Can Iraq's Nouri al-Maliki Keep the Country a Strong Democracy?


Iraq is in a political crisis. One day after the U.S. troops left Iraq, Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki used administrative and judicial means against his political rivals, mainly Sunnis. First, the courts issued an arrest warrant for Vice President Tareq al-Hashemi on charges related to terrorism. Later, he asked the parliament to dire deputy Prime Minister Saleh al-Mutlaq because he described Maliki as a dictator. Hashemi fled to Iraqi Kurdistan, and Mutlaq is on extended leave. Car bombs went off soon after. Although many seem to, rightly, focus on political stability, it is Iraq’s democratic prospect that is mainly at stake.

If Iraq had any chance of having a democratic polity, it would not be by virtue of having democratic leaders or the presence of a vibrant civil society. Rather, democracy could emerge from the iterative competition among Iraq’s political entities. Since 2003, all of Iraq’s government cabinets have been coalition governments, lacking a strong man or an outright majority. Keeping these coalitions fluid and changeable gave hope to those outside the political process or in opposition to mobilize during elections. This is manifest by the Sunni groups, who boycotted the political process in 2005 but later joined forces for 2010 elections under al-Iraqiya list, which won slight majority of parliament seats.

But coalition governments have also meant weak governments. The subsequent Iraqi government cabinets failed to maintain security and provide public services. This is partly because the unrest on the Iraqi streets often reflected political rivalries within the government. Corruption and patronage politics became rife, and political parties prioritized fending for their cronies over serving the public interest.

Since the elections, in addition to being the prime minister, Maliki’s office also runs the ministries of defense, interior and national security. After the recent move against his rivals, Maliki called for an end to coalition – advocating instead for inclusive governments in favor of majority governments, since the latter would be stronger. Unfortunately, last time Iraq had a strong government, it was a dictatorship.

Iraq’s political trajectory is subject to numerous factors, some of which put it on a democratic path, and many others that pull it back toward dictatorship.

First, Iraq has a constitution voted for by the majority of Iraqis. To buttress constitutionalism, the document’s flaws and unclear terms should be reformed democratically instead of shelving and discarding the whole constitution. Moreover, the constitution enshrines federalism and decentralization of power, including revenue sharing. Kurds advocated strongest for federalism, and Sunnis, despite initial antipathy, are growing an appetite for breaking away from Baghdad’s micromanagement tendencies, as manifest by recent calls for establishing autonomous regions in Diyala and Anbar. Finally, repeated elections that have been hard for any single political party or sect to fully control. Indeed, a prospect for Iraq’s democracy is the lack of an overpowering party or sect. Elections alone do not turn countries into democracies, but at least in Iraq they have softened elements like Muqtada al-Sadr. Iraq’s 2012 budget, set at $100 billion, is a significant incentive for political participation. A party can access that money mainly by being part of the government.

On the other hand, much works simultaneously against democracy in Iraq. First, the country’s economy is heavily dependent on oil — about 75% of GDP derives from oil exports. The concentration of this wealth in government hands makes it the largest employer in the country, and gives rulers ample discretionary power to co-opt and coerce opponents. Should this wealth continue to be dispensed from Baghdad, it would draw Iraq back toward centralization. Second, corruption and patronage politics have undercut the ability of the state since 2003 to provide for the citizens. Although no single party has managed to maintain a national patronage hierarchy as under Saddam, parties dispense privileges to their local supporters. At this level, the rivalry is personal and political rather than sectarian or national. These factors have resulted in a society dependent on government handouts, and the market being captured by influential politicians.

The prospects of democracy in Iraq depend on the balance of these opposing dynamics. Maliki’s sidelining of his opponents using the power of his office is a step away from democracy. Although the focus here is on internal dynamics, regional and international influences could pull or push Iraq either way. The inefficiencies of democratic governance in Iraq so far may well justify the desire for a strong man. However, the last time a strong man ruled Iraq, he did it through wars, chemical weapons and mass graves.

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