Iraq Pulse

Will Abadi put his money where his mouth is?

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Article Summary
Iraq’s Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi’s contemplated Cabinet reshuffle to include technocrats and academics seems to be impossible in light of the sectarian political system in the country and the prevailing scepticism about this step among the political class.

Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi called Feb. 9 for a major Cabinet reshuffle to include professional figures, technocrats and academics whose names have yet to be revealed. When Abadi was appointed as prime minister-designate on Aug. 11, 2014, he promised to submit a technocrat Cabinet line-up.

Abadi’s repeated call to form a technocrat Cabinet indicates that he had failed to form the said government at the beginning of his term, due to the political structure of the Iraqi government, which was established and evolved within complex sectarian multi-problematic contexts.

The political structure of the Iraqi government was formed after 2003 in accordance with the US vision for a new Iraq, according to which Iraq is not one country and one nation, but rather it is formed of scattered groups of cultures and communities that must be politically represented within a consensus government.

The provisional Iraqi Governing Council was formed according to this vision on July 13, 2003, by virtue of a decision issued by the Coalition Provisional Authority under the leadership of the United States and represented by Paul Bremer. The Governing Council represented the various Iraqi sects, in particular the three main components: Shiites, Sunnis and Kurds.

This is indeed the essence of the problem. Priority was given to sectarian representation, rather than competence and professionalism. This situation persisted in the next stages with the formation of the Iraqi interim government in June 2004 and the first elected government in April 2006.

Political parties and entities were formed under the sectarian vision and, consequently, Iraqi voters had no other choice but to support their respective sects. This sectarian division was entrenched with time, following the rise and escalation of sectarian violence in Iraq in light of the security threats exchanged between the various sects.

Had Iraq after the US invasion adopted a political approach based on the principle of one country and one nation, it would have been possible to lay the first building block of its political system on a nonsectarian basis and according to the criteria of competence and professionalism required to manage the country's situation. Had this been the case, Iraq’s political regime would have become similar to the regimes of numerous other countries with cultural diversity, where respect for diversity and the rights of religious sects is not necessarily linked to political representation in the government.

This is the model adopted in several Western countries such as Britain and the United States, as well as in some Asian countries such as India.

The sectarian quota system implemented in 2003 affected competence and professionalism in the Iraqi government, since according to this system, political blocs that are directly or indirectly associated with a specific sect are required to nominate individuals to political positions that are conferred to each of them as per the quota system.

Consequently, the designation of ministers, directors and other governmental positions became subjected to sectarian and political affiliations. Governments succeeded and the same figures moved from one position to another, irrespective of the level of competency and professionalism.

For example, Baqir Jabr al-Zubeidi, holder of a bachelor's degree in civil engineering obtained in 1969, was appointed minister of construction and housing in 2003-2004, minister of the interior in 2005-2006, minister of finance in 2006-2010 and most recently minister of transport in 2014 to date.

No individual can be specialized, competent and professional in all of those positions. Yet, Zubeidi was able to move from one position to another since he was affiliated with the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq (ISCI), which include the Citizens Coalition — in which Zubeidi is still a leading member — and the Badr Organization. ISCI is one of the main Shiite forces that participated in the formation of the Iraqi political regime after the US invasion in 2003. Each political party that gains some seats in the parliament and participates in the government has the right to appoint some of the ministers.

The political quota system is one of the main causes of the rampant corruption in the Iraqi government, since official positions are always distributed among specific figures affiliated with specific parliamentary blocs. For a political bloc to achieve a specific objective within the government and gain the parliament confidence it has to form alliances with other groups. This situation creates a suitable environment for maintaining these blocs’ mutual interests within such a closed structure that lacks democratic supervision and promotes corruption.

Abadi’s declaration of his intention to introduce a Cabinet reshuffle to reform the Iraqi government and raise the level of professionalism and competency stirred various reactions by the political blocs participating in the government. On Feb. 13, Muqtada al-Sadr, the head of the Sadrist parliamentary bloc, voiced his strong support for the formation of a government of technocrats and gave Abadi a one-year time limit to achieve this goal, or he will withdraw the confidence from Abadi’s government through his bloc.

Most other political entities opposed Abadi’s idea and were sceptical about his intentions behind the sought Cabinet reshuffle. Ammar al-Hakim, head of the Citizens Coalition, said in a Feb. 14 speech in Baghdad that Abadi’s contemplated ministerial change must include Abadi himself, who was designated the position of prime minister under the quota system as well.

Ayad Allawi, head of the National Coalition (Al-Wataniya), commented in a statement Feb. 16 on the prime minister’s Cabinet reshuffle intention, saying, “I do not find a justification for this replacement of figures; a road map must be developed and implemented.”

All the political parties are afraid that the changes would undermine their political influence in favor of their rivals in power amid a prevailing mistrust between the various political partners, as concerns arise that Abadi will remove their affiliated figures and appoint new figures affiliated with him or his party. The parties in the current government — such as the Dawa Oarty, Citizens Coalition, Sadrist Bloc and Al-Wataniya — fear Abadi would gain more influence by excluding political figures affiliated with his competing political blocs and replacing them with semi-technocrats close to him.

Forming a government of technocrats seems to be a tough row to hoe, or even an impossible mission. But what Abadi can and should do is to polarize professionals, technocrats and academics within the state-owned strategic studies organizations, which shall provide the government with scientific programs and schemes applicable in Iraq, and that the country currently lacks. The reform project advocated by Abadi lacks so far a tangible program and scheme. Banking on the technocrats within national research centers may pave the way for the rise of this class to the top of the political hierarchy through the formation of nonsectarian political parties in the upcoming elections in Iraq.

In a recent development, Sadr organized a mass demonstration Feb. 26 in Baghdad against corruption and the failure of Abadi’s government. He repeated his demand of forming a technocrat Cabinet and ending the sectarian quota. Abadi is now under great pressure from the public and from some political parties, such as the Sadrists, to make a serious reformist change in the government — but such a step requires a fundamental change, which he may not be able to achieve.

Found in: sectarianism, muqtada al-sadr, haider al-abadi

Ali Mamouri is Al-Monitor's Iraq Pulse Editor and a researcher and writer who specializes in religion. He is a former teacher in Iranian universities and seminaries in Iran and Iraq. He has published several articles related to religious affairs in the two countries and societal transformations and sectarianism in the Middle East.

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