Wednesday, November 7, 2012

The Obstacles to Iraqi Democracy

In 2011, as the last of American troops withdrew, the shadow of totalitarianism loomed large over Iraq. Under the leadership of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, Iraq’s political sphere has become more divided along sectarian and regional lines and fears of a new Saddam Hussein are ever present in the imaginations of Iraqis and political scholars alike. Compromise seems impossible given the current political climate and rival factions are consolidating their power in anticipation of more unrest or even civil war. Tensions escalated to violence in summer 2012, which saw some of the worst attacks since 2010. Next door in Syria, a civil war rages that has led to the influx of over 120,000 people into Iraq. As the conflict continues to spiral downward, fears of the battle spilling over into Iraq mount.

Political cartoon courtesy of The Daily Telegraph

The domestic political situation has deteriorated significantly since PM al-Maliki came to power for his second term in 2010. Despite his party (the State of Law) losing in parliamentary elections to Iyad Allawi’s Al Iraqiyya coalition, al-Maliki remained in the position of Prime Minister under the guise of having formed a majority government with other Shi’ite parties led by Moqtada al-Sadr, a political move that was not strictly legal. To persuade Al Iraqiyya and the Kurdish parties to join his government, Maliki signed the Erbil Agreement, which arranges for a power-sharing government and gives considerable concessions to the Kurds on oil revenues and regional autonomy. Yet in the subsequent years, Maliki has refused to put the Agreement into place, angering both Sunnis and Kurds and further alienating large swathes of the Iraqi population. His approval ratings, however, sit at 53% according to a National Democratic Institute survey conducted in April. It seems that a mixture of patronage and Shi’ite support are working to ensure his continued popularity even given his undemocratic ruling style.

Maliki has also caused concern that he is becoming more like a “new Saddam” due to his apparent takeover of the security forces. In Iraq, where the government security forces employ 12 percent of the male population, control of the various branches of the army, police, and intelligence services equates to control over the country. During his two terms as Prime Minister, Maliki has taken over direct supervision of the Commander in Chief of the armed forces, the six branches of the intelligence services, and the police. His 4,200 “Fedayeen al-Maliki,” a special operations force that answers directly to him, harkens back to Saddam Hussein’s “Fedayeen al-Saddam.” Maliki’s office has also taken over direct supervision of the electoral commission and central bank, bringing not only the security services but also the oversight and economic mechanisms of Iraq under his control. The judiciary has also moved into Maliki’s camp, illustrated by the Supreme Court’s approval of his legally questionable government in 2010. Such moves towards power consolidation worry opponents and allies alike, as they are the tactics of a dictator, not a democratically elected leader.

Last US convoy leaving Iraq in 2011

In the zero sum political atmosphere of Iraq, it is not surprising that members of the different sects, tribes, ethnicities, and regions have begun to isolate themselves and strengthen what gains they have made in recent years. Sectarian and regional attacks have also increased, leading to the deaths of 854 Iraqis.  The Syrian civil war next door only compounds this possibility. More than 40,000 Syrian refugees have fled across the border to Iraq, which opened its borders to them in a popular humanitarian move. In addition, over 80,000 Iraqis returned from Syria to Iraq, many of them former refugees themselves. The influx of humanity alone would be enough to destabilize any country. That Iraq is still recovering from its own war complicates the situation, as does the possible sectarian implications of either an ongoing Shi’ite regime in Syria or a new Sunni-led government if Bashar al-Asad should fall.

Although Maliki’s government has disavowed its onetime ally Asad, recently it has made a pivot towards the China-Russia-Iran camp. Maliki’s ties to Shi’ite Iran have long caused worry in the West, yet many alleged that for years he did the impossible and remained close to both the U.S. and Iran without compromising his relationship with either. Those days may be done as the West hardens towards Iran and China and Russia stand firmly against intervention in Syria. Maliki seems to be indicating that he prefers to distance himself from his former benefactors in the West, and recently made an arms deal with Russia totaling $4.2 billion, making them the second-largest arms provider to Iraq after the United States. Sunni and Kurdish factions have promised to block the deal in parliament, further highlighting the divided nature of domestic politics. His conciliatory tone towards China is more practical than geopolitical: Chinese companies are involved in 30 percent of new oil field development in Iraq and by 2035, an estimated 80 percent of Iraqi will be sold in Asian countries, versus 50 percent currently.

Global power plays aside, there is much the Maliki government could do in the two years leading up to the 2014 elections that would ensure Iraq remains a democracy. The International Crisis Group made several recommendations in a recent report: the power-sharing Erbil Agreement must be fully implemented, a multiparty national conference should be held to create a roadmap to lead Iraq to the next elections, Maliki must give assurances that he will step down in 2014, and his opponents must stop their attempts to vote no-confidence in his government. In addition, Maliki and his party must end their control over the security forces, electoral commission, judiciary, and national bank and place these bodies under the supervision of nonpartisan, independent bodies.

Regionally and globally, Maliki’s government would be best served by returning to its previous middle-of-the-road policy. A relationship with neighboring Iran is inevitable and necessary, but so too are continued good relations with the West. A multipolar approach to diplomacy would place Iraq in a better position to receive investments, aid, and expertise from countries all along the political spectrum. Shi’ite Iraq must work more closely with Sunni Syria, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and Turkey to stop funding of terrorist groups by any Middle Eastern nation. Only by backing away from one-sided policies both domestically and abroad can the current government ensure the continuation of democratic reform in Iraq. Without it, Maliki’s party may remain in power, but will almost certainly govern an Iraq torn apart by internal divisions and threatened by external enemies.

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