With the Islamic State still in control of large parts of the country and oil prices depressed, Iraq is on the verge of a meltdown. But instead of working to solve the country’s problems, Iraq’s political class has been consumed by a power struggle. Last weekend, protesters in Baghdad lost their patience and stormed the Parliament building, threatening further action if serious reform is not enacted soon.
This eruption was a long time coming. Last August, Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi promised to improve government services and eliminate corruption. Unsurprisingly, he has failed to deliver. In response, protesters have demanded a new government and the abandonment of the sectarian quota system that has underpinned Iraqi governments since 2003. Mr. Abadi has tried to respond by putting forward a “technocratic” cabinet, but he hasn’t been able to get it approved by Parliament.
Ordinary Iraqis are furious. Moktada al-Sadr, the Shiite cleric who has long acted as a leader of Iraq’s underclass, has tried to capitalize on this by leading the protest movement. But even he cannot control the anger Iraqis feel toward their leaders.
The cause of Iraq’s political paralysis is neither ideological nor sectarian. In fact, most of the main actors in the continuing dispute are Shiite Islamists. The disagreement is instead based on mutual distrust, which is fueled by the incompetence and corruption that have formed the basis of Iraq’s political system since 2003. That dynamic has made it impossible for state institutions to present any viable solutions to the crisis.
Some Iraqi and American officials, including Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr., have expressed hope that Mr. Abadi, at the head of a new government, can turn the situation around. They are missing the point. Even if a new government is formed, new ministers have to be approved by the Parliament, which insists on nominating the same crop of ineffectual, corrupt former exiles who have been running the country into the ground. More important, a new government would be beholden to the corrupt, sectarian Parliament. Making the argument that a new government can design, pass and carry out comprehensive governance reform is either delusional or an attempt to punt.
The only way out of the current stalemate is to inject new blood into the country’s political class.
Any new Iraqi government’s first priority should be to organize fresh elections on an entirely different basis from how they have been conducted in the past. There are two simple and necessary changes that should be made immediately. First, members of Iraq’s Parliament are some of the best-paid legislators in the world. This has had the effect of attracting candidates for the wrong reasons. Salaries, benefits and pensions for members of Parliament should be significantly reduced.
Second, the electoral commission must be given wide-ranging powers to disqualify candidates who violate basic campaign rules. In the past, some candidates have openly bribed, manipulated and threatened voters, while financing their campaigns with embezzled funds without any serious penalties. The result is a Parliament populated by society’s worst elements, full of incompetents who have no vision apart from their own enrichment and empowerment. These people should never have been allowed to run for Parliament.
It might be hard to imagine the enactment of new electoral rules given Iraq’s political situation. But there is a precedent.
In 2009, the Parliament was forced to move from a closed to an open electoral list system because of pressure from Iraqi civil society (including religious institutions, think tanks and major media outlets) and from the international community (including the United Nations, the United States and the European Union). Given the current level of popular anger, there’s a strong possibility that similar pressure could be exerted today, giving strength to efforts to reform electoral rules.
A number of Iraqi organizations, experts and even some politicians have been calling for these reforms, but more needs to be done to coordinate and prioritize them. Nominally, all of these changes require legislative action, but if the current Parliament refuses to act, the government should proceed unilaterally in the knowledge that it will have the people’s full support. Iraq has been in crisis for years and any insistence on adhering to legal formalities seems misplaced at this point.
New elections, organized on the basis of a reformed electoral law, would finally allow the possibility of enacting the genuine reforms that could once and for all end the culture of impunity in Iraq’s political class: reforming the judiciary and purging it of corrupt judges; establishing a new, progressive and independent constitutional court; redefining the role of Iraqi judges to protect the public interest.
New elections would also allow for Iraq’s decrepit government accountability organizations to finally be fixed. The disastrous laws governing Iraq’s anti-corruption bodies were drafted by the American-led Coalition Provisional Authority and have been left untouched by the Parliament. But these institutions need independence — and teeth — if they are to hold officials to account.
Without new blood, these vital reforms have no chance of success. And without a new culture of accountability for government officials, Iraq has no hope.
Zaid al-Ali, a visiting lecturer and fellow at Princeton, is the author of The Struggle for Iraq’s Future: How Corruption, Incompetence and Sectarianism Have Undermined Democracy.