Iraq’s Political Game

Majid Ahmed al-Samarrai analyzes Iraqi politics and the fortunes of Prime Minister Nouri Al-Maliki, Ayad Allawi and Iraq’s Kurdish leaders.

al-monitor Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, Aug. 20,2007. Photo by REUTERS/ Khaled al-Hariri.

Topics covered

nouri al-maliki, iraqi politics

Dec 9, 2012

One who examines the issues raised by the political process in Iraq from 2003 through today finds them teeming with contradictions and paradoxes. It is as though far removed from the ordinary logic of politics, whether in its conventional past or revitalized present. The grand headline of "democracy" — which served as one of the Americans' justifications for occupying Iraq — has turned out have a great many complications. An autocratic regime based on the dictatorship of an individual has given way to elites with clear partisan affiliations and sectarian authorities. 

The stream of liberals was to be intentionally marginalized, whether they came in the form of parties or well-known, Iraqi political figures. They simply did not advance the project that the U.S. hoped to achieve in Iraq: turning it into a key pillar in its strategy of dividing the region along both ethnic and sectarian lines. In Iraq, this hinged upon a decision taken by Governor [L. Paul] Bremer in putting in place a loathsome system of sectarian quotes that spread through all those who walked through its gates; this one claims to represent the Shiites, that one the Sunnis, yet another the Kurds. All were providing false assurances and guarantees, whether out of genuine conviction in what Bremer imposed, or through some inducement he included in this unwieldy collection of contradictions on the imaginary dessert landscape.

This was turned into a fixed plot to arbitrate between the Iraqi constitution and [Islamic] jurisprudence, with each side knowing the greater part what it takes today. Each party knows to take what it can get now and work on seizing the largest share at the next opportunity in the fragile democratic game of amassing power. Ambiguity in the constitution was deliberately intended by all parties. They achieved a sort of duality of intent and consensus for the constitution to be protected and insulated.

Everyone invokes the sanctity of the constitution to pass off their own factional interests, a way of marketing sordid deals to the media. Everyone knows that, for all its superficiality, this situation did not rise to the level of the political game. Everyone is convinced that, despite whatever formal differences they may have, they are all in the same boat trying to safeguard the advantages of power. This drives all positions and dominates all parties, without exception. Most of the blocs to emerge from the last two rounds of elections have sprung from Shiite or Sunni bases preoccupied with sectarian conflicts that dominate Arab politics in Iraq.  By contrast, the ethnic element has remained dominant in most of the Kurdish blocs. They have preserved a stable balance, content to watch the harsh developments and sharp contradictions that have produced several successive governments in Baghdad suffering from corruption, bureaucracy and administrative failure.

Some Kurdish leaders have even hinted in the media about the existence of a Shiite-Kurdish alliance against Sunni Arabs, despite the ideological incoherence of this slogan which stands in contrast to  the tendency of both Shiites and Sunnis to blur the concepts of sect and ethnicity. Kurds have tried to block the growth of the coherent and strong Arab political bloc so as not to embroil the Kurds in any burning issues. This abnormal development in Iraq's political process has unfortunately led to missed opportunities for confrontation between the authorities and citizens to deliver. It also diverted popular focus from the principal issues to secondary ones completely unrelated to the people's need to recover from the ill effects of financial and administrative corruption. It became a powerful influence in the centers of Iraqi decision-making.

No political force played a clear role in bringing about positive change or dispelling political or economic ills, despite the tremendous resources and financial base of support enjoyed by the political decision makers. To put it more clearly, the elements of clear rules by which the political game was to be played never coalesced. Instead, that game was divided up by forces carrying sufficient weight in the Iraqi public to instigate conflict. The country plunged into the details of returning to the ABCs of the political process. Confusion exists between the limited capacity of Iraqi politicians and their potential to play the democratic game or navigate the overwhelming influence of regional and international pressure.

With that, many politicians who came out of the womb of religious ideology tried to devise more modern techniques. One of them was Nouri al-Maliki, who tried several times to move away from the narrow guidelines of his party's ideology and into a broader civil and political coalition, based upon the cumulative experiences of Iraqi political history stretching back 50 years. In short, a political process was not able to coalesce in Iraq either during the ten years of U.S. military occupation or subsequently. The contours of the game for taking power in a democratic system are clear. There is dispersion and ambiguity of political visions, covered by the government's failures to rein in the bureaucracy, corruption and administrative backwardness.

There was a historic opportunity for all Iraqi politicians to play the political game with real professionalism; an opportunity might have arisen to build a true democracy in Iraq. Yet for that, even after ten years in a power vacuum in Iraq, it cannot be said with certainty who has gained and who has lost before an Iraqi public deprived of the most basic necessities of contemporary urban life.

Everyone boasts of how vigorously he defends the homeland and the common man, whether it be the politician covered in power or one who has lost it (while still watching, criticizing and refining his skill in rhetorical attacks). The government's plans come to nothing; the opposition does not even have any plans. No one has any plans. The reason is always the same: there is no serious basis for policy in Iraq. The politicians are in the pilot phase of wielding authority according to democratic norms. They have mastered the art of dissent, rhetoric, special operations, bombings, assassinations and so on. They faced a golden opportunity to enter the halls of government and learn their art of ruling from every angle and with all its quirks. They sought to enter their game, but found themselves trapped between the demands of partisan ideological commitment and modern standards of authority.

Saddam Hussein learned to cope with this difficulty from the first days of his ascent to power in the Baath Party in 1968. He settled it some ten years later when he physically liquidated the majority of his comrades in 1979. Thereafter he held power directly, unconstructed by any partners in rule. Whoever attempts to play the game of power from the perspective of leadership finds himself obsessed with escaping the mantle of ideology, yet with one great historic difference. Namely, that the democratic space opened up after 2003 was freighted with a number of obstacles to the seizure of power by political oppositions that have mastered (even to a limited degree) the game of conflict over power in accordance with democratic norms.

There are many details according to which a wide audience affiliated with parliamentary  blocs at the forefront of the political scene. They are all experimenting with entry onto the scene of politics as subordinates, and the daily media plays a role in indoctrinating them with elementary roles to improve the roles of subsequent stages to become political agendas.

The hallmarks of the political game that Maliki took by storm have crystallized somewhat in the last three years. Simply put, he has amassed enormous power (regardless of the hype surrounding it). By contrast, take the political figure of Ayad Allawi. Despite all the means and tools in his possession, his chances for victory faded for a number of reasons, including the abundance of incompetents and opportunists surrounding him and his neglect of the hindrances they represented. His lack of attention, despite the sincere advice offered him, turned these negatives into grave risks that ultimately threatened his political project that he offered to non-sectarian Iraqis. He nevertheless won their support and gained their loyalty at the ballot box, despite doubts that were raised about the results. But the elements of the political game have not coalesced; these elements are still wholly lacking, even as every party claims to provide them.

There is an important political reason: the Kurdish side — with the experience that it has garnered since 1991 in its conflict with Saddam's regime — was able to play the game with some flexibility against both Allawi and Maliki. The Kurds made themselves the strongest part in the game even to the extent that, in its opening stages, they acted as mediators. The benefits of mediation are well known, and in this way Alawi's chances to become an ally of the most powerful Kurdish faction diminished, even as Maliki acquired the image of, and evoked preparations for, being the Kurds' foremost political foe, and not of the Arabs' (as represented by Allawi).

It was all part of a premeditated process of disenfranchisement of the sort Maliki was well versed in. Maliki maintained his grip on power in Baghdad, uncontested by the Kurds and therefore (despite all indications of lacking administrative competence and worsening corruption, which is normally the death knell for governments) he nevertheless outlasted Allawi.

Maliki breached his defenses at numerous points, the most important of which was his penetrating the wall surrounding the Iraqiyya coalition. He did this despite the challenger's typical advantage in being able to point to the weak points of his rival. So far, no side has lost another because the equation governing the conflict is unsettled and the coming area of friction lies between Maliki and the Kurdish leaders, even though the latter is capable of putting an end to the signs of stalemate, if he so desired.

The well known alliances are unstable and any individual's ability to amass a majority of the electorate in his favor has been gravely wounded, such that Maliki was able to manage it. The latest signs of a political, media, military and governmental escalation among the Kurds  will not lead to an acute crisis, nor are they expected to derail the political process. Instead the Kurds will be able to satisfy their demands, albeit not in a single push. Still they will will new guarantees. They are the main winners insofar as they are stable, unambiguous and their regional government is not haunted by corruption and the absence of security, as is the case in Baghdad. They express their determination to a chief self-determination for their people.

As for the Arab parties in the political process, there reigns confusion, doubt, fragmentation and conspiracies. This presented Allawi and Maliki with an opportunity to form an alliance in a power-sharing arrangement after the elections, yet it was the Kurds who enabled Maliki to maintain power, in addition to Iran's and Washington's formidable regional capabilities: these two provided him with the elements of victory.

Washington renounced Allawi even as his well developed network of relationships in the Arab world proved of no use. He was unable to reap the benefit of the popular loyalty that he won at a fragile moment in Iraq's political life, and that was for structural and organizational reasons. The most important of these are the integration of some members of his party [into Maliki's coalition], which was bound by personal interests and not the discipline forcefully in evidence in the Da'wa party. They called upon an organizational and ideological legacy in the Iraqi political arena, aided by a powerful utilization of sectarian and religious identification, and employed it for Maliki's benefit.

Now there are no cards to read or figures to deconstruct in Iraq's political game. It's expected that the political process will continue to roll towards the coming elections, where Maliki will make cunning calculations and attempt to storm the walls surrounding the national project headed by Allawi for years and prevent it from reaping a victory. There are no signs that it will regain its former health, since the moral, logistic and material [electoral] assets forged in 2010 can only be reconstructed with great difficulty. There is widespread popular frustration [with Allawi], despite all the elements of political dominance made available and the generally sympathetic media climate. Dramatic changes are afoot, pertaining to the organizational structure of Allawi's front.

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