Iraq_Sunni_Protests_2013_6.pngElections & Institutions 

It’s the Political System, Stupid

By Yasir Yosef

Life was never that promising for the Shiites in Iraq, but by the time I arrived in the Shiite-dominated southern provinces of Basra and Nasiriya in July 2015, the political situation was showing unmistakable signs of acute distress. For Shiite Iraqis, these are the most distressing times since 2008. In August, news reports showed a nation enraged over employment and electricity access during the summer’s extreme heat. The situation on the ground, however, was even worse.

So many intolerable conditions were painfully evident during my time in the country only a few months ago: roads had been blocked by powerful party-backed militias; garbage collectors left piles of filth to rot in community streets; major transportation arteries were clogged, with hundreds of check points, only a few of which actually performed a useful a public service; public employees were working three-hours a day; a number of hospitals, bridges, public housing projects, and schools were only structurally finished after being under contract for years; and finally, existing schools had to accommodate the influx of students by shortening the school day to two hours. The state’s institutions were eroding before my very eyes.

At the heart of it all, Iraq’s quota system institutionally empowers leaders along ethnic and sectarian lines. By prioritizing political-religious membership above qualifications, this governing structure has brought some of the most incompetent individuals into positions of power. Such a monopolization of power has been in place since 2004. Iraqis, especially independent journalists, analysts, and academics, have decried the practice. The trouble is, no one seems to be listening.

In July 2015, the highest Shiite religious authority in Iraq—Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, an immensely influential figure in national dialogue— began calling for reforms. For weeks, during each Friday’s Prayer, al-Sistani’s spokesperson Sheikh Abdel Mahdi al-Karbalaei would encourage Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi to initiate the overdue reform of Iraq’s sectarian political heirarchy and its dysfunctional politics.

Simultaneously, hundreds of thousands of Shiites, emboldened by al-Sistani’s actions and furious over the inability of elites to govern, took to the streets to demand that their leaders be dispelled and the system reformed. Among their grievances are high unemployment rates and the high death tolls among volunteers fighting the Islamic State. Shiite leaders recognize that while the threats of the Islamic State is real and dire, the country’s internal struggles with corruption ad impunity need are equally pressing.

Some Iraqis communicated to me that Prime Minister al-Abadi’s efforts to tame anger by instituting reforms will likely do nothing to lessen their circumstances. They are right to doubt the efficacy of his actions. Aboloshing the vice president posts is not going to solve Iraq’s longstanding problems. VPs are not there because they are needed—after all, they failed miserably when given the chance—but simply to satisfy the quota system and keep the entire scheme running. Their dismissal backfired anyway: VPs literally refused to abandon offices, arguing that their posts are guaranteed by the constitution and declaring that the Prime Minister had no right to bypass the constitution.

As a result, al-Abadi now faces a problem of popular legitimacy. The reforms that he has attempted to install are not going anywhere. The situation he finds himself does not befit that of a reformist leader. If al-Abadi presses hard to remove al-Maliki, his cronies, and countless similar individuals, the prime minister will lose the political backing needed to materialize his reforms. If he is unsuccessful, popular and religious backing is at stake. Meanwhile, ordinary citizens are caught between the looming danger of the Islamic State and the selfish desires and indifference of the opportunistic class that occupies power.

With the passage of time, tensions are coming to the surface, expanding beyond Baghdad and the Shiite south into the Kurdish north. Over the last few weeks, Kurdish security forces clashed with pro-democracy protestors in al-Sulaimanyia and elsewhere in the North following a brawl between rival Kurdish political parties, the Kurdistan Democratic Party and The Patriotic Union of Kurdistan.

But despite these protests and the promised reforms, no tangible outcomes are evident, and everyone’s patience is quickly wearing thin. Protesters may have returned their daily lives after the initial fervor waned down—not out of fear, but out of resignation. Some of the individuals I spoke with were planning to flee the country via Turkey and Greece; some had already started selling their belongings and mapping out their journey to an unknown future in Europe. Their willingness to take the risk is summed up by the plight of Ahmed, a Taxi driver from Baghdad. “We see no silver lining,” he tells World Policy Journal, “There is no light at the end of the tunnel. We grew fatigued of this living situation.”

While some policy wonks have expressed optimism following al-Maliki’s removal, many Iraqis see such enthusiasm as the same misdirected plights had existed under different regimes and masters. The problem in Iraq now is now widespread and noxious, as an unfit system of governance and an ill-designed constitution invariably produce bad leadership. Yet even if there was a well-intentioned and capable leader were to gain power in Iraq, such an individuall would flounder atop the country’s gaping and systemic political divisions.

Iraqis of different stripes understand that they are all victims of their governmental structure, in one way or another, and that the sole beneficiaries are Iraq’s leadership. While they may be disenfranchised on many levels, what unites a corrupt Sunni politician and a corrupt Shiite politician, or a theologian-turned politician, is the politics of sectarianism ingrained in the quota system. This point is often lost in the polarized debate surrounding Iraqi politics that is more likely to blame individuals, tribes, and religious sects while overlooking the deficiencies of the political arrangement itself.

Yet when everyday Sunnis, Shiites, and Kurds agree on something, it is certainly instructive of the ills that plague the system. Thus, short-lived solutions—replacing one individual leader with another from the same pool of incompetents, scapegoating cabinet ministers and hoping for the best—should be eschewed. Over the long run, to move forward and regain the confidence of its citizens, Iraq must redress its entire political aparatus by partially amending the constitution, especially the articles concerning the unequal distribution of revenues.

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Yasir Yosef recently completed his master’s degree in international affairs from Marquette University. In 2012, he was a consultant on Iraqi Affairs in the Institute for National Strategic Studies at National Defense University. He is originally from Baghdad, Iraq.

[Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons]

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