Iraq's Maliki Threatens to Return To the Politics of Exclusion

Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki is threatening to form a government in which the country’s Sunnis would have only token representation. Such talk suggests that Iraq has not learned the lessons of history, writes Mashreq Abbas. He argues there is nothing to suggest that Iraq is moving toward becoming more democratic.

al-monitor Iraq's Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki speaks during the opening ceremony of the Defense University for Military Studies inside Baghdad's heavily-fortified Green Zone, June 17, 2012.  Photo by REUTERS/Thaier al-Sudani.

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muqtada al-sadr, iraqi domestic politics

Oct 17, 2012

In Iraq, hardly a day goes by without somebody suggesting that a majoritarian government should be formed to replace the successive governments of “participation,” “partnership,” and “quotas” that have been ruling Iraq recently.

But the opposition is condemning these threatening signals emanating from Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s entourage.

Even though the propaganda of a “majoritarian government” has no chance of happening in light of the sharp divisions in the political scene, the fact that key political leaders have broached the issue and described it as “political reform,” a solution to the current gridlock, or “a way to achieve security and provide public services,” indicates that they are ignoring the priorities of a troubled transition suffering from deep divisions at various levels.

These proposals are being accurately described as “inadequate” and “nonproductive.” The proposals ignore reality by calling it a product of “accidental” sectarian and nationalist quotas whose “era has ended” after nine years that saw the political class deepen the country’s sectarian, ethnic and social polarization

Since 2003, Iraqi politicians have established a quota-based administration and behaved according to polarizing intellectual, partisan, security and economic agendas. Then they suddenly realized that the governance problem in Iraq is caused by the quota system!

What’s more, in recent years politicians did everything they could to prevent social harmony, which would have allowed the emergence of cross-sectarian currents. They gave the government a sectarian tinge, which drove it away from its secular duties.

That was an act of sabotage against Iraqi society and it created deep sectarian and ethnic rifts. After that, those in power were seen more as a sectarian group than a political party. Then some started wondering why “the political partnership was disrupting government work” and why “the opposition was inside the government.”

The answer that came was: “Because one sect is trying to sabotage another sect’s governing experience.”

In this muddled atmosphere — where politics is mixed with religion and dogma and where the government’s and the opposition’s behavior is determined by sectarian or ethnic considerations — the Iraqi elections produced an accurate picture of the political scene, whereby those elected were sectarian representatives as opposed to political parties in the natural sense.

The proposal to form a “majoritarian government,” at least by circles close to the Iraqi prime minister, points to two key trends:

1) There is an attempt to attract “secondary sectarian representatives” from among Sunnis and Kurds to join the proposed government by striking agreements with political, tribal or religious figures to ensure a minimal sectarian and ethnic representation in the government and to push the remaining Sunni and Kurdish forces into the opposition.

This scenario ignores several matters. It assumes that those representatives will be able to attract supporters and be viewed as legitimate in a country where sectarian and ethnic representation has been solidified.

2) A Shiite-Sunni or Shiite-Kurdish alliance would push one of the parties toward the opposition. Moreover, that would re-create the quota-based system — this time with only two sects instead of three. Moreover, driving an entire sect into the opposition would mark a dangerous historical precedent.

If we ignore the alternative scenarios whereby a government is formed by Sunnis and Kurds allied with Muqtada al-Sadr’s Shiites, the above two trends are reminiscent of Saddam Hussein’s policy of giving his rule a “diverse” sectarian and ethnic appearance. During Saddam’s era, the speaker of parliament was a Shiite (Saadoun Hammadi) and the vice president a Kurd (Taha Mohieddin Maarouf).

However, that policy did not convince the Shiites and Kurds to join Saddam’s government. On the contrary, one of the reasons why the Shiites and Kurds were against Saddam was because of his “injustices” toward them.

According to the political elite who drafted the Iraqi constitution and led the political process, the Iraqi problem — ever since the country’s formation by the Sykes-Picot agreement — was never about the absence of certain sects and ethnic groups in the power structure. Rather, the problem was that those figures represented the ruler rather than the sects and ethnic groups to which they belonged.

In the same context, Iraqi Sunnis believe that they have been marginalized since 2003, and that the presence of Sunnis at the highest levels of government has not prevented their marginalization and exclusion. In fact, they have recently started calling for a “Sunni region” after the principle of federalism was rejected.

Also, Iraqi Kurds are complaining about the policies of the central government, which they say are excluding them. The Kurds have begun to warn that they will soon declare independence.

It is very dangerous when large segments of society who already feel excluded and marginalized are placed completely outside of a “majoritarian government.” This would prove once again that the Iraqi political parties have not learned the lessons of history or how to avoid such mistakes.

An incomplete state

Societal divisions in a democracy have not always been an obstacle to the formation of a majoritarian government, even if such governments were preceded by suffering. 

In such situations, political parties composed of more than one sect have successfully emerged. Forming governments based on political majorities — as opposed to the consensus of the various sects — has succeeded to a large extent in changing the rules of politics from being based on religion toward being based on political ideas. And that was healthy for society and its institutions.

But the problem in Iraq is bigger than the issue of societal fissures. It is about the continuation of the “transitional phase” for an undetermined period. Since 2003, Iraq has been living in a transitional phase that has had certain features:

• The constitutional structure that was supposed to have been completed during the transitional phase is still incomplete.

The Iraqi constitution looks very different from what it is supposed to look like. Disagreements are blocking the enforcement of several laws, such as those about social justice, minority rights, the rule of law, the distribution of wealth, the relationship between the central government and the governorates, the form of government, decision-making mechanisms, the powers of the executive branch, personal status, external relations, ending the legacy of the former regime, and eliminating Paul Bremer’s laws.

• Iraq is in a de facto state of war. On the one hand, the country still faces major security challenges. Armed groups that belong to certain societal groups remain active. Normally, countries wage wars when they are internally united; countries without this unity will never achieve long-term social harmony.

• The sectarian tensions from regional changes and conflicts have forced Iraq to protect itself through fragile internal agreements and a minimum of political solidarity in order to minimize the country’s losses during this phase. These considerations have thus far prevented the formation of a “majoritarian government,” but the behavior of the ruling Iraqi elite does not indicate that they have adopted a conciliatory approach.

Moreover, Iraqi political forces have not adopted programs and ideas that either implicitly or explicitly move away from the concept of “defending the community.”

A reformist government

Those proposing a majoritarian government are of course not calling it a “majoritarian sectarian” or a “majoritarian ethnic” government. Rather, they are talking up the failure of the current “partnership” government in achieving security and providing public services.

They are arguing that the solution lies in only one bloc being responsible for running the government, choosing its ministers, and taking decisions, while the opposition sits in parliament.

At first glance, that proposal seems logical. But it ignores facts on the ground:

• The partnership government has nothing to do with security, which is being handled by the Iraqi Prime Minister and Commander in Chief of the Armed Forces, Nouri al-Maliki. He directly controls the ministries of interior and defense, the intelligence services and the national security ministry.

• Deputy Prime Minister Hussain al-Shahristani, who is a close ally of the prime minister, controls the oil and electricity sectors.

• Maliki directly controls the country’s foreign relations even though the foreign minister, Hoshyar Zebari, is Kurdish. Iraq’s foreign relations do not reflect the Kurds’ wishes, which are very different from those of the central government. An example of that is Iraq’s relationship with Turkey and a number of Arab states.

• The poor state of public services in Iraq is a systemic problem. Public services are part of an enormously corrupt administration whose roots go back two decades, to the time of Saddam Hussein. No Iraqi party is clean from this corruption and no party can put an end to it. Only wide-ranging political unity can eliminate it.

It should be recalled that the Iraqi parliament failed to pass the infrastructure law, which would have allowed Maliki’s government, and subsequent governments, to borrow and invest $39 billion for services and housing. The blocking of the infrastructure law was one reason why there is talk of forming a majoritarian government.

Linking the formation of a majoritarian government with the infrastructure law is mystifying. If Maliki’s partners in the government refrained from passing that law because they think that it will cause more corruption and be used to support one political party at the expense of the others, then why would those parties pass that law when they are in the opposition?

In the end, all talk about ending the current “quota” and “partnership” phase — regardless of the name — would require a vision that reflects the on-going political wrangling and compromises in order to produce a clear and agreed-upon action plan and strategy that would save the country and get it out of the transition phase.

The reality is that there are no legal, political, institutional or social reforms that augur an Iraqi democracy on the horizon.

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