The Iraqi elections of May 2018 have been followed by a lengthy process of forming a new government, one which has yet to be completed. Extensive wheeling and dealing took place and only within the last month have most of the new government ministers been appointed. Legitimately so, many analyses of the elections criticized the dysfunction which characterized the election process as well as the time it took to put a new government in place. Nevertheless, the question still remains: were there any positive outcomes of the elections and do they point to a step forward in a transition to meaningful democracy?
First, let’s recognize that the 2018 elections represented the fifth time Iraqis have gone to the polls and elected national leaders. That these elections were largely fair and free and did not entail significant violence constitute positive developments. Second, that large numbers of Iraqi were allowed to present themselves as candidates for elections was likewise significant. Third, while the elections in 2005 saw Iraqis vote according to religious sect or ethnicity, in 2010 a cross-ethnic coalition won a majority of seats.
That Iraq could participate in democratic elections in a society in which, in 2002, it was a capital crime to criticize the country’s president or tell a joke about him, and pedestrians overheard saying negative things about the regime could have their tongues cut off and tied to telephone poles to bleed to death was a striking change.
If we add to this political mix, the negative impact of the US invasion of 2003 which, while removing Saddam and the Bath, implemented many policies which impeded efforts of Iraq to move towards democracy, we see that how we frame Iraq since 2003 is key to understanding and accessing whether or not it has made any progress towards democratization.
The US’ actions after toppling Saddam in May 2003 worked at cross purposes with the stated goal of bringing democracy to Iraq. Rather than reaching out to potential leaders within Iraq, the Bush administration brought expatriates who had been exile, some for more than 3 decades, to run the country. Either corrupt officials, such as Ahmad Chalabi, now the leader of the defunct Iraqi National Congress, Abd al-Aziz al-Hakim, the head of the Supreme Council of the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI), which was created by the Iranian regime, and members of the Islamic Call (al-Dacwa al-Islamiya) Party such as Nuri al-Maliki.
The efforts of Coalition Provisional Authority Administrator, C. Paul Bremer, to act as gatekeeper who tried to determine which Iraqis could become candidates for public office was opposed by Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani. Fortunately, Bremer was forced to back down. But this was just one of many acts by the occupation authority which impeded rather than encouraged a transition to democracy.
Two of the most egregious decisions was the failure to secure Baghdad and other Iraqi cities after the regime fell. The looting which went on for days undermined the confidence of Iraqis in the ability of the US to control the country and, by extension, that the effort to establish democracy as a serious one, as opposed to a subterfuge designed to make Iraq an American satellite.
The other egregious decision was dissolving the Iraq conscript army. Largely hostile to Saddam and the catalyst for the March 1991 Uprising (al-Intifada) when retreating troops from Kuwait fired tank shells at a mural of Saddam in the main square of Iraq’s port city of Basra, the conscript army was a battle tested force. Once the insurgency began in the fall of 2003, the US lacked the experience and intelligence to suppress it. The resulting chaos and deaths of thousands of Iraqis (and US troops) was a disaster which could have been avoided if the US had seriously engaged Iraqis rom many walks of life and listened to their needs and reacted appropriately.
Emerging from a legacy of 35 years of Bacthist rule, during which Iraq experienced two of the most devastating wars of the 20th century – the 1980-88 Iran-Iraq War and the 1991 Gulf War, followed by the March 1991 Intifada – devastated Iraq’s infrastructure and small industrial base, including its oil economy. The UN sanctions regime imposed on Iraq in 1991, and only removed after the US invasion in 2003, crippled Iraq’s middle class and set its educational system – before 1980 one of the best in the Middle East – back decades.
If we add this legacy to the US invasion and occupation which, while removing Saddam Husayn, created more impediments to Iraq by empowering :sectarian entrepreneurs whose main goal was augmenting their power and wealth, it is indeed remarkable that Iraq has been able to prioress as far as it has towards institutionalizing a democratic political system since 2003.
The political culture that preceded the Bacth Party ‘s seizure of power, first in February 1963, and then in July 1968, was one of ethnic and religious accommodation. For sure, sectarian incidents, such as the Farhud of June 1941, existed, as did the massacre by the Iraqi army of Assyrian military forces in the summer of 1933, but these events were the exception, not the rule in Iraq. There weren’t, for example, the type of systematic pogroms against Jews which Cossack brigades carried out in Czarist Russia.-->
Iraqis realized the devastation caused by sectarianism when the Dacish seized Mosul in June 2014. After the Iraqi army abandoned its posts, and many Shica soldiers were killed by the terrorists, it became clear that the disaster was the result of Nuri al-Maliki sectarian and nepotistic policies, e.g., appointing loyalist with little or no military experiences as officers who then used their positions to engage in steal from soldier salaries, promoting a toxic political environment in Mosul.
Despite al-Maliki efforts to use the Iraqi military in the form of calling tanks to patrol the streets of Baghdad, he was nevertheless removed from office. This was not done though assassinating or even imprisoning him, as would be the case in many other MENA region countries. Indeed, he was allowed to remain as a Vice President. While al-Maliki was able to continue to wield power, and has sought to promote negative policies since 2014, the key point is that he was not killed when another politician filled his position as prime minister.
His replacement, Haydar al-Abadi, was a well-respected politician with an engineering degree from Manchester University who lived for many years in the UK. Despite a member of al-Maliki Islamic Call Party, al-Abadi’s rule was devoid of sectarianism and he himself set a good model for decorum. No one has accused him of pursuing corrupt and nepotistic policies while in office, in contradistinction to al-Maliki.
The elections of May 2018 demonstrated that the policy of politicians relying on sectarianism to mobilize support among voters has run its course. This is not to argue that sectarian entrepreneurs and sectarian identities still play a powerful role in Iraq’s political system. However, Iraqi voters favored the Sairun (We are Coming) Coalition which linked the Sadrists and the Iraqi Communist Party. The main platform of this coalition was improving social services for the populace and eliminating corruption which was the cause of poor services.
Still the “quota” (al-muhassasa) system still functions as the main criterion for appointment to high government office. Much like the confessional system in Lebanon, the informal rule is that the presidency of the federal republic belongs to a Kurd, the prime ministership to a Shica Arab, and the speakership of the parliament to a Sunni Arab. Cabinet ministers are also appointed according to the power of the various political coalitions (and they are fluid coalitions, not established political parties as that term is generally understood).
Muqtada al-Sadr, for example, leader of the Sairun Coalition. has blocked candidates for the Interior, Higher Education and Scientific Research, the ministry of culture, and, most recently, a ministry destined for the Sunni al-Bina' Alliance which is part of the al-Fatah PMU (al-hashad al-shacbi) coalition. While this behavior is indicative of the power struggle between al-Sadr and Hadi al Amiri, the al-Fatah and PMU leader, it points to the extent to which an informal system of “checks and balances” operate to prevent political power from being consolidated in the hands of a single political leader and hence impedes the rise of another dictator such as Saddam.