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Iraqi Politics Must Shake Legacy of Dictatorship

Although it has been 10 years since Saddam Hussein was ousted by US forces, Iraqi politics remain mired in the legacy of dictatorship.
A view of al-Firdous square, where the statue of Saddam Hussein used to stand, in Baghdad April 9, 2012. U.S. Marines pulled down the statue of the dictator on April 9, 2003, marking the end of more than 35 years of iron-fisted rule by Saddam's Baath Party.  REUTERS/Saad Shalash (IRAQ - Tags: CONFLICT POLITICS) - RTR30ITJ

Do the members of the Iraqi political class believe in the slogans of democracy that they call for? This is a vital question in today's Iraq, where actual political practices often appear inconsistent with the democratic framework of the new Iraqi state.

In any normal democratic system, elections are an opportunity to show the level of competition between adversaries. However, elections are only one phase and one part of democracy. The stage characterized by accusations and collisions that accompanies elections shifts immediately following the elections to a stage of competition, this time within the framework of political achievement.

The political tension that has characterized Iraq for years can be partially attributed to a misunderstanding of the essence of democracy as an exercise not restricted to just the ballot box.

Interesting, Iraqi politicians don't appear "democratic," even though it has been ten years since a dictatorial regime was replaced with another, which, although democratic in form, is stilled mired in dictatorial practices.

It seems strange to say that personal tensions between politicians can lead to a crises between their political blocs and extend to a crisis at the national level.

We all remember the reconciliation meeting held between a number of political leaders on June 1, sponsored by Ammar al-Hakim, the leader of the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq. At this meeting, Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki and Parliament Speaker Osama al-Nujaifi shared an embrace, signaling the end of their months-long estrangement.

This scene is a prime example for explaining some of the features of the Iraqi crisis. Politicians insist at every opportunity that their differences are not personal, but rather based on political and nationalistic positions. However, the reality is that personal conflict is deeply rooted in Iraqi politics, and these disputes could affect the essence of political practice.

Democratic practices aren't just about putting aside personal feelings to open the doors of cooperation and understanding with others on a national basis. Rather, the nature of everyday democratic work should be linked to democratic behaviors and mechanisms.

It seems that this is not happening in Iraq today. The majority of political parties are acting like opposition parties, and haven't overcome their focus on a charismatic leader. Furthermore, they have failed to implement a clear, democratic means of selecting party heads and leaders.

Today, everyone has the right to ask: How can the Iraqi political class demand a peaceful handover of power in Iraq, when such a rotation is not actually happening within these parties themselves?

Even more, democratic practices are still facing stiff resistance from the foundations of the state. The state's institutions and traditions are firmly clinging to their totalitarian heritage, which has left its mark even on those new political leaders who came to power via democratic means.

This paradox needs to be addressed in a very radical way. In 2003, the "deep state" was defined as representing the Baath Party, and since that time, "de-Baathification laws" have been put in place in order to give the state an opportunity for democratic transformation. However, this definition was incomplete — we must realize that the Baath Party wasn't just a group of individuals, but a culture that was able to entrench itself in the state through different mechanisms and methods. Thus, the de-Baathification process requires a culture of democracy to weaken the Baathist culture’s roots.

The Iraqi political class has not promoted democracy as a culture. Rather, many politicians withdrew to become "Baathists" in practice, even in the extremism with which they dealt with the Baath Party issue and the legacy of the old regime.

Today, Iraq is approaching new elections in early 2014. Politicians are exchanging accusations, saying that the behavior and attitudes of their opponents are merely meant to gain them favor in the upcoming elections. While this is acceptable, what is not acceptable is for these elections to become the only face of democracy, and for this political exercise to reproduce the Baath party, whether in a religious or a nationalistic form.

Mustafa al-Kadhimi is an Iraqi writer specializing in defense of democracy. He has extensive experience in documenting testimony and archiving documentaries associated with repressive practices.

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