May 5, 2016
Islamic State still in control of large parts of the country and oil prices
depressed, Iraq is on the verge of a meltdown. But instead of working to solve
the country’s problems, Iraq’s political class has been consumed by a power
struggle. Last weekend, protesters in Baghdad lost their patience and stormed
the Parliament building, threatening further action if serious reform is not
eruption was a long time coming. Last August, Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi
promised to improve government services and eliminate corruption.
Unsurprisingly, he has failed to deliver. In response, protesters have demanded
a new government and the abandonment of the sectarian quota system that has
underpinned Iraqi governments since 2003. Mr. Abadi has tried to respond by
putting forward a “technocratic” cabinet, but he hasn’t been able to get it
approved by Parliament.
Iraqis are furious. Moktada al-Sadr, the Shiite cleric who has long acted as a
leader of Iraq’s underclass, has tried to capitalize on this by leading the
protest movement. But even he cannot control the anger Iraqis feel toward their
of Iraq’s political paralysis is neither ideological nor sectarian. In fact,
most of the main actors in the continuing dispute are Shiite Islamists. The
disagreement is instead based on mutual distrust, which is fueled by the
incompetence and corruption that have formed the basis of Iraq’s political
system since 2003. That dynamic has made it impossible for state institutions
to present any viable solutions to the crisis.
and American officials, including Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr., have
expressed hope that Mr. Abadi, at the head of a new government, can turn the
situation around. They are missing the point. Even if a new government is
formed, new ministers have to be approved by the Parliament, which insists on
nominating the same crop of ineffectual, corrupt former exiles who have been
running the country into the ground. More important, a new government would be
beholden to the corrupt, sectarian Parliament. Making the argument that a new
government can design, pass and carry out comprehensive governance reform is
either delusional or an attempt to punt.
way out of the current stalemate is to inject new blood into the country’s
Iraqi government’s first priority should be to organize fresh elections on an
entirely different basis from how they have been conducted in the past. There
are two simple and necessary changes that should be made immediately. First,
members of Iraq’s Parliament are some of the best-paid legislators in the
world. This has had the effect of attracting candidates for the wrong reasons.
Salaries, benefits and pensions for members of Parliament should be
electoral commission must be given wide-ranging powers to disqualify candidates
who violate basic campaign rules. In the past, some candidates have openly
bribed, manipulated and threatened voters, while financing their campaigns with
embezzled funds without any serious penalties. The result is a Parliament
populated by society’s worst elements, full of incompetents who have no vision
apart from their own enrichment and empowerment. These people should never have
been allowed to run for Parliament.
It might be
hard to imagine the enactment of new electoral rules given Iraq’s political
situation. But there is a precedent.
the Parliament was forced to move from a closed to an open electoral list
system because of pressure from Iraqi civil society (including religious
institutions, think tanks and major media outlets) and from the international
community (including the United Nations, the United States and the European
Union). Given the current level of popular anger, there’s a strong possibility
that similar pressure could be exerted today, giving strength to efforts to
reform electoral rules.
A number of
Iraqi organizations, experts and even some politicians have been calling for
these reforms, but more needs to be done to coordinate and prioritize them.
Nominally, all of these changes require legislative action, but if the current
Parliament refuses to act, the government should proceed unilaterally in the
knowledge that it will have the people’s full support. Iraq has been in crisis
for years and any insistence on adhering to legal formalities seems misplaced
at this point.
elections, organized on the basis of a reformed electoral law, would finally
allow the possibility of enacting the genuine reforms that could once and for
all end the culture of impunity in Iraq’s political class: reforming the
judiciary and purging it of corrupt judges; establishing a new, progressive and
independent constitutional court; redefining the role of Iraqi judges to
protect the public interest.
elections would also allow for Iraq’s decrepit government accountability
organizations to finally be fixed. The disastrous laws governing Iraq’s
anti-corruption bodies were drafted by the American-led Coalition Provisional
Authority and have been left untouched by the Parliament. But these
institutions need independence — and teeth — if they are to hold officials to
blood, these vital reforms have no chance of success. And without a new culture
of accountability for government officials, Iraq has no hope.
Zaid al-Ali, a visiting lecturer and fellow at
Princeton, is the author of “The Struggle for Iraq’s Future: How Corruption,
Incompetence and Sectarianism Have Undermined Democracy.”