By Zaid al-Ali
29 December 2017
With the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL, also known as ISIS) now forced underground, and the Kurdish secessionist movement tempered for now, Iraq's next round of challenges will be mainly political. The May 2018 parliamentary elections will lead to a confrontation between two major camps, each with their own distinct narrative and vision for the future Iraqi state.
Former Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki is currently planning a major challenge against current Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi. The two camps present two totally different narratives: the first broadly conciliatory and forward-looking, and the other deliberately confrontational and spiteful.
However, now that the war against ISIL is essentially over, any alliance of fighters and confrontational politicians is likely to have only limited appeal in the 2018 elections. After so many years of loss and state failure, comparatively small numbers of voters are likely to be interested in yet more conflict. The coalition's popular support will likely also be hindered by Maliki's record as prime minister, which very many Iraqis consider to have been an utter failure.
On the other side, Abadi will lead an alliance that will try to capitalise as much as possible on the state's victory against ISIL. He will likely also be supported by Moqtada al-Sadr, leader of the powerful Sadrist movement, which has now reinvented itself as a supporter of state authority and the rule of law.
Barring unforeseen circumstances, the outcome should be no contest. What is far less certain, however, is whether the elections results will have any long-term implications on Iraqi politics and on the state's capacity to function.
As part of his state building programme, Abadi has recently declared that his government will now lead a war against corruption. But everything about his plan is unoriginal: the same terminology has been used practically on a yearly basis since 2005, and its inevitable failure will be a repetition of past efforts as well.
Without major changes to Iraq's political system, any effort to reform corruption will depend on parliamentary approval. Given that parliament is populated by some of the most corrupt individuals in the state, that approval will not be forthcoming.
In addition, even if some progress against corruption is made, over the long run, without major economic reform, ordinary Iraqis will remain unimpressed given how precarious their prospects have become.
Abadi's other long-term problem is that his government's policy prescriptions remain embarrassingly simplistic. Iraq's 2017 national security strategy is the recent depressing example of this phenomenon: It satisfies itself with repeating the same type of wishlists that all its predecessors since 2005 also provided for with only slight changes in terminology and wording.
If the Abadi camp and the Sadrists really want to distinguish themselves from their political rivals and achieve something for ordinary Iraqis, then they will have to make a quantum leap in their policy-making efforts.
The first step in that direction is to redefine Iraq's politics and government as a vehicle to achieve specific policy objectives. As obvious as that sounds, government does not currently function on that basis. Government exists to allow for a sufficient number of political groups to occupy lucrative ministerial positions, which they then use to enrich themselves and finance their patronage networks, which they need in order to guarantee their government positions.
The result is that ministers are often the last people to participate in serious policy discussions, and that whatever progress is made in living standards is painfully slow and limited in scope. Even the war against ISIL was led on that basis: The conclusion was never in doubt, and government practice made the effort unnecessarily complicated and wasteful.
Some Iraqis, the Sadrists included, argue that the solution is to form a "technocratic government", which is to say a government that is run by experts and technicians rather than politicians. But that is to misunderstand the problem and diagnoses the wrong solution.
The problem is not that government is run by politicians, but first that it is run by the wrong type of politicians and second that ministers do not come close to sharing a particular vision for how the government should function.
The first step to remedying government performance would be for the Sadists and others to participate in and encourage a prioritisation of policies that they and sufficient numbers of political groups can support.
By way of example, one possibility would be to dedicate the next government's tenure towards making massive progress in both education and healthcare.
Second, the Sadrists and Abadi's coalition should support the appointment not of technocratic ministers, but of politicians who agree with the government programme and who have sufficient-know how to advance it as a coherent group.
Considering the failures of the past, a successful selection approach would have to involving look to a new generation of Iraqis to lead this effort and not to rely on the same tired former exiles would have been dominating the Iraqi state since 2003.
If that approach were followed, it could reopen the possibility of amending Iraq's failed 2005 constitution, which is a necessary precondition for any effort to modernise and streamline the Iraqi state.
Without constitutional reform, vital state institutions including the judiciary will always have their hands tied and will not be able to play their natural role and exercise the type of oversight that is needed.
After the disaster of 2014, and the debacle in the Kurdish region of northern Iraq, Iraqis are eager for major reform efforts. But they need and deserve much more than what is currently on offer. The country's main political alliances should recognise that and make whatever effort is necessary to satisfy the legitimate desires or ordinary Iraqis.