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The Iraqi Elections: A Way Out of the Morass?
The Iraqi Elections: A Way Out of the Morass?
Protesters display a huge Iraqi flag during a demonstration in Kerbala, southwest of Baghdad, on 13 August 2015. REUTERS/Mushtaq Muhammed

Iraq Conflict Alert

A wave of protests has brought Iraq to the edge of yet more serious conflict. Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi has introduced sweeping reforms to halt the deterioration but in a manner that may make things worse. An important course correction is needed if he is to survive politically and Iraq is to avoid what could become in effect a military takeover.

The country has seen protests over the systemic inadequacy of service delivery before, but this crisis lays bare two overriding problems: massive, deeply entrenched corruption and growing militarism heightened by the war against the Islamic State (IS). The power grid’s failure during extreme summer heat was the trigger that turned general discontent into anger about governance and the political class. An ineffectual effort to overcome the crisis and start addressing fundamental problems could turn that anger into fury, precipitating a breakdown of the post-2003 order.

The protests tie into an intra-elite power struggle that opposes the prime minister, a year in office, to Iran-backed Shiite militia commanders whose credibility has been burnished by the war against IS and who seek to capitalise on popular disenchantment to assert control.

In tackling simultaneously the two most pressing problems, Abadi appears to have the support of the marjaiya, the Shiite religious leadership. Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani’s 7 August call on him to institute overdue reforms amounts to an instruction and political cover. But the street’s explosive, anti-establishment mood could easily benefit Shiite militias claiming to be a radical alternative – even if several commanders are former officials with an abysmal government record.

Abadi is fighting a difficult two-front battle: against a political class whose failings brought the crisis but with which he is associated and whose support he can assume only if his reforms promise to change little; and against adroit, emerging challengers whose ambitions are backed by considerable resources and recently acquired legitimacy. The way he introduces change is critical.

The Shiite political leadership saw its legitimacy plunge over the past year, as it proved impotent against IS’s takeover of Sunni-populated areas. Those standing up to the threat were Shiite militias organised under the “popular mobilisation” umbrella to defend Baghdad and Shiite holy sites. Their success in partially pushing back IS resonated with unemployed young Shiites, who could measure that against the shortcomings of politicians locked within the Green Zone. Devoid of conventional prospects and in many cases even basic education, many joined the militias as the only way to have an income. Many are now in the forefront of the demonstrations.

The past year’s events opened a rift among Shiite forces. Militias with strong Iranian ties, such as the Badr Brigade, the League of the Sons of the Righteous and (Iraqi) Hizbollah, benefited the most, owing to a plentiful supply of weapons and military advice. Their commanders, especially Badr’s Hadi al-Ameri and the League’s Qais al-Khazali, became military heroes, their portraits prominent in Baghdad’s central districts, while commentators in social media began referring to leading politicians, including Abadi, derogatorily as inbitahi (“inert”). Some senior members (including Abadi’s predecessor and rival, Nouri al-Maliki) of established parties – al-Daawa, the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq (ISCI) and Moqtada al-Sadr’s al-Ahrar list – aligned with the militias to recover credibility.

Already in July, Khazali called for replacing the parliamentary system with a presidential one that would empower Iran-friendly figures, such as President Fuad Masoum and Maliki (now vice president), at the expense of the prime minister and legislature.

In Basra, the League used protests against electricity shortages and criticism of local officials to delegitimise provincial institutions, providing impetus for the protests to spread throughout the south and into Baghdad and threaten the political and religious establishment. Sistani extended his support to Abadi and called on him for major reforms in an attempt to change the course of events. This compelled even militia commanders and their allies to declare support for the reform program but also put it on Abadi to get results.

The absence of a clear plan is glaring, but other deficiencies could also scuttle the reform. Abadi has reduced his government’s size by scrapping some ministries, merging others and cancelling multiple deputy prime minister and vice president posts; he has also reduced ministry advisers and ministers’ bodyguards and created committees to select candidates for senior positions on merit and review officials’ salaries and benefits.

The package appears to tackle corruption and senior appointments based on party affiliation or ethnic/sectarian grounds. Yet, implementation repeats old unhelpful patterns. Abadi announced reforms frenetically to show real change, but they lacked a framework, criteria for decisions, a timeframe, and implementing agencies and procedures. With so much unclear, the public sector’s mid and upper ranks, where nepotism is most deeply rooted, have started to shift loyalty toward the militias to save their jobs.

Another troubling aspect is the decision to shun consultations with political blocs that are mistrustful and reluctant to surrender important positions both nationally and provincially. This risks alienating the support he needs to make substantive cuts. In the provinces, reforms have affected only the appendages of the petty-patronage network, mid-level local officials. In Baghdad, apart from the cancellation of the vice president and deputy prime minister posts, reform has been limited to statements and nominal threats about dismissal of controversial figures and representatives of minority groups whose departure would buy time. Disconnect with the political blocs prevents substantial achievement.

Abadi also risks his endeavour by putting it on shaky constitutional ground. Rushing to regain the street’s favour, he launched it partly outside the constitution, cancelling the vice presidents’ posts, for example, without legal power to do so. This sets a precedent that could be overturned by the Supreme Court and exploited by political rivals to remove him.

Abadi has raised expectations of a deeply impatient public. Failure to meet them would play into militia commanders’ hands. They and their allies do not want to openly defy Sistani, but if street dissatisfaction peaks again, they will be ready to sow chaos, especially in southern provinces where frustration grows daily. Militia members in the protests could spark clashes with police or popular mobilisation branches affiliated with other Shiite groups lacking equal Iranian support, including Moqtada al-Sadr’s Peace Brigades. If popular anger explodes, those on the militias’ side could denounce existing institutions as obsolete and, on the pretext of reestablishing order, use military superiority to impose their rule.

Abadi needs to display consummate political skill. Rather than unilaterally rushing through dramatic changes that challenge the legal order, he should work with his political partners to put forward a clear, realistic plan that reinforces that order, using Sistani’s support to manage expectations and mitigate the street’s impatience. In particular, he should build on unprecedented, but temporary parliament and council of ministers support to introduce a new, non-sectarian brand of politics and governance with the following elements:

  • A concerted effort with parliament to pass or revise implementing legislation for key constitutional articles, whose absence or inadequacy has blocked a workable government system for a decade. It should prioritise reversing party control of state institutions and reviving parliament’s role in national and provincial affairs. This requires a political parties law regulating activities, duties and funding; revision of the provincial powers law to define relations between central and provincial governments and give parliament more oversight of provincial officials; a law delineating the role of the security forces, including police and army, and addressing militias’ status; and regulating employment procedures in all ministries to ensure fair, non-partisan competition.
     
  • Close cooperation with his political partners to effect the cancellation of senior government posts without a major backlash. Particularly the Shiite political blocs need to calculate that compromise on senior posts is the ticket to longevity and influence. Recognising the difficulty in removing his own and allied parties’ corrupt officials, Abadi should instead set the tone for governance going forward, making clear corrupt practices will no longer be tolerated from anyone, and instructing police and judiciary to act against offenders regardless of political affiliation.
     
  • Use of external support to gain time needed for results. Years of state dysfunction cannot be surmounted in a few weeks or months. Abadi already has help from an actor (Sistani) who could persuade protesters to be patient. Western governments, particularly the U.S., should openly declare support of a prime minister they helped install and of the reform effort, so as to preserve and strengthen the political process and institutions they have invested in. Abadi should reach out to Iran, which has an interest in protecting Iraqi territorial integrity that is under threat from militias Tehran empowers but whose actions foster centrifugal forces, in effect partition.
     
  • The Baghdad political elite can save itself only if it changes its ways meaningfully. This requires rooting out the corruption that has kept many in power regardless of competence, and reinforcing the many institutions that have become empty shells.

If the current reforms prove little more than window-dressing, they will mean the end of the political life of the prime minister and large portions of the political class. In their place, militia commanders would ride popular anger and military supremacy to power. There are many precedents in Iraq’s history. It was, after all, only a year ago that IS used Sunni anger and a lightening military strike to impose repressive rule in large parts of the country.

Baghdad/Brussels

Iraqi supporters of Sairun list celebrate with Iraqi flags and a picture of Shi'ite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr after results of Iraq's parliamentary election were announced, in Najaf, Iraq 15 May, 2018. REUTERS/Alaa al-Marjani

The Iraqi Elections: A Way Out of the Morass?

The results of Iraq’s 12 May parliamentary contests are not yet final, but the broad contours are apparent. Efforts to fashion a coalition government will likely involve lengthy bargaining. Crisis Group’s Middle East and North Africa Program Director Joost Hiltermann offers a preliminary analysis.

At first blush, what do these preliminary results amount to? Any surprises? Any dramatic change in the way Iraq will be governed?

There is less surprise in the victory of a component of the Shiite Islamist political firmament than in the nature of that component: the Sadrists, long demonised in the West and not particularly liked in Tehran. They won in alliance with the Communists, also vilified by the West and Iran alike, but in a much earlier era. But the antipathy of external powers is not all the Sadrists, followers of the populist cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, and the Communists have in common. What brought these two apparently disparate forces together on the Sairoun (On the Move) list is their deep disgust with entrenched corruption and joint past activism for institutional reform; their opposition to foreign intervention and recognition of the need to balance outside forces (whether Iran, Turkey, Saudi Arabia or the United States) against one another; and their publicly expressed non-sectarian approach to state building.

There is an indirect link between the fact that an anti-corruption coalition won and the low participation rate: voter turnout is estimated at just under 45 per cent. Many people stayed away because they reckoned that their votes would not produce the kind of change they seek, namely a dramatic overhaul of a political system that thrives on nepotism, party-based patronage and outright graft. It may well be that if the Sairoun list succeeds in forming a governing coalition of which it constitutes the core, it can pursue a reform agenda with the support not only of its own base but also of many of those who declined to vote, because they share the same goal - at least, if popular revulsion at the system does not overtake that system’s ability to govern altogether.

What Iraq needs is a visionary leadership.

Whether they will succeed is a different question altogether. The Sadrists and Communists may end up forming a governing coalition. But the inevitable return of some of the “old guard” politicians will entail compromises that will limit any reform effort, not only because these politicians have other priorities, but also because they have much to lose from an effort to curb corruption. Moreover, in a country reliant for its income almost entirely on oil exports, and with corruption rampant ever since the UN imposed comprehensive sanctions in 1990, then magnified by huge and unchecked infusions of U.S. cash after 2003, it is hard to see how the new government can immunise itself from the same disease. Iraq will also need to tackle the challenge posed by paramilitary groups that act autonomously from the state and pose a long-term threat to its integrity and effectiveness.

What Iraq needs is a visionary leadership strong enough to diversify the economy away from its dangerous dependence on oil and fully integrate paramilitary groups into state institutions and formal security forces. It needs a central government willing and able to strike a historic compromise with the Kurdish regional government over power sharing in disputed territories and a fair distribution of oil income derived from these areas. It is doubtful that a narrow coalition government can deliver such critical results.

Is Sairoun’s victory a setback for Iran?

There is no love lost between Iran and this alliance of Sadrists and Communists. Yet I suspect that Tehran can live with a government of which this alliance would form the strongest component. In the past, Iranian leaders have indicated no strong preference as to who governs Iraq, as long as Shiite Islamists remain in power overall, even if partnered with Sunni Arabs, Kurds or – heaven forbid – Communists (though in this case have-been Communists). For Iranian leaders, it is not about individuals but about having in place a coalition government that will not harm Iran’s strategic interests. Iran does not want to be attacked by its neighbour, as it was in 1980, and it sees the best defence to be a relatively weak Iraq under a government that doesn’t necessarily do Tehran’s bidding but can be safely expected not to cross any of its red lines. The fact is that no post-2003 Iraqi government has done so. Indeed, each has carefully balanced Iranian versus U.S. interests, and we can expect continuity in that respect even with the Sadrists and Communists in the lead.

Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps was amenable to dropping Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki in 2014, just after he had won parliamentary elections that year and could easily have extended his tenure for a third four-year term. In their eyes, Maliki had failed: failed in pursuing a policy that would have prevented the Islamic State from seizing one third of the country by feeding on Sunni Arab discontent, which the prime minister had fuelled through harsh repressive practices, and failed therefore in not harming Iran’s interests. Tehran was open as well to accepting Haider al-Abadi, a relative unknown from Maliki’s Daawa party who was supported by the U.S., as the new premier. In the end, Iran also is aware of its own limits in Iraq; it knows it must heed the pronouncements of the Shiites’ foremost religious leader, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani in Najaf, or alienate itself even further from an Iraqi population that is historically suspicious of Iranian designs. Despite being of Iranian birth, Sistani stands for Iraqi-ness in the eyes of many Iraqis across the ethno-sectarian board.

The Iraqi media are playing up the existence of what Iraqis see as two broad coalitions. They term one the “Iranian coalition”, comprising the Fatah (Conquest) coalition, which came in second, and Maliki’s State of Law list, which came in fourth. The other, comprising the winners and Abadi’s Nasr (Victory) list, they have dubbed the “American coalition”. It’s quite amusing – though perhaps not to Americans – that in this perception the Sadrists are squarely placed within the “American” coalition. It looks like they have come a long way! The reason for this sharp breakdown is that Iraqis see their various predicaments as part of a larger tug of war between Iran and the U.S. They place the Fatah and State of Law lists, with their associated paramilitary groups, in the Iranian camp, though we should be careful not to assume that everyone who voted for these two lists feels a particular affinity for Iran. The other camp is glibly referred to as “American”, but it would be more accurate to say that it is anti-Iranian, or more pronouncedly patriotic: its agenda is not diluted by a concern for needing to serve some specific Iranian interest in addition to general Iraqi ones.

Who has the best chance of becoming prime minister? Muqtada al-Sadr?

While we should be careful not to dismiss Sadr’s victory as a one-off fluke, an aberration due to low turnout, we can safely discount the possibility that he will become prime minister. That’s not the game he plays, and the premiership is not a position to which he aspires. You have to remember that he is the last recognisable representative of the famed Sadr family from Najaf. His father, Mohammed Mohammed Sadeq al-Sadr, was a prominent Shiite religious leader, who was assassinated by the Saddam Hussein regime in 1999, along with two other sons. His father-in-law (his father’s cousin), Mohammed Baqir al-Sadr, was possibly even more famous as a religious leader and ideological founder of the Daawa party; he was executed along with his sister Bint al-Huda by the regime in 1980.

In short, Muqtada is the surviving offspring of legendary martyrs, which goes a long way in explaining his popularity and legitimacy with his base, especially in Baghdad’s immense Shiite slum Revolution City, which was promptly renamed Sadr City after 2003. A man of his standing, even if he lacks formal schooling or a particularly high level of religious education – or perhaps because of that – prefers to stay behind the curtain when it comes to the exercise of formal power; he leaves that to others, while he pulls the strings.

You also need to keep in mind that in Iraq’s fragmented post-2003 political landscape, the prime minister has often come from neither of the two strongest Shiite blocs but from the weak middle. In 2005, Ibrahim Jaafari became prime minister as a compromise between the two strongest parties to emerge from the elections: the Sadrists (even then, but politically inexperienced and incapable of governing) and the Supreme Council of Abdul-Aziz al-Hakim (who comes from the second prominent religious family in Najaf). Jaafari belonged to the Daawa party, which is Iraq’s original Shiite Islamist party, established after the fall of the monarchy in 1958, whose leadership and ranks were decimated by Saddam Hussein in the 1980s. In 2003, the party was extremely weak, but retained its standing among Shiites. Jaafari therefore was a safe choice for the election winners in 2005, as well as for Tehran (even though Jaafari had been in exile in the UK, not Iran).

A year later, when the transitional government came to an end, the Supreme Council and the Sadrists again emerged strongest in the polls, and this time they picked Maliki, also a Daawa member, as prime minister, after the Kurds vetoed Jaafari; at that time, the Kurds were still strong in Baghdad. Maliki rebuilt Daawa, using oil money to buy support and entrench his – more than his party’s – power. Then he overreached, became spoiled goods and was forced to cede his position to Abadi in 2014.

So what about Abadi now? He came in third, but I wouldn’t count him out as a candidate for prime minister. The two strongest blocs this time are the Sadrists and the Fatah list (in some ways a continuation of the Supreme Council), which came in second. Sadr has already indicated that he is willing to engage in all sorts of alliances but not with Fatah or State of Law. In the 329-seat parliament, he will therefore need to reach the 165-seat threshold by bringing in smaller groups. If he can strike a deal with Abadi’s Nasr, Ammar al-Hakim’s Hikma, the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan and the two main Sunni Arab lists Wataniya and Qarar, then he’s there. That’s a tall order, but not taller than that faced by his adversaries.

In such an arrangement, the Sadrists may well reach out to a person such as Abadi, because the current prime minister has built up a good reputation over the past four years and is weak enough to be controlled. Then I would expect some compromise political choices for what in the Arab world are referred to as the “sovereign” ministries: interior, defence, finance, foreign affairs and, in Iraq’s case, perhaps oil. But the service ministries – such as health, education, transport and planning – may well be staffed by technocrats, consistent with Sadr’s, and the Communists’, strong desire to address governance issues and institute reform.

It sounds mainly like continuity with a possibility of change….

Exactly. With one notable point. Sairoun’s victory marks the first time that Iraqi leaders who are not former exiles have won an election. We should not underestimate the importance of this precedent. Remember that ordinary Iraqis, who survived decades of dictatorship, always viewed the returning exiles with great suspicion after 2003, believing they were intent on grabbing power and Iraq’s resources. They were not wrong in the majority of cases. The former exiles established a kleptocracy that squandered oil income and plucked the country bare. Iraq’s youth have little to aspire to beyond finding a government job through partisan patronage, joining the army or a paramilitary or insurgent group, or making the emigration gamble. It is not an attractive palette of options, and also not a way for a country to rebuild itself.

Iraq may have rid itself of the scourge of the Islamic State, but the state apparatus is rotten to its core and the society bedridden partly as a result. Can Iraqi politicians who never left Iraq and survived the old regime, with all the legitimacy this confers, do a better job? There is reason to be sceptical. Regardless of local perceptions, corruption came with the sanctions and then the institutional breakdown precipitated by a series of U.S. blunders from 2003 onward, which reduced regulation and oversight, more than with the returning exiles per se. Add to that the distribution of public-sector positions according to party membership, which allowed political parties to turn the ministries they controlled into fiefdoms that could dole out fat contracts to relatives and loyalists.

Iraq may have rid itself of the scourge of the Islamic State, but the state apparatus is rotten to its core and the society bedridden partly as a result.

Iraq will need more, therefore, than just remedial measures by the next government, or the one after that, to emerge successfully from four decades of war, sanctions, occupation and civil war. We should see it as a generational endeavour. And it can succeed only if the regional environment remains stable. With the recent U.S. withdrawal from the Iran nuclear deal and resulting rising Middle East tensions, such a scenario is now very much in doubt. All we can hope for is that the U.S. and Iran continue to see that despite their major differences in the region, in Iraq their converging interests, evident since 2003, are paramount and worth preserving. It is clear from the election results that, for their part, Iraqis are ready to continue to balance the two sides for their own wellbeing and the betterment of their country.