Almost a year and a half after Iraq’s general elections, held in March of 2010, and close to the first birthday of the establishment of the current Iraqi government, any faith that ordinary Iraqis had in the political process is fading. Hope that there might be some quantum leap in the political process is also fading. The government that the current Iraqi prime minister Nouri al-Maliki rules is weak. The ruling coalition he presides over is fragile, several key posts have still not been filled and among ordinary Iraqis, the level of anger increases daily, as the security situation deteriorates along with living conditions, government services and political and personal freedoms.
The former prime minister Ayed Allawi has already been moved to release statements warning that Iraq is slowly devolving into a failed state. However in doing so, Allawi carefully ignored two factors. Firstly, his part in the devolution and secondly, that Iraq has been considered a failed state for years.
In fact, for years Iraq has made it onto the top of the Failed States Index, published annually by Washington based current affairs magazine, Foreign Policy, in cooperation with the Fund for Peace, an independent, non-profit research organization working to prevent violent conflict and also based in Washington. Although it has been moving down the rankings and it fell to number 9 this year, Iraq has consistently been in the top ten most failed states in the world since 2004. According to Foreign Policy magazine the index is based “on some 130,000 publicly available sources”, used “to analyze 177 countries and rate them on 12 indicators of pressure on the state during the year 2010 -- from refugee flows to poverty, public services to security threats”. The index takes into account such things as immigration, how various different sectors of the community interrelate and how much poverty and corruption there is.
The index also reflects a state’s ability to fulfil its most important functions, especially in terms of security, stability, prosperity and the rule of law. Over the past few years Iraq has succeeded in moving from second place on the list to ninth. This could be construed as hopeful. However it seems unlikely that Iraq will move any further down the list. This state has come to a dead end, one that doesn’t leave much room for further improvement.
There are reasons for this. During his first term in office, the current prime minister al-Maliki was able to offer up some fairly obvious achievements both in security and within the economy. His first government benefited from the aid of the US military as well as high oil prices worldwide. This boosted his popularity with Iraqi voters. However, after the 2010 elections, al-Maliki’s need to form a government based on a number of shaky alliances have hindered further progress. Instead, over the past few months, a political crisis has evolved in Iraq; the parties in power have been unable to keep their campaign promises and each separate bloc in parliament has been looking after its own narrow, partisan interests.
The clearest aspect of Iraq’s “failed state” status is reflected in the federal government’s current state of paralysis and its obvious inability to make any decisions. Some observers have suggested that this is because of the way the ruling coalition was formed.
Both al-Maliki’s Shiite-dominated bloc and the Sunni-dominated parties led by former Prime Minister Ayed Allawi had almost equal numbers of seats in the federal parliament after elections. Both tried to form a majority. Al-Maliki was the first to be able to do so, in October 2010 – and he did this by teaming up with Kurdish politicians, to whom he made several promises, and with other Shiite Muslim groups such as that led by the cleric Muqtada al-Sadr.
This argument – that the biggest problem is the fact that the government doesn’t have a true majority - could be correct.
However the reality is that there is political elite in Iraq that is obsessed with power, rank and privilege – and they desire this regardless of price. Additionally the various blocs that make up the ruling coalition don’t see local politics as being about the art of compromise. No, they prefer arm twisting and deception to get their way. Making matters worse are the ever-widening divisions between the various blocs, as to what they want to achieve. A good example of this is the fact that Iraq still doesn’t have any ministers atop a number of very important ministries of security and defence.
And all this is happening against a back drop of increasing sectarian violence, which seems to have sparked up again in a number of Iraqi cities. No wonder then that ordinary Iraqis don’t trust their government. And that this kind of insecurity is causing some groups – especially those based on ethnicity or religion –to form militia groups in order to protect themselves. All of which further threatens state authority.
There is also a strange vengeful way of thinking that dominates Iraq’s political scene and which is reflected in the lack of concrete decisions being made. Political blocs continue to boycott decision making sessions and to obstruct the passing of laws. Their stances are not based on any sorts of values. Rather, they are based on tactics.
For example, some of the politicians are not actually opposed to certain recent draft laws that would legislate the oil and gas sector, or the tourism sector. But they refuse to help pass those laws because they don’t want other political blocs to benefit, should the laws be passed. And there is always a price for their cooperation – rewards like a senior position for one of their bloc.
The situation is further complicated by growing external influences on Iraq – the country is again becoming a space for conflicts between the likes of Iran, Turkey, Syria, Saudi Arabia and the US to be played out. This is because many Iraqi politicians are ready to use those external forces as part of their internal political game playing, regardless of their own ideologies and without any regard for the national interest.
All of this behaviour results in, and reflects, an ongoing deterioration in living standards in Iraq. Despite improvements in income levels in recent years, the quality of life has not been enhanced. And ordinary Iraqis are coming to resent this – hence the series of protests earlier this year.
Al-Maliki seems to be aware of the dangerous state his government is in. But so far his response has been limited to what appear to be temporary solutions. His regime also seems to be becoming more repressive, tightening up on freedom of expression, targeting political opponents and reducing the power of formerly independent bodies, like the Commission on Integrity, charged with investigating corruption, the Electoral Commission and even the central bank.
A dangerous trend is emerging: in trying to stop the country sliding into failed statehood, al-Maliki is becoming more dictatorial, in an echo of former Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein’s regime. Al-Maliki appears to believe that a strong and stable country must be dominated by its central government. But the way forward cannot be totalitarianism.
Stability would be better achieved through the promotion of democracy, federalism, good governance and healthier relationships between the various interest groups in Iraqi society. The latter could be achieved through wealth redistribution, the rule of law and encouraging the principles of citizenship.
Doubtless one way out of the impasse the current government faces is an early election, which would be held in the hope that it might redress the imbalance of power and result in a more stable, majority-led parliament. What seems highly doubtful though is whether current members of parliament are prepared to compromise their privileges, their salaries and their advantaged lives to do this. Will they simply wait until the Iraqi people pressure them to do so?
They should beware. Examples from around the region, from the Arab Spring, indicate that this option is one that various nationalities have not been shy about taking up – and also, that it can bring down a government.