Fixing the country’s chronic political dysfunction can only begin with new elections.
After the third try in less than six months, Iraq’s parliament has finally approved a new prime minister: Mustafa Al-Kadhimi, the former intelligence chief. He deserves our commiserations for being burdened with the Middle East’s most impossible task.
Since Kadhimi has no chance of succeeding, the best thing he can do for his country is to fail fast. The only hope of ending the political dysfunction in Baghdad is to precipitate a new election, allowing for a government with a proper mandate from the electorate, rather than a stitch-up whose disintegration is foreordained. This has been the demand of the protest movement that forced the resignation of the previous prime minister, Adel Abdul Mahdi, in November. It is also the counsel of Iraq’s most-admired public figure, Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani. Ditto, the United Nations.
It would take very little for Kadhimi to incite a vote of no-confidence in parliament: A simple refusal to perpetuate the patronage system in government jobs would bring down on him the wrath of the leading parties. A general election in the middle of the coronavirus pandemic would be harder to arrange, so Kadhimi will likely be required to serve for several months as a caretaker. If he can provide halfway decent administration, Kadhimi might even be able to make a claim for the people’s mandate.
Admittedly, that is the tallest of orders. The number and scale of crises requiring urgent attention might earn Kadhimi sympathy even from Hassan Diab, his opposite number in terminally ungovernable Lebanon. Iraq faces economic ruin, social collapse and state failure, even as it deals with the devastating pandemic and the revival of the Islamic State. Add in the malevolent intentions of neighboring Iran and the blundering of the U.S., and you have a combination of calamities that would challenge the greatest of statesmen.
But wait, there’s more: the protest movement is returning from its coronavirus-imposed hiatus, just in time for the onset of summer heat, when the scarcity of electricity and water will bring public anger to a boil.
Arguably Kadhimi’s biggest problem — one that constrains his ability to deal with the others — is the chronically fractious politics of Baghdad. Although the internecine conflict within the dominant Shiite faction in parliament that blocked two previous aspirants to the prime ministership paused long enough to enable his ascension, the truce will not hold.
Kadhimi’s inability to name a full complement of ministers indicates the squabbling to come for plum positions, and none juicier that the oil ministry. Such infighting can hold up crucial appointments for months on end, with even more debilitating consequences in a crisis.
While he can count on the political elite to do its worst, the prime minister may have to reckon without much support from the civil service: the collapse in oil prices will shrink government revenues and make salaries harder to pay. Even before Kadhimi got the parliamentary greenlight, Iraq was in talks with the International Monetary Fund for a deferment of debt. It is seeking financial assistance from the U.S. to cope with the coronavirus outbreak, but also military support to forestall the Islamic State’s revival.
Kadhimi’s main political objective, meanwhile, should be to ensure the speedy implementation of electoral reforms that parliament passed late last year. The new law allows voters to elect their representatives rather than picking party lists. Every electoral district would be represented by a member of parliament, ending the system in which groups of legislators represent entire provinces. Such changes would break the pattern of parties and coalitions forming along sectarian lines, and make individual members more accountable to voters.
The political elite will want to delay these changes at least long enough to wring the last drops of privilege from the current system. So will Iran, which wants to maintain Shiite dominance of the political landscape. Kadhimi can count on American support, but he will need strong domestic backing. His best hope is to make common cause with those who want a new election: But the protest movement and Sistani are leery of establishment politicians. They will need persuading that Kadhimi can be a reformer.
A new vote would give Iraq the chance for a fresh start. If Kadhimi can pull off just that one thing, he could credibly claim to have done as much for his country in months than any of his predecessors did in years.
Source: Bloomberg, May 8, 2020