Sunday, June 10, 2018

Response to comments on my post: The May Parliamentary Elections in Iraq: A Step Forward in the Transition to Democracy?

Iraqi elections campaign billboards
Since I published a post at The New Middle East on Iraq's May 2018 parliamentary elections, I received numerous comments and questions regarding my analysis of the elections.  I respond to these comments and questions below. 

Is it valid to classify Iraq as a democracy?

The answer is a qualified yes.  However, to apply the term democracy in Iraqi politics without a modifier is problematic.  Iraq is a nation-state involved in the process of a transition to democracy.  It is as of yet not a consolidated democracy.
Three happy Iraqi voters
It should be noted that the process of change from an authoritarian regime to a democracy in transition and then to a consolidated democracy is rarely, if ever, a linear process.   Further, once a democracy is consolidated, that is not the “end of history.”  A consolidated or semi-consolidated democracy may experience retrenchment (“backsliding”), as the examples of Italy, Hungary, Poland, the Czech Republic, Slovenia, Turkey, Venezuela, and the Philippines demonstrate.  Even the US is witnessing an undermining of its democratic institutions and processes.  See, for example, the recent volume, How Democracies Die, by Daniel Ziblatt and Steven Levitsky.

Since 2005, Iraq has had 4 national elections.  The main criterion of a democratic elections is that the outcome isn’t known.  This has been true of all 4 of the elections which were held in a manner that all observers consider to have been fair and free.

Doesn’t the lower turnout of the May 12th elections indicate a weakening of support for democracy in Iraq compared to higher turnouts in past elections?

This is an important question but one with a less than obvious answer.  First, the turnout of the Sa’iroun Coalition – primarily comprised of followers of Muqtada al-Sadr - was about the same as in the 2014 parliamentary elections.  The real drop in turnout was for the established party coalitions which have held power since 2014 and even before. This decline in voter support was especially noticeable for the State of Law and the Nasr coalitions.
A government bus poster advising Iraqi voters to check their
personal information prior to the May elections
The problem in understanding how to assess the lower turnout is not to be gleaned as much from the electoral behavior of Iraqi voters, as it is from the analytic point of departure used by many Iraqi and Western analysts and commentators.  Their focus has and continues to be on political elites, not mass publics.  If these analysts, with some exceptions, such as Renad Mansour of Chatham House, had disaggregated the turnout according to party vote (and social class), they would have arrived at a different, i.e., less negative, conclusion.

Another reason the parties in power did poorly was the statement by Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani that, in the May 12th elections, Iraqis were not required to vote.   This statement differed from Sayyid al-Sistani’s position in past elections when he indicated that voting was a necessity. Many Iraqis saw his statement prior to the May elections as an admonition to voters not to support the political parties currently in power because they have done little to attack corruption and solve the everyday problems faced by the populace at large.

The key takeaway when analyzing voter turnout is the following: There was a higher turnout rate among the lower classes of Iraqi society, particularly the poor and lower middle classes who supported the Sa’iroun, than the educated middle classes.  This voting pattern is highly irregular because studies of voting behavior in democratic polities have overwhelming demonstrated that educated and professional members of the middle class invariably vote at higher rates than less educated sectors of the population.  This was not the case in the May 2018 Iraqi elections.

The ongoing media campaign for the May elections
 Why do so many analysts focus on political elites to the exclusion of the citizenry at large?

One reason is the analyst’s bias towards the “Great Man of History” approach to politics.  Individual leaders, whether Saddam Husayn, Nuri al-Maliki, Haydar al-Abadi, Hadi al-Amiri, Muqtada al-Sadr, and so on, are the most visible to the analyst, make continuous statements to the media, and always try to inflate their power and influence.  That all political leaders require a strong and participatory social base if they are to win elections seems to have been lost in the analyses of the May 2018 parliamentary elections.

Combine the Great Leader of History approach with what I call the “sin of presentism” – the failure to situate politics in a historical context – and you arrive at an analysis which is often adept at explaining continuity, but unable to explain substantive change when it occurs.  These 2 conceptual flaws constitute the main reason why the May 12th elections took so many analysts “by surprise.”

Why do we need a historical perspective when elections occur in the here and now and deal with every day – contemporary- issues?

The reason traditional sectarian party coalitions performed poorly in the last elections is that they have been promising to improve social services and fight corruption since 2005.  These promises haven’t been kept.  At the same time, the dominant party elites have attempted to manipulate ethno-sectarian identities to promote vertical identities, i.e., identities constructed along lines of sect – Sunni vs. Shi’a – or ethnicity – Kurd vs. Arab, or Turkmen vs. Kurd - to promote their personal goals, hide the rapacious nature of their behavior, and prevent cross-sect and cross-ethnic alliances.
Employees of the Iraqi High Electoral Commission at work
By way of contrast, the Sadrists and Iraqi Communist Party have promoted horizontal identities, namely cross-sect and cross ethnic alliances.  Such an alliance gained the largest number of seats in the 2010 elections under Ayad al-Allawi’s al-Iraqiya list (91 seats to al-Maliki’s sect-based State of Law’s 89 seats).  

Since corruption hasn’t abated and social services haven’t improved, Iraqis reacted this past May by either boycotting the elections or, in the case of Sa’iroun, voting for a list which explicitly focused on tacking corruption and social services.  We can see Iraqis saying to themselves before voting: “Fool me once, shame on you!  Fool me twice, shame on me!”

But weren’t the Sadrists complicit in corruption and poor delivery of social services when they were in control of certain ministries in the past?

This statement is true.  However, the Sadrists have continuously provided social services to their constituents outside the confines of the state.  Even if they acted in a corrupt manner when in power, the Sadrist leadership has remained loyal to its base.  Further, the Sadrists have always promoted a nationalist vision of Iraq in reaching out to Sunnis and attacking sectarianism.

Because the Sa’iroun Coalition ran on a platform of fighting corruption, the Sadrists will find it difficult to countenance rampant corruption while in office.  While Iraqis can rest assured that the problem of corruption won’t disappear in the near future, the Sadrists will be forced to confront corruption to at least a limited degree if they are to improves the delivery of social services. 

The Sadrists will remain under intense scrutiny by established political elites who will try to delegitimize the Sa’iroun.  The Iraqi Communist Part, the other partner in the Sa’iroun Coalition, will also serve to constrain them in engaging in corruption.  Without the ICP, the Sadrists lose their connection to educated youth and intellectuals who they need to demonstrate that their political support is broad based and not confined to the poor and working classes

What do the elections tell us about the power of sub-national identities in Iraq?

Despite the fetishism of Western analysts of viewing Iraq through the frame of Shica, Sunni and Kurd, they have failed to realize and appreciate the degree to which many inhabitants of the country place their Iraqi identity before their sub-national identities.  One reason for this phenomenon is the fact that Iraqi tribes, especially Arab tribes, invariably contain both Shici and Sunni clans (al-afkhadh).  Another powerful influence is that, in the Iraqi street, relations between different sects and ethnics groups has always been one of tolerance and “live and let live.  The films, Forget Baghdad, and Baghdad High, underscore this sense of religious tolerance and cultural pluralism.

While Iraq’s religious and ethnic divisions are often viewed as a political liability, they serve to place a set of “checks and balances” on would be sectarian entrepreneurs.  Despite the view among Sunni Arabs outside Iraq, that it constitutes a “Shi a country,” the Shi a found themselves divided into 5 factions during the May 2018 elections.  The Kurds and Sunni Arabs were divided into several different factions. 
Political divisions among Iraqi Kurdish factions
If the “Unholy Conceptual Trinity” of Sunni, Shi a and Kurd were so salient to Iraqi politics, one needs to explain why these divisions existed. These internal divisions served to help anti-sectarian party coalitions find partners from groups representing all different ethno-sectarian groups in Iraq.  Indeed, it can be argued that sectarianism adversely affected the very sectarian entrepreneurs who practiced it by encouraging divisions within their ranks.

One only has to attend a football (soccer) game which pits Iraq against a foreign country to see how powerful the sense of Iraqi identity is on display.  In this sense, Iraq is little different from other nation-states which strong regional senses of identity.  In Italy, for example, Italians constantly squabble politically.  However, whenever it’s time for World Cup in football, the country demonstrates an incredible sense of national unity.

What about Iraq’s Kurdish population – where do they fit in the country’s political equation?

There is little doubt that the Kurds are very demoralized after the failure of the September 2017 referendum on establishing an independent Kurdish state.  The referendum failed to produce any positive results.  Instead, it exposed the fissures which have always existed among the two dominant Kurdish partied, the Kurdish Democratic Party (KDP) and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK).  The failed referendum also resulted in the Kurds losing the oil-rich city of Kirkuk and its surrounding areas and other parts of the “disputed territories” along the Kurdish-Arab border in north-central Iraq.  This loss of land deprived the KRG of one-third of its revenues from oil.

Undoubtedly unhappy with the political reality they face, many Kurds have come to the realization that it is preferable to develop an accommodation with the Federal Government in Baghdad which has already provided some salary relief for Kurdish Regional Government (KRG) employees.  Demonstrations by Kurds against the 2 dominant parties, but the KDP in particular, due to massive corruption and nepotism, the payment of only partial salaries to KRG employees over the past 2 years, and the declining quality of social services, places the question of independence in abeyance for the foreseeable future.

At the same time, the Kurds could play a key role in the formation of the new government in Baghdad.  Concessions could be extracted from the Sa’iroun-Nasr-al-Hikma-al-Wataniya Alliance which seems most likely to provide the core of the new government once the manual recount of votes has been completed.  These concessions could include restructuring and increasing the percentage of the national budget designated for the KRG, in return for an attack on corruption.  If this outcome occurred, it would be no different from the deal-making which occurs in other democratic polities after a national election.

How does Iraq compare with other quasi-democratic states?

Few analysts and commentators have situated the May 12th elections in a comparative perspective.  If we look at Venezuela, Turkey, Philippines and Russia, to take some prominent examples, we find opposition leaders barred from running for office, physically intimidated or even put in prison.
Fidesz Party billboard accusing George Soros of controlling opposition parties
In Poland, supposedly a consolidated democracy, the ruling Law and Justice Party had tried to take over control of the judiciary.  In Hungary, Viktor Orban’s Fidesz Party used recent national elections to foster conspiracy theories, and scapegoat minorities and immigrants using “fake news.”  Bill boards depicting billionaire, George Soros, a Hungarian Jew, in a very unflattering manner, while accusing him of trying to destroy Hungary through promoting a massive influx of migrants promoted anti-Semitism and have further degraded the county’s political culture and respect for democratic norms.

In Iraq’s election, there were 6904 candidates.  Candidates were vetted by 3 different government agencies and there were no reports of efforts to systematically deny would-be candidates the right to participate in the national parliamentary elections.  Although some problems were reported in the KRG, on the whole No effort was made to prevent a specific political party from actively campaigning.
Peoples Democratic Party leader, Sellahattin Demirtas - jailed for "insulting"
Turkish president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan
When it was discovered that the electronic voting system employed by the Iraq’s Higher Election Commission to reduce fraudulent voting had failed in parts of the country, a manual recount was agreed upon with little political opposition.  Despite the attempted destruction of ballot boxes on June 10th, it is highly unlikely that the overall results of the May elections will be overturned.  

It is true that the recount is not expected to change the results of Iraq’s elections.  However, the recount will strengthen the legitimacy of the Iraqi elections. Unlike the United States, where President Donald Trump has sought to undermine the legitimacy of our democratic elections, and is already trying to cast doubt on the forthcoming November 2018 elections because the House of Representatives may flip to the Democratic Party, no major politician in Iraq has sought to undermine the substance of Iraq’s democratic elections
Youth - the future of democracy in Iraq
Sectarian slurs and pronouncements were minimal in the May 2018 elections as was the outbreak of violence.  Many commentators have focused only on the decline in rate of voter participation compared to 2014, but few have commended Iraq for the manner in which the institutions designed to organize, oversee and certify the election results.  Remembering that 20 years ago, conducting such elections would have been impossible, Iraq has come a long way since 2003

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