By Yasir Yosef
Since the seizure of Iraqi territory by the Islamic State organization, in June 2014, pundits are growingly filling their columns with doomsdays scenarios for Iraq. But they fail to look deeper into how political institutions set the stage for individual and group behaviors. Indeed, one must say, since 2003, Iraq has seen a continuum of political violence, instability, and divisive and inefficient politics, thanks to “confessional politics,” euphemism to sectarian politics. Iraq’s political system is nothing short of an inefficient structure composed largely of Islamic parties and megalomaniac elites who unceasingly monopolize privileges at the expense of anyone else.
Today in Iraq, sectarian tensions and corrupt politics are untamable now, and that the best plan of action would be to facilitate the breakup of Iraq into mini-states along ethno-sectarian lines. I disagree with this conclusion if for no other reasons than the vast difficulties associated with sorting out the myriad mixed Iraqis spread across all parts of the country.
What it takes to restore Iraq to normalcy is to uproot the ethno-sectarian system. The post-2003 power-sharing scheme has led to unanticipated changes in the domestic political landscape. Parties are now voted in exclusively by sectarian constituencies, giving rise to the aforementioned system of institutionalized sectarianism and patronage.
Today in Iraq, technocrats who believe in being elected on the strength of their qualifications alone have no chance to be elected. To occupy a post, you have to first identify and highlight your sectarian affiliation: Shiite, Sunni, Kurd, Yazidi, Christian, etc. You are doomed if you choose none of these, because you are seen as upending the quota system, one that is deeply ingrained in ethno-sectarianism. Corruption and other political ills follow inevitably from this set up.
What Needs To Be Done
Iraq’s sectarian political system has engendered fragmented and inefficient local governments by incentivizing thinking along narrow, short-term, and sectarian lines. What is needed is a system that incentivizes broader thinking and long-term visions for inclusion and prosperity. Citizens of all ethnic and religious affiliations need to feel a mutual sense of justice, political and social inclusion, and belongingness to a single nation.
The international community has a role to play here, and major world powers need to do their best to encourage a change in Iraq’s style of governance. The Obama administration, for example, can utilize its ongoing political, security, and military communications with Iraqi leaders to demand the structure of the government be modified. It should demand a change to the unconstitutional division of power among Shiites, Sunnis, and Kurds as far as the designations of Prime Minister, President, Chair of Parliament, and cabinet ministers. If a Yazidi candidate proves to be the most qualified to fill the presidency or foreign ministry, so be it. Amendments to the constitution should follow a process of partial rewriting, offering it for a popular referendum in which all societal groups take part, unlike in 2005. These changes should then be ratified in a parliament in which all Iraqis are meaningfully represented, also unlike in 2005.
Let us stop kidding everyone with the idea of political reconciliation, which is only another path to political failure. It must be noted that when al-Maliki instituted his “reconciliation” program, he basically paid and co-opted individuals with social influence. These then sat in their homes, received salaries, and did literally nothing.
Addressing these issues would prove difficult, but efforts must be made nonetheless. There are several reasons why now is the time to initiate such efforts. First, the Iraqi public is increasingly aware of the polarized effects of the system on their well-being. Polarization did achieve its purposes, during Abu Musab al-Zarqawi’s days, of course in the context of those days, but politicians can’t play the card of sectarian fear forever.
Even the Shiite majority has had enough of corruption and patronage. Recall the protests that swept Iraq in early August over corruption and electricity were not just about these issues, but represented a whole litany of problems rooted in the inherently weak government. The political class itself may be more open to reform as they observe popular discontent in their nation rising to a pitch. As the recent cross-country protests show, elites are not as immune to Arab Spring-like popular disapproval as they might think.
Iraq’s leaders cannot be allowed to get away with such jaw-dropping incompetence and lack of genuine will to serve. The capture of Iraqi territory by the Islamic State and the significant drop in oil prices alerted politicians to a serious and terrifying fact: the country could financially and otherwise collapse at any given moment, especially as the government devotes more of its scarce resources to deal with the ongoing security challenge. If the state were to collapse, it would take everyone down with it. Finally, elites would be committing political and strategic suicide if they think they can push aside popular demands called for by the influential Ayatollah al-Sistani and demanded by the majority of the public.
Ordinary Iraqis see little hope for a better future under such corrupt governance, and the dysfunction is a primary reason why they are flocking to Western countries. Still, there is still hope Iraqi citizens may regain confidence in their government over time. It will, however, require bold moves, chiefly through overturning a system based on institutionalized sectarianism, vice, and fraud. In other words, a system with a small number of beneficiaries and countless victims. How the Iraqi government handles the situation is likely to determine its longevity. If it fails to deliver meaningful changes, the situation in Iraq will continue to worsen, in the protests, revolutions— or an even stronger Islamic State.
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 Iraq.
[Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons]