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Rudaw

Analysis

Can majoritarian governance work in Iraq?

By Paul Iddon 24/3/2018
Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi opened the rebuilt Old Bridge in Mosul earlier this month. Photo: @HaiderAlAbadi
Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi opened the rebuilt Old Bridge in Mosul earlier this month. Photo: @HaiderAlAbadi
Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi has suggested that Iraq could possibly soon establish a third republic in which a more majoritarian form of governance will steer the ship of state, a move that could fundamentally upend the post-2003 order in the country.

“We are for majority politics if the purpose of majoritarian politics is to achieve a strong state, and a state that can progress forward powerfully to meet the expectations of [its] citizens,” Abadi announced on Iraqi Martyrs Day this month. The Iraqi premier went on to clarify that this doesn't mean he is advocating a process that could sideline particular entities or parties in the political process. 

“Abadi has been shaping this vision for many months, perhaps more than a year,” Michael Knights, an Iraq expert and the Lafer Fellow at The Washington Institute, told Rudaw English. “It is an ambitious vision – especially as Iraq is not necessarily even in the era of 'Issue' politics yet in its elections (and may be stuck in 'identity politics').”

Consequently Abadi “can either campaign to the people on promises of tangible gains (jobs, anti-corruption measures) or just make backroom deals with elites like all previous Iraqi governments.” 

“This vision of the future is a third option, and the election may tell us whether Iraq is ready for a new national vision yet, and whether elites will allow the people to have a bigger voice than politicians in the selection of the prime minister and his cabinet,” Knights concluded. 

Iraqi Kurds boycotted the vote in parliament on the budget early this month when their portion was arbitrarily slashed from 17 percent to 12.6 percent – under the questionable pretext that 17 percent is not a fair reflection of the Kurdistan Region's population, in spite of the fact no new census has been conducted to prove this. 

Dismissing the Kurdish boycott the Shiites and Sunnis sought to push the bill through anyway on March 4, an unprecedented break from the kind of consensus that was supposed to govern Iraq. Kurdistan's former president Masoud Barzani described it as “a clear violation of the principle of partnership.”

More broadly a majoritarian form of governance will likely give the Shiites the most power in the country if they can effectively unify simply because they are the clear majority. 

The Sunni Arab minority in Iraq boycotted early elections in post-2003 Iraq, at least partially because it took them some time to come to terms with the fact they were a minority who had lost their position as the rulers of Iraq since the states creation. As the late Fouad Ajami once summed it up: “Though they are a minority, they have the majoritarian mindset.”

When Nouri al-Maliki was prime minister, rifts between Baghdad on one side and the Sunnis and the Kurds on the other emerged after he clamped down quite violently on protests mounted by the former and completely cut off the federal budget allocation to the latter. After ISIS overran a third of Iraq in the summer of 2014 Maliki was pressured to step down that September, with many blaming his prior policies for destabilizing the country to the extent that ISIS could swiftly takeover such large parts of Iraq. 

Upon succeeding Maliki, Abadi was long seen as a much more conciliatory prime minister needed to bridge divides so the country could overcome the ISIS threat, which it largely has. One of the challenges his government faced, back in 2016, were protests mounted by Muqtada al-Sadr who, among other things, wanted to eradicate the ethno-sectarian quota system that has designated politicians their roles in the Iraqi government based on their respective ethnic or sect backgrounds rather than their actual merits. 

“The idea of a majority government was first put forward by Maliki years ago,” Joel Wing, author of Musings on Iraq, told Rudaw English. “He is still talking about it today. All of the Iraqi governments since 2005 have been national unity ones including every party that wins a seat. That has meant inclusion but not reconciliation nor the creation of a functional government.”

Wing went on to point out that the principle and theory behind a majority government is that it “would bring together like-minded parties and hopefully help fix some of the dysfunction.” 

“It would be a big step forward for Iraqi politics if a loyal opposition was formed like most countries in the world,” he explained. “Unfortunately I don't think Iraq is there yet. The post-2003 system has been one where every party gets a slice of the government pie to dish out in patronage networks that enrich the parties, help gain votes and maintain their base.”
  
In contrast to this post-2003 system “a majority government would obviously concentrate that power within a smaller group and perhaps lead to the decline of the opposition since they would be closed out of government offices for a period.”

Wing concluded by pointing out that while this might lead “to more instability in a country that already suffers from too much of that” in the short-term, it could prove to be a favourable form of governance in the long-term. 

“Hopefully it will happen sometime as the Iraqi system develops, but probably not with this generation of leaders,” he concluded.

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