Saturday, June 9, 2012

Could deposing Maliki be a step towards democracy in Iraq?

Current efforts to introduce a vote of no-confidence in the Iraqi parliament which would bring down Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki's government has raised many questions.  Should he be removed? Is there a suitable replacement?  If there is a change in government, would that be a step towards promoting national reconciliation or would it create more ethnic and confessional tensions?

Perhaps the most intriguing question is whether Maliki's removal would constitute a step towards democracy in Iraq?  A second equally important question is whether in the distribution and exercise of political power in Iraq as structured by its ethnoconfessional makeup may be a positive rather than a negative factor the country's political dynamics.

The dispute over Maliki's rule, which has continued since the March 2010 parliamentary elections which were won by the la-Iraqiya Coalition (91 seats to 89 for Maliki's State of Law Coalition), is a result of the Iraqi leader's heavy handed policies.  These policies have involved Maliki's efforts to eliminate as many checks and balances in the Iraqi political system as possible.   A number of security organizations have been created that report directly to the prime minister's office. In effect, Maliki now controls Iraq's security system.

Maliki has undermined the autonomy of the judiciary, harassed oppositional political parties and civil society organizations, taken over control of the central bank, and placed the Independent High Election Commission under his control.  In a recent interview with Niqash (May 30), the head of the Election Commission, Faraj al-Haydari, asserted that Iraq was on the road to dictatorship.  Haydari himself has been forced to appear in court on trumped up fraud charges and to post $12000 bail.

The perception that Maliki is trying to recreate dictatorial rule in Iraq has been fueling efforts to oust him.  Certainly he overplayed his hand.  His most egregious error was to underestimate the power of the Sadrist Trend.  The Sadrists have no love lost for Maliki given his suppression of their former militia, the Mahdi Army (Jaysh al-Mahdi), in 2008.  In an effort to undermine the Sadrists power, Maliki began supporting a rival militia, the League of the Righteous People (Asa'ib Ahl al-Haqq) led by Qais Khazali, a former Mahdi Army commander.

Maliki's other mistake was to alienate the Kurdish leadership.  Rather than try and negotiate an agreement on the exploration and sale of oil in the KRG, Maliki has been very belligerent towards Kurdish efforts to sign contracts wealth foreign oil companies and upgrade the oil infrastructure within the KRG.  His recent trip to Kirkuk, amid extraordinary security measures given the conflict that affects the ethnically mixed city, rubbed alt in the KRG wounds.

While in Kirkuk, Malikli remarked to al-Hayat that the city represented a "Microcosm" of Iraq's ethnic diversity.  Superficially, this remark sounded conciliatory.  However, the real message was that Kirkuk would never be allowed to come under Kurdish control, effectively saying the Article 140 of the Iraqi Constitution, which calls for a referendum on Kirkuk, will never be implemented

The tragedy for Maliki is that he could have followed a very different trajectory after 2010.  He could have included Ayad Allawi's al-Iraqiya Coalition which would have ameliorated much of the lack of trust in the Suinni Arab community over whether Maliki was sincere about giving them a place at the political table.

Maliki could have attempted to use Iraq's oil wealth to create a massive jobs program.  This would have dramatically increased popular support for him and underlined the support for militias like Asa'ib al-Haqq and the Sadrists.  Instead, Malikli has tolerated the spread of corruption in his ministries, further alienating the Iraqi public.  He could have created a number of high profile meetings with the KRG and include the parliament in mediation efforts to find a mutually acceptable solution to the problem of oil wealth and its distribution.

Maliki looked like he could have his way when he was able to coopt a number of Sunni Arab politicians such as parliament speaker Usama al-Nujayfi.  However, those al-Iraqiya members who broke with Ayad Allawi and his attempts to boycott the parliament in response to Maliki's refusal to cede any power to the coalition was always opportunistic.  The so-called "White Iraqiya" bloc has now joined the efforts to remove Maliki whose State of Law Coalition has called for al-Nujayfi's removal based on his "no longer being a neutral party" (al-Hayat, June 2).

Despite the fears of new sectarian conflict as an al-Hayat article of June 3rd tries to argue, I would argue that the current crisis presents new opportunities for democratization in Iraq.  In the early decades of the 20th century, the concept of democracy understood as popular control of representatives in their daily law making activities was challenged by a group of elite theorists, Gaetano Mosca, Robert Michels (who developed the famous "iron law of oligarchy"), Vilfredo Pareto and Charles Beard (who is known for his famous The Economic Interpretation of the Constitution).

Many social scientists conclude that Tocquevillian notions of democracy - namely that citizens had direct control over their representatives through elections, and lobbying for specific policies was a myth.  In response, the famous American political economist, Joseph Schumpeter developed the "theory of democratic elitism."  Schumpeter and others argued that, even if citizens did not control their elected representatives on a daily basis, they still retained the right to remove elites on a periodic basis through elections.  Thus elites were forced to compete for votes in anticipation of elections, preserving what we might call a "minimalist" definition of democracy.

The theory of democratic elitism applies to democracies which still have not developed a strong civil society where citizens can use extra-governmental organizations to gain greater control over the political process.  Still, Iraq demonstrates that the possible withdrawal of confidence from Nuri al-Maliki's government, through democratic procedures, indicates that no one elite can dominate Iraqi politics.  Power in post-Ba'thist Iraq is much more diffuse, as Maliki is discovering to his great chagrin.  There are multiple players in the new Iraq and they are not going allow a new dictatorship to replace that which existed under the ancien regime.

al-Hayat's concerns about renewed sectarian conflict notwithstanding, we see that the diffusion of power among Iraq's three main ethnic groups may actually serve the cause of democracy.  With no one able to dominate the system, political elite are going to be required to go to the public on regular occasions and compete for their support in parliamentary elections.

If Maliki is removed and the specter of a new dictatorship is removed,n the next strep in Iraqi politics will be the mobilization of the populace at large to begin to use new political movements and civil society organizations to exercise more control over elected leaders, such as bringing the country's massive corruption under control.  Certainly, the Integrity Committee in the Iraqi Parliament which has been trying to address this issue can us more popular support.

Already in the Kurdish Gorran (Change) Movement, the Iraqi blogosphere, and organizations which have emerged to protest government policies on a regular basis - not just corruption, but the failure to provide needed social services in an economy awash with oil revenues - we see the potential of the second stage of democratization in Iraq.  For the moment, the inability of any one political elite to reimpose authoritarian rule means that the "theory of democratic elitism" is alive and well in Iraq.  It represents an imperfect form of democracy, but at least a bulwark against the reemergence of a new Saddam Husayn

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