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The Iraqi Elections: A Way Out of the Morass?
The Iraqi Elections: A Way Out of the Morass?
Keeping Sudan’s Transition on Track
Keeping Sudan’s Transition on Track
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.

Commentary / Africa

Keeping Sudan’s Transition on Track

Following the ouster of Sudan’s strongman Omar al-Bashir, sustained pressure yielded a power-sharing agreement between the military and opposition alliance. But the settlement is fragile and the economy is in deep distress. In this excerpt from our Watch List 2019 - Third Update for European policymakers, Crisis Group urges the EU to support the civilian cabinet during the country’s delicate transition.

This commentary is part of our Watch List 2019 - Third Update.

Against long odds, a protest movement triggered the ouster of Sudanese strongman Omar al-Bashir, one of Africa’s longest-ruling leaders. He was finally deposed by military coup on 11 April 2019. In mid-August, the opposition alliance that grew out of the protest movement and Sudan’s generals reached agreement on terms of a power-sharing transitional framework that, if fully implemented, will yield elections and civilian rule in three years. They have appointed a new prime minister, Abdalla Hamdok, a well-respected economist, named a civilian cabinet and formed a joint civilian-military supervisory council to oversee the agreement signed on 17 August. 

Prime Minister Hamdok is under pressure to deliver against high popular expectations. Many Sudanese hope the civilian cabinet can steer the country to a better future after three decades of economic stagnation, political repression and gross violations of human rights under Bashir. The opposition alliance, Forces for Freedom and Change, led mainly by young professionals new to politics, has already fired the imagination of Sudanese everywhere. Its disciplined, sustained and diverse campaign (with women often at the forefront), delivered change largely peacefully even in the face of brutal crackdowns by police and paramilitary units. 

But major obstacles lie ahead. The settlement outlined in the 17 August document is fragile and needs careful nurturing in the face of several linked challenges. First, Hamdok and his cabinet inherit an economy in deep distress. They have prioritised its revival, but in pursuing reforms they ultimately need to fundamentally reorder a rentier system that privileges both the generals with whom they now share power and Bashir’s former cronies. Second, Sudan’s generals only signed the power-sharing agreement under intense external pressure. They could still play spoiler during the transition if they choose to challenge new reforms they see as threatening their political and business interests. Third, armed groups from Sudan’s long-marginalised peripheries have not endorsed the deal. Securing a comprehensive peace agreement to end Sudan’s long-running internal wars will be a key priority, not least because these groups’ leaders could be co-opted by the security forces and work to derail the transition. 

The European Union and its member states have a clear interest in helping make a success of Sudan’s promising yet delicate transition, and can support the country in the following ways:

  • Offer technical and financial support to the transitional administration’s efforts to revive the economy and set out new fiscal policy in two ways:
    • Provide technical support to Hamdok and his team as they seek to stabilise government finances by consolidating revenue streams and centralising them within a transparent fiscal framework. 
    • Provide budget support and development financing to the government while Hamdok undertakes deeper reforms and addresses core economic challenges, including the need to stabilise currency and commodity prices, tackle inflation and reduce youth unemployment.
  • Support the new cabinet’s efforts to confront corruption. The EU Asset Recovery Office could partner with authorities in Khartoum to help trace and recover some of the funds directed away from state coffers through the corruption of former regime insiders.
  • Press the U.S. to lift Sudan’s designation as a state sponsor of terrorism, which would help Sudan reconnect to the international financial system and help spur foreign investment. It is also a necessary step for Sudan to obtain debt relief, although Hamdok’s government would also need to clear the country’s debt arrears and make progress on fiscal transparency. 
  • Support the new administration’s efforts to negotiate a peace deal with armed groups fighting in states on Sudan’s periphery, and offer technical and financial backing to talks currently hosted by Juba.
  • If transitional authorities agree on a roadmap for unifying regular military and paramilitary Rapid Support Forces under a single command, help support the reintegration into civilian life of militiamen who do not join the consolidated entity. 

Halting Steps into a Future without Bashir

President Bashir long revelled in his reputation as a political survivor, but he did not withstand the wave of protests that broke out in mid-December 2018. Amid soaring commodity prices, empty bank coffers, shortages of basic goods and a collapsing currency, Sudanese protesters poured out into the streets in towns and cities across the country demanding change. Unlike the 2011 and 2013 uprisings, the protest movement cut across social and geographic divides, drawing in not just university students and the urban middle classes but also traders, farmers, herders and civil servants throughout the country. Protesters, marshalled by a coalition of trade unions and professionals (notably doctors), organised through neighbourhood committees and by word of mouth even amid communication blackouts. Tens of thousands of protesters set up an encampment outside military headquarters on 6 April; the military ousted Bashir five days later.

Progress since has been mixed. Protesters sustained their campaign after Bashir’s 11 April ouster, demanding a clean break from the kleptocracy that had governed Sudan for three decades, but they did not immediately succeed.  A junta comprising security sector chiefs stepped into Bashir’s shoes and showed no inclination to share power with the civilian protesters. Tensions grew until, on 3 June, security forces massacred up to 120 civilians at the protest encampment outside military headquarters, drawing widespread condemnation.

The cabinet and still-to-be-formed legislative council will have their work cut out in dealing with the security forces.

The 3 June massacre proved to be a turning point following which external actors, notably the U.S., the EU and the AU, successfully pressured the junta’s backers in Riyadh, Abu Dhabi and Cairo to convince the generals to engage seriously in talks with civilians.  Weeks of tense negotiations spearheaded by AU and Ethiopian mediators yielded a power-sharing agreement that, on paper, hands substantial powers to a civilian-led cabinet and a planned civilian-dominated legislative assembly, overseen by an eleven-member sovereign council comprised of five representatives appointed by the opposition alliance, five by the security forces and one civilian chosen by consensus.

A Tough Road Ahead

Sudan’s new cabinet members, all nominated by the opposition alliance (excepting for the defence and interior ministers), face enormous challenges. Some of those are internal: maintaining unity within the sprawling opposition coalition, given its diverse membership and different appetites for compromise with the military, will test the group. Also, many in its ranks are inexperienced, having been excluded from mainstream politics during Bashir’s three decades in power. Asserting authority over a civil service still dominated by holdovers of the old regime, whose cooperation is key to implementing new policies and reforms, will be a difficult task. And tempering public expectations will be yet another key challenge; Hamdok and his team will need to communicate that picking Sudan up from its economic ruins will be a tough slog, requiring the public’s patience.

The cabinet and still-to-be-formed legislative council will have their work cut out in dealing with the security forces. To ensure his own survival, Bashir kept the security forces divided to prevent any unit from amassing enough power to depose him. Consequently, the once-powerful Sudanese Armed Forces has in recent years been weakened and supplanted by the Rapid Support Forces, a paramilitary group formed from the remnants of the Janjaweed militia accused of atrocities in Darfur. Its leader, Muhammad Hamdan Dagalo “Hemedti” is widely regarded as the most powerful man in Sudan, commanding substantial resources and styling himself as kingmaker and the primary decision-maker behind the scenes of the transitional process.

Helping Sudan Navigate a Fragile Transition

Reviving an economy on life support is an immediate priority for the new administration. If the civilian leadership can offer some quick wins for Sudanese citizens impoverished by a long-mismanaged, patronage-based economy, they may be able to boost popular support and forge a political base, which would strengthen their hand against the generals. Here the EU and its member states can play a pivotal role. The EU could start by offering rapid technical support to Prime Minister Hamdok’s government to streamline its budgeting process and revenue collection, and to help improve oversight to ensure the new finance minister and the prime minister have full control of state funds.  The EU should also consider budget support and development financing: Prime Minister Hamdok says the country requires up to $10 billion to stabilise the currency and help the administration tackle key challenges over the next two years.

The Hamdok administration has also outlined other policy goals, which the EU should support. A critical and immediate priority is addressing mass youth unemployment and underemployment, which fuelled protesters’ grievances and has driven substantial emigration in recent years. The incoming European Commission and the new EU leadership should back the new administration’s efforts to revive the economy, rapidly mobilising needed financial support for the country.  The EU should, in particular, take a lead in pulling together a package of internationally-backed relief measures to help breathe new life into Sudan’s economy.  Brussels could also offer targeted developmental financing to boost skills development for local entrepreneurs and support market development for local businesses.

Working to curb rampant corruption is another priority. Sudanese authorities should move to ratify the Cotonou Agreement, a treaty outlining terms of engagement between the EU and its partners in Africa, the Caribbean and the Pacific; signatories agree to strengthen the rule of law and improve government transparency, including by combating corruption.  For its part, the EU should support Hamdok’s anti-corruption efforts, including by funding a civil service reform initiative and updating government procurement systems. The EU should also consider deploying its assets recovery office to track funds Bashir’s regime allegedly sent abroad. Sudanese authorities should request EU help with this.

Bashir’s fall offers a rare chance to begin healing rifts between Khartoum and regions on Sudan’s peripheries.

The EU should also encourage Washington to lift Sudan’s designation as a state sponsor of terrorism under U.S. law. The designation cuts the Sudanese people off from the international financial system and encourages foreign investors to stay out of Sudan, which explains why the 2017 lifting of U.S. sanctions had only a modest economic impact. It also hampers debt relief (which will also require Sudan paying off debt arrears and making progress on fiscal transparency) and makes it impossible to obtain direct budget support from multilateral financial institutions. In addition to helping address these concerns, rescinding the designation would give Hamdok a huge political victory and strengthen his hand against the generals; conversely, the generals might wield any failure to lift the designation against him.  Because rescinding the designation entails a loss of leverage over potential spoilers, Washington and the EU will need to consider other deterrence mechanisms, including the use of targeted sanctions.

Bashir’s fall offers a rare chance to begin healing rifts between Khartoum and regions on Sudan’s peripheries that have been given short shrift since independence. The opposition alliance and security establishment will have to be attentive to the armed factions’ deeply held grievances as they work toward a comprehensive peace deal to end Sudan’s internal wars and consolidate its fragmented security sector.  Here, the EU can help by offering ongoing mediation efforts now hosted in Juba both diplomatic support and, where helpful, technical assistance. The EU and the U.S. should further urge other potential mediators including Riyadh, Abu Dhabi, and Cairo to fully back the Juba initiative and prevent the parties from forum shopping.

Sudan ultimately needs to unify its varied security forces under one command. This difficult task will require deft engagement among the civilian leadership, the head of the military and figures such as Hemedti. Riyadh, Abu Dhabi and Cairo will need to underscore the importance of unifying the security forces with actors such as Hemedti, who has marketed himself to Egypt and the Gulf states as a strong leader and a bulwark against Islamism in Sudan. Once transitional authorities arrive at a roadmap for unifying the security forces, the EU, with its experience in supporting security sector reform and reintegration programmes around the world, could help implement such a roadmap and reintegrate militiamen who prefer to return to civilian life.