Argument

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Iraqi Politics Needs a Root-and-Branch Overhaul

New elections won’t fix what increasingly looks like a systemic problem.

al-Oraibi-Mina-foreign-policy-columnist
al-Oraibi-Mina-foreign-policy-columnist
Mina Al-Oraibi
By , a columnist at Foreign Policy and the editor in chief of the National.
Supporters of Iraqi cleric Moqtada al-Sadr flash the victory sign during protests inside the parliament building in Baghdad on July 30.
Supporters of Iraqi cleric Moqtada al-Sadr flash the victory sign during protests inside the parliament building in Baghdad on July 30.
Supporters of Iraqi cleric Moqtada al-Sadr flash the victory sign during protests inside the parliament building in Baghdad on July 30. AHMAD AL-RUBAYE/AFP via Getty Images

The scenes emerging from Baghdad over the past week, as protesters dismantled concrete slabs and stormed an Iraqi parliament building, put the country’s political dysfunction in sharp relief. The loud but peaceful protesters shouted chants denouncing the corruption that has kept one of the world’s largest oil producers on the list of the world’s most corrupt nations, suffering from electricity blackouts, mass unemployment, and a lack of basic services. They highlighted the fact that the empty parliament building they stormed had 24-hour electricity, with air conditioning running while ordinary Iraqis suffered from the sweltering heat.

But despite appearances—including many demands similar to those that drove the 2019 protest movement—this was not a grassroots event. The demonstrators were heeding the call of Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, leader of the Sadrist movement. The storming of parliament has now developed into a sit-in in the vicinity of parliament, ensuring that no legislative sessions can be held. In calling for the protests, Sadr has proved his ability to galvanize at least a portion of the Iraqi people. In response, Sadr’s opponents—largely Islamist Shiite political parties supported by Iran and many with their own militias—declared their own counter-protests on Monday and marched to the Green Zone, announcing a sit-in at a key bridge across the Tigris.

The immediate cause of these competing protests is the continuing squabble over who will form Iraq’s next government. Although Sadr’s bloc won the largest number of parliamentary seats in last October’s elections, he was impeded from forming a government due to political maneuvers by his opponents, led by the Iran-backed former Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki. Among these blocking maneuvers was convincing enough newly elected members of parliament to stay away from parliamentary sessions so that a quorum to vote on a new government could not be reached. Frustrated by these moves, Sadr declared his MPs would resign, which they did, and that he would not oversee the formation of a new government, although it was his bloc’s constitutional right.

The scenes emerging from Baghdad over the past week, as protesters dismantled concrete slabs and stormed an Iraqi parliament building, put the country’s political dysfunction in sharp relief. The loud but peaceful protesters shouted chants denouncing the corruption that has kept one of the world’s largest oil producers on the list of the world’s most corrupt nations, suffering from electricity blackouts, mass unemployment, and a lack of basic services. They highlighted the fact that the empty parliament building they stormed had 24-hour electricity, with air conditioning running while ordinary Iraqis suffered from the sweltering heat.

But despite appearances—including many demands similar to those that drove the 2019 protest movement—this was not a grassroots event. The demonstrators were heeding the call of Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, leader of the Sadrist movement. The storming of parliament has now developed into a sit-in in the vicinity of parliament, ensuring that no legislative sessions can be held. In calling for the protests, Sadr has proved his ability to galvanize at least a portion of the Iraqi people. In response, Sadr’s opponents—largely Islamist Shiite political parties supported by Iran and many with their own militias—declared their own counter-protests on Monday and marched to the Green Zone, announcing a sit-in at a key bridge across the Tigris.

The immediate cause of these competing protests is the continuing squabble over who will form Iraq’s next government. Although Sadr’s bloc won the largest number of parliamentary seats in last October’s elections, he was impeded from forming a government due to political maneuvers by his opponents, led by the Iran-backed former Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki. Among these blocking maneuvers was convincing enough newly elected members of parliament to stay away from parliamentary sessions so that a quorum to vote on a new government could not be reached. Frustrated by these moves, Sadr declared his MPs would resign, which they did, and that he would not oversee the formation of a new government, although it was his bloc’s constitutional right.

Sadr had tried to form a narrow coalition government controlling just a bare majority of seats, a significant departure from the usual so-called national unity coalition that includes the majority of competing sides. Forming a narrow coalition government, a normal procedure in other parliamentary systems around the world, was fiercely opposed by Maliki and others because it meant they would be left outside the patronage networks and billions of dollars which the government controls.

This latest faceoff is dangerous: All sides are heavily armed, and the possibility of a violent confrontation is high.

But much more than access to the government gravy train is at play here. It is also a fight between Iraq’s main Islamist Shiite leaders about who will emerge as the country’s ultimate power broker—and the head of the heterogeneous Shiite Islamist political class. If both look to Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah’s iron grip over Lebanese Shiite politics as a model, Iraq has too many political actors who will not accept being subjugated by a single leader.

On Wednesday, Sadr appeared on television to call for parliament to be dissolved and new elections to be held—and to declare that his followers would not abandon their sit-in until his demands were met. He also called the current struggle a “revolution.” While other parties rejected his call, former Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi has thrown his lot behind Sadr and declared support. The coming days will witness further polarization as other political actors decide whether new elections will improve their position or harm it.

This latest faceoff is dangerous: All sides are heavily armed, and the possibility of a violent confrontation is high. Already, calls for de-escalation and a national dialogue have been issued by Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi, the United Nations, and a number of foreign governments. But if previous attempts at a national dialogue are anything to go by, any new effort is unlikely to yield serious results. The disagreement between those on the streets is not over substance or the direction of the country—which can be negotiated—but who controls the country, a zero-sum game. It would just be a matter of time before the next political crisis rocks the country.

In the meantime, Kadhimi’s government will likely continue in its caretaker role. In that, it is vastly constrained: No budget has been passed for 2022, and despite much higher government revenues from oil due to elevated prices, little of that money is trickling down to benefit Iraqis.

Iraq’s political system is broken—and it is surprising that it has survived this long. New elections would likely lead to the same situation unless one or two political blocs emerge with clear majorities to control parliament.

Iraqi politicians claim that all this dysfunction is a result of the parliamentary system. But in reality, the constitution has been repeatedly violated, the judiciary is politicized, and corruption has permeated all levels of government.

Sadr has capitalized on the frustration with the political class in Iraq, which led to his bloc’s victory in last year’s elections on a platform of a complete “reformation” of the political system. How any such reformation would come about is unclear. What is clear is that the political entities benefiting from the current dysfunction are unlikely to want to fix it. Some Iraqis hope for an external savior to force change in Iraq. While no one is seriously advocating for a 2003-style invasion and takeover, there are hopes that an external force could break the dynamic created by those who have ruled the country for the past two decades. Sadr has alluded to the possibility of the U.N. intervening, but that seems unlikely given a divided U.N. Security Council and the organization’s general weakness.

A complete overhaul of the political system would benefit Iraq but looks unlikely. And so political parties will seek to gain leverage where they can in the lead-up to potential new elections. With a continued stalemate all but guaranteed, the growing fear in Iraq is that opponents will seek to eliminate each other at the barrel of a gun.

Mina Al-Oraibi is a columnist at Foreign Policy and the editor in chief of the National. Twitter: @AlOraibi

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