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Changing The System:
Call For New Political System Opens Back Door to Iraq's Unpopular Former PM

Ibrahim Saleh
There have been calls to move Iraq from a parliamentary political system to a presidential one. But MPs are already saying this is just a cunning tactic to allow unpopular former PM, Nouri al-Maliki, to regain power.
2.07.2015  |  Baghdad
The Iraqi Parliament in session in previous years. (photo: ميتروغرافي)
The Iraqi Parliament in session in previous years. (photo: ميتروغرافي)

Recently there have been calls for major changes to the Iraqi political system, moving it from a parliamentary system to a presidential one. This would mean that rather than elected MPs in Baghdad choosing the country's President, voters would choose the President, who could then work somewhat separately from the also-elected Parliament. For example, the US is a presidential system. Iraq currently has a parliamentary system.

However politicians in Iraq are concerned that if this comes any closer to happening that it will be a way for former Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki to slip back into power, but this time through a legal back door. They are also concerned that while it may not be something that can happen immediately, there is potential for some changes to occur during the next elections.

The call for these changes were started by one of the Shiite Muslim militias involved in the fight against the extremist group known as the Islamic State. The group, League of the Righteous, or Asaib Ahl al-Haq in Arabic, is known to be closely linked with al-Maliki. It is also known to be one of the more hard line and extremist of the Shiite militias.

Which is why many local politicians saw this as a call to bring al-Maliki, who is currently somewhat sidelined as one of Iraq's three Vice Presidents, back to power. Al-Maliki's divisive policies and attempts to centralise power have taken a fair share of the blame for the country's current security crisis and, although his party was successful in the last elections, al-Maliki lost the post of Prime Minister to colleague, Haider al-Abadi late last year.

As soon as Qais al-Khazali, the leader of the League of the Righteous, made this call, a campaign was launched by other pro-presidential-system advocates who spoke about how the parliamentary system, with all its ethnic and sectarian quotas and inability to reach consensus, had failed the country. In their opinion, the parliamentary system has allowed an incompetent political elite to run the country; they also argue that this elite does nothing much but costs a lot, in terms of salaries, expenses and time.

There was a lot of debate on social media as well as articles by pundits in the Iraqi press.

“The presidential system would ensure political stability for one full electoral cycle,” wrote local analyst Sadeq Kathem on the website of Iraq's state media, the Iraqi Media Network, or IMN. “Because it puts the power in the hands of one man rather than several. It means the end of partisanship inside the Cabinet and means that Parliament, together with the President, will be able to do their job and pass laws on time – without never-ending wrangling.”

“The presidential system would unite people under one leader and end all these narrowly defined ethnic or sectarian biases,” Kathem argued.

Another piece by writer and commentator, Hamid Habib al-Maliki, justified the argument like this: “It is less democratic but given the circumstances in Iraq today, [the presidential system] will be more effective than the current parliamentary system."

However such arguments were soon being refuted by many others who thought that calls for a change to Iraq's political system were coming mainly from al-Maliki's allies.

Another Shiite Muslim political grouping, and militia, came out against the idea almost immediately. “It is obvious that the aim of this call for change is to allow one person to control the whole country and all of it's people,” said clerical leader, Muqtada al-Sadr who leads what is broadly known as the Sadrist movement, which has both military and political wings.

The Sadrist movement and its leaders were not on friendly terms with al-Maliki and his allies by the end of the former Prime Minister’s last term; they blamed a lot of what is now wrong with the country on his behaviour and his tactics. They are opposed to letting al-Maliki hold any significant position in Iraqi politics again.

“What this call for change is about, is bringing back power to certain people who abandoned any democratic or political process, and who damaged the country,” added Hussein al-Aboudi, spokesperson for the Sadrists. “All of the problems we have today were caused by these people. Any presidential system will bring back dictatorship and give power to people who are not acceptable to any Iraqis, neither political blocs nor the ordinary people.”

Iraq isn't ready for a presidential system because it has not completely become democratic, al-Aboudi concluded.

There are also other parties within the broader Shiite Muslim alliance in Iraqi politics who are opposed to the suggestion about changing to a presidential system.

The Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq, or ISCI, is also opposed to the idea; they were another of the members of the greater Shiite Muslim alliance that didn't want al-Maliki to get a third term.

“Transforming the system from a parliamentary one to a presidential one will only give power to one person,” says Layla al-Khafaji, a senior member of the ISCI. “It will root dictatorship deeply in this country. The days when you could simply change laws and regulations arbitrarily, without due process and simply by stating it was so, are over – they went out with the last dictatorship.”

Al-Khafaji also points out that those groups who are supporting this call for change “obviously haven't read the Constitution. They're not aware of the mechanisms that need to be used, in order to change or amend the Constitution.”

“Actually the Iraqi Constitution has a lot of bugs and problems,” argues Saad al-Matlabi, a senior member of Nouri al-Maliki's party and one of his supporters. “We need to change it, to re-write it. But what is important is that this change does not occur through a coup. If the people vote for al-Maliki – or any other person in the future – that is their right. To change the system we need pressure from political parties, from activists and from the people themselves,” he concludes.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, leading Sunni Muslim politicians also came out against the idea of a change of system. Parliamentary Speaker, Salim al-Jibouri, ruled out any changes to the Iraqi constitution in the near future and he went on to defend the status quo.

“Iraqis are currently living in a special, and certainly democratic, environment,” he said. “This is because of their Parliament and their MPs, who are doing their legislative duty and who are also now able to perform a supervisory role.The government was formed thanks to this Parliament and the President was also chosen by the Parliament.”

“We must not underestimate the value of the system we now have,” al-Jibouri cautioned. “If we found a better system, we could use that. But this decision should not be driven by politics,” he concluded.

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