Thursday, May 21, 2009

"During Saddam's time, we could only dream of seeing something like this"

The quote above by a young Iraqi refers to the televised questioning of Iraqi Trade Minister, Abd al-Falah al-Sudany, in the Iraqi Parliament this past Saturday and Sunday, on charges of corruption. This event represents by any standard an important step forward in promoting democracy in Iraq. Having the questioning televised throughout the country not only allowed millions of Iraqis to see their government in action, but points to the power of the media in promoting democracy in post-2003 Iraq.

Transparency International has labeled Iraq as one of the most corrupt states in the world, ranking it 178 of 180 on its country list. Iraqis have long been fed up with government ministers who view their ministries' budgets as extensions of their own private purse. Resentment and anger at government corruption has been intensified by the lack of state services available to the Iraqi citizenry, such as electricity, health care, police protection, education, and garbage removal.

Thus to make Minister of Trade al-Sudany submit to hours of televised questioning by the Iraqi Parliament's Integrity Committee Chair, Sabah al-Sa'idi, a member of the Fadila Party, whose power base is in the southern port city of Basra, was eye opening and exhilarating for many Iraqis. Parliament member, Bassam Sharif, also a member of Fadila, indicated to reporters that 100 representatives had signed a no confidence vote in the Trade Minister, far more than the 50 required for such a vote. A vote on this measure in Parliament is expected next Sunday.

The main charge against the Trade Minister, who is a member of Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki's ruling al-Da'wa (Islamic Call) Party, was his taking of millions of dollars from the national food ration program upon which many Iraqi depend for sustenance. Minister al-Sudany also had to answer to charges that two of his brothers received a $40 kickback for each ton of sugar that was distributed by the Trade Ministry.

Perhaps most ominous for the system of institutionalized corruption that has developed since 2003 is the Parliament's request that the ministers of oil, electricity and transportation also appear for questioning. Thus a message has been sent that there are limits to corrupt behavior on the part of government officials.

What this action shows is the benefits of a system of governance built on checks and balances. The newly assertive Parliament, keen to be reelected during the next parliamentary elections that will take place sometime between December 2009 and February 2010, needs to demonstrate to the Iraqi public that its members are serving its needs. Even if the motivations behind the parliamentary hearings are cynical, the fact that they are addressing one of the most important problems facing Iraq, namely corruption, indicates the benefits of democracy.

These actions in the Iraqi Parliament demonstrate the power of the media. Few analysts in the West have focused on the vigorous Iraqi press and communications media that has developed since 2003. Myriad Iraqi blogs have also disseminated enormous amounts of information to the Iraqi public. Clearly, the distribution of information is key to a well functioning democracy.

And let's not forget the "neighbohood effects" of the televised questioning of the Iraqi Trade Minister. al-Jazeera and other Arabic television channels will certainly broadcast them elsewhere in the Arab world. As with the January 2009 Provincial Legislature elections, seeing Iraqis engage in democratic practices will no doubt have a highly subversive impact on the authoritarian Arab states that surround Iraq.

The televised hearing also point to the shortcomings of viewing Iraq only through an ethnic and confessional lens (see my posting "10 Conceptual Sins in the Study of Middle East Politics"). Corruption has little to do with ethnic or religious differences. Both Minister al-Sudany and Integrity Committee Chief al-Sa'idi are Shi'is. Rather the issue of corruption calls upon everyone concerned with Iraq's development to pay more attention to political economy. No ethnic group or religion has a monopoly on virtue. Corruption in political office knows no ethnic or religious bounds. In many ways, the continued obsession in the West with viewing Iraq through an "ethnoconfessional" lens draws attention away from Iraq's real problems.

Nevertheless, the fact that a sitting minister was grilled by Parliament on charges of corruption for the first time in the political history of modern Iraq, a history that extends back to the state's founding in 1921, represents a major step forward in the process of democratization in Iraq. I suspect it will not be the last.

N.B.: In this posting, I benefited greatly from, "Iraqis react to public grilling of government minister: Some Iraqis said they saw the televised questioning of Trade Minister Abdul Falah al Sudany as the birth of a real democracy," by Jack Dolan, Sahar Issa and Laith Hammoudi, Miami Herald, May 20, 2009