Published by the Guardian.
The war-ravaged country finally has a government, but what kind of precedent does it set for the future?
Without wishing to read doom into every development, I find it difficult to see a bright future at the end of the road chosen by Iraq’s political elite. The intransigence and self-interest of Iraq’s politicians over the past eight months may have squandered the country’s last opportunity to build a truly democratic political system.
The Iraqi people voted for nationalism and against sectarianism in the 2010 elections – for Iraqiya and not for Sunni Islamists, for the Da’wah party and not for the ultra-Shia Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq. But the electorate’s supposed representatives are rewarding them with a sectarian government par excellence.
In fact the new government promises to be very similar to the old government: the same Shia prime minister will govern alongside the same Kurdish president, with the simple addition of a new role for the Sunni representative – chair of the National Council for Strategic Policy.
Dividing up political roles like this sets a dangerous precedent. Politicians should come into office because of electoral success based on political programmes – and not simply because they claim to represent ethnic or religious groups.
If Iraqi politics is to continue in this way, we can all sit back and relax – waiting every five years for the elections that mean nothing, the backstage horse trading in which politicians nakedly vie for personal advantage, and finally the divvying up of power between groups in a way that promises to hamstring the new government before it has even begun.
The 2010 elections gave Iraq’s politicians a rare opportunity to take politics in another direction. Together, Allawi and Maliki gained overwhelming support because they spoke of Iraqi unity, reconciliation, and reconstruction. But when it came to forming a government, self-interest won. Neither could bear the thought of not being prime minister, and both were content to drag the process on and on – waiting to clinch a political advantage while ordinary Iraqis paid with their lives in the escalating violence.
The months of negotiation led Iraq’s parties to retreat into their sectarian identities, which is exactly what the electorate voted against. Iran’s involvement bolstered the position of the Shia parties, while the US desperately sought Sunni participation to stymie the recent resurgence of sectarian violence in Iraq.
In a dangerous parallel with Lebanon’s “National Pact”, which led to two civil wars and continuing political volatility, Iraq’s developing political model spells trouble for the years ahead. It does not take constitutional amendments to institutionalise identity-based politics. The allocation of top jobs according to community in Iraq may set a precedent just like Lebanon’s unwritten Pact.
Governments based on communal power sharing can be extremely damaging for national reconciliation in a country like Iraq which is recovering from civil war. Political leaders discover that it pays to be in charge of a strong, well-defined religious or ethnic group. And communities realise that the political system will reward them the more they act like a unified interest group.
These arrangements also empower political elites at the expense of ordinary voters. Elites from each ethno-religious group can quickly gain a stranglehold over their communities, quelling dissent by pointing to the threat posed by the other Iraqi communities.
By undermining national unity, such a government also renders itself vulnerable to meddling from external powers. Iran and the US, for instance, are able to wield far greater leverage in Iraq when Sunnis, Shia, and Kurds are more concerned about protecting themselves from other Iraqis rather than protecting Iraq from foreign exploitation.
While we should be relieved that Allawi’s Iraqiya is being included in the new Iraqi government, the compromise that has been cobbled together should not be seen as a long-term political solution for Iraq.
Iraqis want a transparent and accountable government that wins power on the basis of its political policies and that can be held responsible for its actions come election time. After all, the Middle East does not need yet another government run by political elites who ignore their duty of public service and content themselves with sharing the spoils of power behind closed doors.