Iraq’s impossible democracy

Salah Nasrawi , Wednesday 9 May 2018

Fifteen years after the ouster of Saddam Hussein, Iraq is still falling short of being a working democracy

Iraqi elections
A street full of election posters in Najaf, Iraq on May 7, 2018 (Photo: AFP)

Iraqi voters will go to the polls this weekend to elect a new parliament, the fourth since the fall of former dictator Saddam Hussein at the hands of US-led invading forces, as the country remains engulfed in a deep political crisis and amid fears of renewed ethnic and sectarian violence.

Not all Iraqis are celebrating, and some are not particularly optimistic about the election results. The three administrations that have been elected since 2003, have been marked by endemic corruption and mismanagement, while the risk of the country’s collapse has gone largely unchecked.

However, one thing remains clear: the ultimate goal of these elections, like the three rounds before them, is to re-establish the power of the same ruling class and to set its rules of engagement for the next four years.

This seems to be a tough conclusion in the light of the Iraqi people’s need to realise that the failure of their so-called democratic system is largely behind the domination of sectarian groups over affairs of state and the continuation of internal conflicts.

Iraq’s fresh elections are preposterously flawed, and they will do little to improve the ruling clique’s legitimacy or performance. Iraqis seem angrier than ever, and the focus of their anger is the country’s political class, which is readying itself to stay in office for four more years.

Since campaigning started a month ago, tensions have been on the rise in the country amid controversies over the balloting and fears of failure to ensure credible elections.

The campaigns have been marred by political mudslinging from all sides and public perceptions that none of the candidates are fit for the job.

Candidates including frontrunner Prime Minister Haidar Al-Abadi have been met with angry protests during campaign rallies resulting in scuffles with bodyguards.

In one incident, former prime minister and Iraqi Vice-President Ayad Allawi was caught on video in a heated exchange with a man who was complaining about the politicians’ performance and corruption.

The exchange ended when Allawi, a politician who has been touted by the Western media as a liberal, walked away from the crowd after swearing that “we will destroy you.”

In a sign of mounting frustration, many Iraqis have called for a boycott of the 12 May vote. But the leaders of the country’s political blocs have appealed to their electors to ignore the boycott and imams of government-run mosques have called participation in the ballot a “religious duty.”

Iraq’s elections are being held under a proportional voting system, and a low turnout could be an effective way to punish the ruling elite by reducing the chances of their blocs receiving more seats.

In a landmark statement on 4 May, the prominent Shia cleric Ayatollah Ali Sistani urged the voters to decide whether to cast their votes on merit, warning them not to “fall into the traps of those... who are corrupt and those who have failed, whether they have been tried or not.”

Today, as many Iraqis fear an uncertain future after the elections, democracy is hardly the first word that springs to mind when one examines the behaviour of Iraq’s post-Saddam rulers. “United,” “stable,” and “flourishing” are hardly words one associates with Iraq.

Indeed, ethno-sectarian struggle, political stagnation, violence, economic mismanagement, and insidious and chronic corruption have brought the country to near ruin in recent years.

The question arises of why Iraq’s post-Saddam democracy, which triumphalist US policy-makers trumpeted after 2003, has plummeted into such frightening stagnation.

The seeds of today’s disaster were sown in 2005, when the former Bush administration in the US, despite its rhetoric about democracy, imposed its own political structures on Iraq in collaboration with the Iraqi political elites it had brought to power after Saddam’s fall.

Iraq’s current political system has significant flaws, the main one being that it is based on a quota system that distributes power and wealth among the country’s ethnic and religious communities.

In theory, US strategists aimed at creating a system based on political consensus that would bring all Iraq’s communities into a national project to rebuild the country. However, in practice, the sharing system has triggered an endless spiral of sectarian violence that has torn Iraq’s social fabric.

At the heart of the problem of the election system is that it is something of a smokescreen for sectarian policies and efforts by the different political groups representing various ethnicities and sects to tailor the ballot to maximise their gains in parliament.

This does not make Iraqis vote along sectarian and ethnic lines, but it does have the even worse effect of making sectarianism the driving force behind national politics and even social dynamics.

Unlike in democracies where people go to vote in order to choose or to replace their government and elect representatives through free and fair voting, Iraq’s election system has turned into a process of looking into the ethno-sectarian identities of the candidates and their blocs and not their potential for political leadership.

In addition, the US-designed system of “consensus democracy” in Iraq has created an oligarchy that is aligned with warlords that have almost turned the political blocs into fiefdoms in which MPs become party cronies.

As a result, elections in Iraq have been used to recycle the country’s corrupt and incompetent political class that has turned Iraq into fragments and has continued to produce the sectarian wasteland that gives terrorist groups such as the Islamic State (IS) group fertile soil to make a comeback.

Iraq’s 2018 elections may show the clear dangers ahead by producing the same overbearing majority in the country’s parliament, which will then use its superior number to violate the rules of consensus democracy and the rights of minor parties and individual citizens.

There are thus realistic expectations that these elections will produce another troubled parliament that will increase the extent to which instability in the country will impact on the fragility of the state.

A new round of political chaos will not only nurture the cancer that is eating away at Iraq’s “democracy,” but will also destroy opportunities for ending Iraq’s 15-year-old crisis and increase the risk of further conflicts.

Iraq’s ruling cliques, fearing losing control of the country, have refused to heed demands for a more democratic election process that could ensure stability and pave the way to economic development.

One thing is clear: Saturday’s deeply flawed elections will not produce a clear winner to form a government and they will instead lead to a political stalemate similar to those after previous elections.

Like in the past, all sides will be under mounting pressure from foreign governments, especially Iran and the United States, to strike a deal that could end the bitter and often dangerous deadlock that will hang over the country.

Last time, Al-Abadi was named as prime minister after seven months of standstill that paralysed the government while IS jihadists swept through the north of the country.

If the political stagnation in Iraq repeats itself this time, the result will not be pretty and will take the form of renewed instability and violence.

*A version of this article appears in print in the 11 May 2018 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly with headline: Iraq’s impossible democracy

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