Iraq found itself on the brink of civil war at the end of the summer, following widespread protests and a sadistic occupation of parliament after populist cleric Moqtada al-Sadr ordered his parliamentary bloc to resign. Why has this government-building process been longer and more violent – and what does this mean for the democratization of Iraq?
Iraqi Democracy Depends on Consensus
Iraq’s political structure, installed by the US-led occupation, relies on a broad consensus government. The sadrist movement resigned after unsuccessfully challenging the system, leading to an armed confrontation in late August between the sadrist paramilitary, Saraya al-Salam, and the Iraqi security forces and other paramilitary groups representing Sadr’s rivals.
Iraq’s populist leader has left parliament. What happens now?
The Iraqi public, which had called for early elections through mass mobilization in the fall of 2019, has become more disenchanted with political parties and the democracy they claim to represent. My research on government formation in Iraq helps explain the growing frustration and current political deadlock.
The informal power-sharing system in Iraq ensures that all major ethno-religious groups – Shias, Sunnis and Kurds – have a share. This time, the Tripartite Alliance, which represented the winning party within each ethno-religious group, instead sought to form a government of its own as the majority, sidelining its co-ethnic and co-religious rivals for the role of opposition.
The Iraqi constitution does not enforce the informal requirements that the president must be Kurdish, the prime minister Shia and the speaker of parliament Sunni. But it does require a two-thirds majority of parliament to elect a president on the first ballot. This article was included in the constitution to protect the Kurds, a minority group, and to prevent the tyranny of the majority. Despite pressure from Iran and Turkey in favor of their respective Iraqi political allies, government formation has stalled since January.
A clarification from the Federal Supreme Court in early February reinforced the two-thirds rule. The Tripartite Alliance did not have the numbers and was unable to recruit other parties. After successfully installing its choice of Speaker of Parliament, the alliance failed to reach a quorum to elect a president, who would then have to appoint a prime minister.
Iraq lacks a culture of opposition parties
No political party has won a majority in the Iraqi elections. Some previous winners, who won more seats than the sadrists in 2021, were even forced into consensus governments with a compromise prime minister.
The generation of politicians who have ruled Iraq for the past two decades view opposition as anti-state only. The concept of majority parties working together to form a cabinet while minority parties agreeing to take their place in parliament as opposition is strange. Political parties always prefer to be in government because it gives them access to state resources. In the opposition parties have only their parliamentarians and no presence in the cabinet.
How does this unfamiliarity with the role of the opposition develop? Parties excluded from the tripartite alliance worked actively to prevent the winning bloc from reaching a quorum. And the sadistic movement — which won the most seats in last year’s elections but failed to form a government with its allies — resigned from parliament in June. The sadrists took to the streets; they and their rivals seemed to prefer the near prospect of civil war to staying in parliament as opposition.
The frustrating process of government formation has overshadowed gains from the 2021 elections, including the rise of protest-based parties and impartial independent candidates. While not large enough today to transform the informal political system, these newcomers may be enough to start a real opposition, which could grow in the upcoming elections. After all, it only takes 50 MPs to pass a vote of no confidence in the executive.
Unfortunately, the ongoing stalemate has prevented Iraqis from witnessing what a real parliamentary opposition might look like.
Iraqis have less faith in their political system
The 2021 elections were called early in response to a massive protest movement in late 2019. But Iraqis have now had a caretaker government for a full year. That government cannot pass major legislation, such as a federal budget. This has paralyzed the country and damaged the fragile relationship between the government and its citizens.
Iraqi political parties have politicized public institutions to an alarming extent, analysts note. Ethnic-sectarian parties built their patronage networks by expanding the public sector, which now provides about 40 percent of Iraq’s employment. But Iraqis outside these networks have become frustrated that services such as education, water, electricity and healthcare are malfunctioning.
As the government continues to sharpen dissent, voters have become increasingly apathetic, and many have joined a boycott movement. In 2021, only 44 percent of Iraqis voted, despite citizens’ demands for snap elections. A long-standing deadlock, with political parties now calling for snap elections again, is unlikely to restore people’s trust in democratic institutions.
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What does this mean for the future of Iraq?
Whether or not the sadrists join in, Iraq is likely to see a new broad consensus government — if only long enough to oversee snap elections. Early elections, however, will not suddenly provide a clear parliamentary opposition, nor overcome the ethno-religious division.
These issues do not necessarily indicate constitutional change or revolution. The constitution is not responsible for the lack of constitutionalism, and a revolution threatens to bring more chaos. Iraq may be able to overcome the challenges of democratization – and its own undemocratic history – by developing a stronger democratic political culture. New political groups, new non-governmental organizations and even popular protests are likely to be part of the ongoing process.
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Hamzeh Hadad is a visiting fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations. Find him on Twitter @HamzehKarkhi.