There is little cause for anticipating major structural changes after Iraq’s forthcoming elections. The most likely result would be business as usual: another ‘national-unity’ government rather than a majority government and, at most, a change of faces rather than a change (or even reform) of the system. Even then, it seems that a reordering, rather than a change of faces is the limit of Iraqi electoral potential. The central issue in 2014 is Nouri Al Maliki’s premiership, not that Iraq is bereft of more pressing concerns, and whether or not he will be able to secure a third term. While it is never wise to bet on Iraqi politics, initial indicators seem to favour Al Maliki’s chances.
As with every round of Iraqi elections, 2014 has seen heightened violence, increasing sectarian entrenchment and a conveniently timed pre-election crisis. With the exception of the provincial elections of 2009 and perhaps the run up, though certainly not the follow up to the 2010 elections, the electoral process has consistently worked to accentuate rather than soothe Iraq’s divisions. Despite fierce intra-sectarian rivalries – never more so than in the upcoming elections – there seems to be an ingrained limit to intra-sectarian political competition. Would Shiite political forces, despite all their infighting, rivalries and even hatreds, countenance a non-Shiite prime minister? Or would they, if push came to shove, close ranks to ensure Shiite continuity in the prime minister’s office even if it meant swallowing the bitter pill of an Al Maliki third term?
The elections of 2010 justify significant scepticism regarding the sabre rattling that precedes the vote. In 2010, it seemed unthinkable for the Sadrists to support a second Al Maliki term, yet that is exactly what they ended up doing. Today it seems even more far fetched for the Sadrists – or for Hakim’s Muwatin list for that matter – to support a third Al Maliki term. Yet, I for one would not be surprised if that happens once the post-poll political bazaar opens for business and ministries are doled out and loyalties and alliances go up for sale.
Rare is the Iraqi who does not recognise the failings of today’s political order and rarer still is the Iraqi who does not recognise sectarian politics as a cannibalistic parasite in the Iraqi body politic. So what is stopping a new force from emerging? Firstly there are the structural impediments facing new entrants into any established political field. There are entrenched interests and established political and economic structures that present near-insurmountable obstacles to any aspiring new entrant with a truly reformist agenda. This is not necessarily nefarious or Iraq-specific but is the fate of electoral politics worldwide. With time politics turns into an increasingly closed shop to outsiders who lack the financial capacity, media presence, established voter base or political networks to compete in the system. However, the difficulties that confront an aspiring third party, in for example, American politics are magnified in the case of aspiring new entrants into Iraqi politics by institutional weakness, political polarisation, corruption, security concerns, authoritarianism and the opacity and uncertainty that so characterise the system.
So any serious challenge to the political statusquo has to come from within or, if emerging from without, has to be adopted by an established political actor – Gorran being an example of the former and the Tea Party an example of the latter. In Arab Iraq, there is no shortage of political offshoots; indeed, over the years just about every political entity has metastasised beyond recognition. The fact that all these divisions have not yielded anyone with an alternate vision, someone, who if successful will seek genuine reform rather than simply assuming the incumbent prime minister’s role, reflects the nature of post-2003 Arab Iraqi politics and of its political classes.
Despite the democratic veneer that elections bestow, the political classes are relatively immune to the concerns of their supposed constituencies. How else can we explain the fact that Iraq has no functioning political opposition? There is a dangerous, destructive and militant insurgent opposition but not a political one. When it comes to national politics, Iraqi political actors are partner-competitors, rather than opponents, in a rentier political marketplace all too familiar to the developing world. For example, for all their talk of marginalisation and exclusion, Sunni politicians have yet to opt out of the system or to form an opposition simply because to do so would mean losing access to the rents and funds that come with a seat at the political table. This also explains how the deputy prime minister can believe that the government he serves is so genocidal that he feels compelled to block the much-needed development of Iraq’s airforce but not genocidal enough to compel him to resign.
For the political classes what is at stake is not what the electorate might feel is at stake: security and by extension the lives of the hundreds who die every month, good governance, services and state-building. For the political classes what is at stake is access to rents and the size of their ministerial and executive share – which, in turn facilitate the strongest tangible overlap between the political classes and the electorate, namely, the provision of jobs and handouts in the form of various entitlements. This is what explains the ludicrously incoherent national unity government that came into existence in 2010 and that seems set for a reincarnation later this year. This is what explains the emptiness of ‘reconciliation’. After all, the political classes may work against one another but, so long as the petrodollars continue to flow, they are nevertheless partners in a political order that benefits all, from the prime minister to those bemoaning his dictatorial tendencies.
Another reason behind political stagnation is a lack of basic trust at the political level. The trust needed to build inclusive and effective elite bargains simply does not exist in Iraq. As a result, there is no real will or ability to transcend identity politics or to reform a system that benefits its participants. To break ranks and challenge the statusquo, political actors need to have either the legitimacy-based confidence that would allow one to forgo the marriages of convenience that perpetuate the system (as Al Maliki briefly did in 2009/2010) or they would need to have a bare minimum of trust in other political actors – otherwise one will not countenance the possibility of being subsumed by a most-likely hostile other.
The other force sustaining and perpetuating Iraq’s broken politics is popular polarisation. Yes, rare is the Iraqi who sees any good in sectarian entrenchment but it is nevertheless an unwanted fact of political life rooted in fears and suspicions that have mutated over the past 11 years into a highly corrosive and as yet inescapable self-perpetuating dynamic. The fact that there is almost no meaningful cross- sectarian political campaigning in 2014 is reflective of societal realities. To be clear: ‘Shiite’ and ‘Sunni’ are not two coherent electoral constituencies; rather they are two sets of constituencies separated by an ever-thickening demarcation of mistrust. In such a political landscape it makes little sense for a politician associated with sect X to campaign for the votes of sect Y. Furthermore, playing on this divide provides a soothing alternative to political accountability. And thus political and societal division cyclically reinforce each other.
It is these contingent factors, rather than the electoral process itself that have made elections as much a curse as a blessing for the new Iraq. The elections of 2009 and the run up to the elections of 2010 clearly illustrate this: after years of bloodshed and having just emerged from the peaks of civil war, Iraq seemed to be on the road to recovery. Violence had been reduced to tolerable levels and even the political system seemed to be maturing. Sectarian politics were in clear retreat with Al Maliki turning his back on sectarian alliances and running a robust campaign on nationalist and strongman credentials. Al Qaida was on the defensive and the Mahdi Army was broken after a series of operations in 2008. There was a sense that Iraq was over the worst and that a new beginning was at hand.
Alas, the contentious results of the 2010 elections were the beginning of the end of this brief period of hope. Sectarian coalitions were reconstituted further sharpening the zero-sum nature of Iraqi politics. In the end, the shadowy Erbil Agreement ushered in an all encompassing and completely ineffective government of ‘national-unity’ at the expense of institution building and the legitimacy – such as it was – of the post-2003 electoral order. With such an inauspicious birth, one should scarcely be surprised at the dysfunction and ineptitude that have characterised this crisis-ridden government. Ultimately, an electoral system is only as democratic as its representatives.
Fanar Haddad is a Research Fellow at the Middle East Institute, National University of Singapore and is author of Sectarianism in Iraq: Antagonistic Visions of Unity. Follow him on Twitter at www.twitter.com/@fanarhaddad