Sectarian discourse dominates Iraqi election politics

Candidates in Iraq’s upcoming elections continue to engage in a sectarian, rather than, national discourse.

al-monitor A supporter of Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr takes part in a rally in Kut, which the participants said was against sectarianism and injustice, March 16, 2013.  Photo by REUTERS/Wissm al-Okili.

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sectarianism, iraq, elections

Apr 25, 2014

The sectarian, ethnic and party quota system that has dominated the Iraqi government over the past years has led to a number of problems in the country's young democratic experiment. Yet, the main issue is that rather than developing a national discourse, the system has obfuscated political responsibility and produced an excuse-laden discourse centered around sects and party supporters.

In this regard, one must acknowledge that the idea of ​​consensual democracy in a divided society has been ineffectively applied in Iraq. Political consensus and partnership in government should be based on implementing agreements and programs, not the sharing of positions and ministries, converting them into private estates for this or that party or sect. The reality of this situation in Iraq has introduced ambiguous governing concepts into the Iraqi polity.

The major problem is the absence of responsibility, which becomes more apparent during elections by examining the electoral programs and the competition to attain power. After the political parties present their programs, compete in elections and enter parliament and the government, they do not seem to understand that they are then supposed to represent not just their voters, but all citizens, including those who voted against them and those who did not vote at all. This has not happened in Iraq in the past, and it does not appear that it will happen now.

Candidates address their audience — that is, the members of their party, sect or ethnicity — to obtain their support by making them scared of those who belong to a different group, thus exploiting their fears. Had the parties in the last 10 years succeeded in serving their sect or group, then perhaps adopting a sectarian discourse could be justified. Iraq, however, with its various sects, is going through difficult times, suffering from poverty, poor planning and insecurity. The country stands at the precipice of partition with every political crisis.

Elections are meant to translate the popular, collective will into a working mechanism. Here, collective will does not necessarily mean the will of the numerical majority, but the product of the interaction of different wills. The danger that Iraq faced after 2003 was the inability of parties and movements to interact around a collective will with divisions along sectarian and ethnic bases. Thus, they opted for a consensual democracy as the way to achieve the desired interaction among the different wills of Iraq’s components.

At this sensitive point, the quota crisis emerged. The forces that represent Iraqi components have failed to produce a road map that guarantees the rights of everyone on the basis of citizenship. They have also failed to dispel the fears that democracy is the rule of a sectarian or ethnic majority, not that of a political majority. The reality is that these forces have put their own interests before the interest of Iraq's component parts, and thus before the interests of Iraq as the framework for these components. This has led to the country being stuck in the current state of never-ending, excruciating crises.

Days before the April 30 parliamentary elections, a fundamental change in the thinking of the political elite has failed to appear. The political discourse continues to lack responsibility toward the people, instead focusing on sect, paying no attention to the interests of other communities and components. The discourse offers no vision on how to solve others' crises, concerns and needs. To Iraqi parties, those who belong to another sect or ethnicity are firmly outside their sectarian island. They live on another, faraway island, and during elections they are invisible.

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