Iraq breaks record for longest time with no government

On March 7, 2010, millions of Iraqis voted to elect lawmakers who will rule the country for years as U.S. forces withdraw. The election was marred by dozens of attacks that killed nearly 40 people and underscored the security problems the incoming government will face.
By Leila Fadel
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, October 1, 2010; 1:41 AM

BAGHDAD - Iraq on Friday will surpass the previous record for the country that has gone the longest between holding a parliamentary election and forming a government, experts say.

The Netherlands had held that unfortunate honor after a series of failed attempts left the country without an elected government for 207 days in 1977, according to Christopher J. Anderson, director of the Institute for European Studies at Cornell University.

Iraqis have now spent 208 days with no new government and, while the Dutch weathered their storm, Iraq's weak institutions may not hold up against mounting pressure and a steady level of violence.

As politicians jockey for positions and broker deals in backroom meetings, many Iraqis now say they wonder why they risked their lives to vote on March 7. U.S. officials are increasingly concerned that the lack of an elected government has limited Iraq's ability to make national decisions and could eventually eat away at hard-earned security gains. The most optimistic of Iraqi politicians expect the process to take at least another month, if not much longer.

"There is no difference with the Iraqi case, except that the Netherlands had strong, functioning institutions and a caretaker government that continued to govern," said Joost Hiltermann, a Dutch national and an expert on Iraq at the International Crisis Group. "Iraq has very weak institutions and a caretaker government that can do very little. This makes for a potentially highly unstable and precarious situation."

Government formation in Iraq is complicated by both the country's multiparty system and violence in the streets. Lawmakers are elected and in turn vote for the president, who gives the largest coalition in the parliament the first opportunity to choose the prime minister and form the government. That government needs a simple majority of the 325 lawmakers to back it.

Election day was followed by a slow trickle of results and weeks in which politicians accused one another of fraud. The extremely close tallies for the top two parties - former prime minister Ayad Allawi's Iraqiya bloc, which won 91 seats, and Shiite incumbent Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's State of Law bloc, which won 89 - has lead to months of tense start-and-stop negotiations as both men fight for Iraq's top government job.

Maliki's bloc and another Shiite slate agreed to form the largest coalition in parliament based on one interpretation of Iraq's constitution. Maliki was the assumed front-runner as their pick for the premiership, but disputes within the coalition seem to have splintered Shiite politics and could deepen the deadlock.

Secular Shiite Allawi's Iraqiya bloc, largely backed by Sunni Arab constituents, promised to boycott the government if Maliki is nominated by the Shiite coalition. Allawi also still claims the right to form Iraq's government based on another interpretation of the constitution.

A U.S.-proposed power-sharing plan between the two men, which would have limited Maliki's power as prime minister and created a new federal position for Allawi, is all but dead.

In the meantime, Iraq is unable to make major steps such as ratifying legislation, constitutional amendments and international agreements. Iraq's parliament members met once for less than 18 minutes in June but have been collecting their paychecks - about $10,000 a month-- for more than three months. Iraq's ministers are afraid to make difficult - and in some cases, even simple - decisions when it is unclear who holds the key to their political future, and much government hiring is on hold.

"We have no authority now," said Ali Baban, the minister of planning. "The current government can't ratify legislation and can make no new decisions."

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