What will probably define the struggle in the weeks to come is not the elusive national conference or any real attempt at implementing the Arbil agreement, but instead the fight for the annual budget – the only item parliament is constitutionally bound to deal with, and also the only item where Maliki truly needs the active support of parliament. In recent sessions it seemed Maliki would have to navigate between Kurds seeking concessions for their emerging energy sector and Sadrists with populist demands about citizen petrodollars. With the return of Iraqiyya, there will be the third alternative of compensating Iraqiyya deputies in Sunni-majority areas with budgetary pork barrel.
A potentially cross-cutting and complicating issue in all of this is the continued struggle over the general amnesty law. On this issue, Sadrists and Iraqiyya see eye to eye in wanting a more liberal regime, whereas Maliki’s State of Law coalition is more restrictive towards wide-ranging amnesties. In the past, there have been attempts by politicians to bundle several bills with the budget in order to maximise their own leverage in negotiations, though not always successful – the law on electoral conduct proposed in December 2009 being a case in point. Chances are Maliki will press for a separate budget deal with whomever is prepared to negotiate with him on his terms.
Iraqiyya are trumpeting the initiatives from Sadrists and ISCI (as opposed to the stance of Maliki) as reasons for returning to parliament. If there is to be more than rhetoric to this, they will need to find agreement on issues (and agendas) when parliament reconvenes tomorrow, 31 January. The budget is now the number one item on the agenda.