bloc is still the largest, and they don't recognize the new [National Alliance] as such, then the matter will be under consideration. But if they say that the new bloc is the largest, then the picture is changed, and we cannot yet give a final opinion."New Momentum
One reason the Kurdish bloc might want to keep its options open is that they could give the National Alliance a parliamentary majority if they join with it. By contrast, joining Al-Iraqiyah would still leave that grouping short of a parliamentary majority.
Still, if Maliki appears now to have new momentum, there is no guarantee he can keep his National Alliance intact amid all the jostling.
In an effort to shore up the coalition, his State of Law and religious party partners have formed a joint 14-member committee to work on guidelines for agreeing on a candidate for prime minister. Maliki is the choice of his own State of Law, but his candidacy would be opposed by many religious party leaders without some tough bargaining.
Fuad Masum chairs the first session of the new parliament.
Maliki has sought to gain the support of one important grouping among the religious parties -- deputies linked to radical cleric Muqtada al-Sadr -- by releasing a number of Mahdi Army militants from prison in recent weeks. The prisoner releases have been a key Sadrist demand for dropping their opposition to a second-term for Maliki.
But even as Maliki focuses on bargaining with the religious parties, he is also putting out feelers to -- and receiving them from -- Allawi's Al-Iraqiyah.
RFE/RL Radio Free Iraq correspondent Nabil Ahmed says those feelers are fueling speculation that Allawi and Maliki could yet surprise everyone by reaching a power-sharing deal that would give them the largest parliamentary majority of any possible combination of forces.
"Allawi and Maliki held a long-awaited meeting on Saturday [June 13] that many observers in Iraq are calling an 'icebreaker,'" Ahmed says. "After that meeting, a negotiating committee between State of Law and Al-Iraqiyah held a follow-up session, saying it would be part of a series of meetings between the two sides."
Still, there are no reports of any agreements. The only public word to emerge from the Allawi and Maliki meeting was that it was "friendly and positive." When parliament opened on June 14, the two leaders shook hands but gave no signs the stalemate between them has eased.Wait And See
Even if Allawi and Maliki are able to strike a grand bargain, it is still unclear how long it could take for the parliament to approve a new president and parliamentary speaker -- the first steps toward forming a government. That is because the parliament is highly unlikely to confirm anyone as president until they know whom the president will nominate for the post of prime minister -- the most powerful government position. This makes nominating a government a package deal whose first step cannot be begun until the last one is completed.
It is small wonder, then, that many observers are likening the current process of forming a government to the one which followed Iraq's first postinvasion parliamentary elections in 2005, when six months passed before a prime minister was chosen.
There are serious questions about whether Iraq can afford a similar delay in 2010.
This year, the process of forming a government comes as U.S. forces prepare to draw down from their current combat strength of some 88,000 soldiers to a remaining training and advisory force of 50,000 by September 1. And that is stoking fears that the delays in forming a government could weaken Baghdad's chances of fully securing the country before the U.S. training and advisory forces also withdraw from Iraq next year.
In a sign that insurgent groups are already seeking to take advantage of Iraq's deadlocked political process, violence has been slowly but steadily creeping up since March. Government figures showed 337 people were killed in unrest in May, the fourth time this year the overall death toll has been higher than in the same month of 2009.