Early elections remain the best prescription for getting the country back on track.
By Bobby Ghosh
A month ago, when Mohammed Tawfik Allawi was nominated to the prime ministership of Iraq, I predicted he wouldn’t last long. Turns out, I was wildly optimistic.
After four weeks of flailing efforts to form a cabinet, culminating in two failed attempts to get parliament to approve his choices, Allawi has thrown in the towel. And Adel Abdul Mahdi, who had been caretaker prime minister since his resignation in November, has announced he will stay on, but will not discharge most official duties, including steering cabinet meetings.
This leaves Iraq’s government in limbo. President Barham Salih has said he will propose another prime minister in 15 days. But if Allawi couldn’t make the cut, despite being the compromise candidate backed by Iraq’s most powerful Shiite leaders, who would?
Abdul Mahdi has proposed that the job be temporarily assigned to one of his deputies or a member of his cabinet, and that a general election be held in early December. That is too long to wait. Never entirely free of crises, Iraq now faces too many to be entrusted to a substitute leader operating within a dysfunctional political system.
All of the country’s challenges — from an economy hobbled by soft oil prices and endemic corruption to growing unemployment and widespread anger over state failures — are made more acute by the coronavirus epidemic. The government says 19 Iraqis have contracted the virus, but this is almost certainly an undercount. Neighboring Iran accounts for more deaths than any country outside China, where the virus originated; while the regime in Tehran lied about the extent of the outbreak, hundreds of thousands of people may have crossed the border, in both directions.
It wasn’t until Feb. 20 that Iraq barred Iranians from entry and Iraqi Airways stopped flights, but the ban is not being strictly enforced: Plenty of Iraqis who had gone to Iran, for pilgrimage or business, are finding ways to return. And that’s not counting the Shiite militias, trained and armed by the Iranian regime, who travel unchecked.
The coronavirus epidemic is a body-blow for the economy. Millions of pilgrims, the lifeblood of the Iraqi tourism industry, may drop plans to visit shrine cities like Najaf, Karbala and Samarra. Border closures will hurt trade with Iran and other neighbors.
If the virus spreads, it will overwhelm the Iraqi medical system: There are fewer than 10 doctors per 10,000 people, and hospitals struggle even to deal with a normal demand for beds. Such a failure would add to a long list of grievances driving the street protests that prompted Abdul Mahdi’s resignation, and which have kept going ever since. (For now, the virus has contributed to a thinning of the protests.)
And then there are the crises that the virus has yet to affect. Islamic State is regrouping. The reconstruction of cities destroyed in the war against the terrorist group has been tardy, fueling resentment especially among Sunnis. The conflict between the U.S. and Iran brings its own set of problems for Iraq.
These would challenge the strongest leader with a popular mandate, never mind a caretaker appointed by bickering political factions. Indeed, the sorry fate of Abdul Mahdi and Allawi allows for no optimism that another compromise prime minister will be able to govern at all.
This was clear long before the coronavirus escaped from China. Back in December, Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, Iraq’s senior-most Shiite cleric, said that early elections were the only way out of the political impasse. A few days later, the parliament approved an electoral law that would allow Iraqis to vote for individual candidates, instead of party slates. This change holds out the prospect of a new generation of politicians, answerable to their voters, not beholden to sectarian political factions.
That can’t happen soon enough. If anything, the coronavirus has made Sistani’s original prescription even more urgent.
Source: Bloomberg, March 4, 2020