by Toby Dodge
I have recently returned from two research trips to Iraq, the latest one at the end of March as a member of the Atlantic Council’s Future of Iraq Task Force.
We got great access and I spent time talking to senior decision makers both in the Kurdish Regional Government and Baghdad, with an interesting day discussing Iraqi politics with the ulema of Najaf.
The big point I brought home is the profound crisis of the post-2003 political system. The recent Sadrist-led demonstrations in the Green Zone are simply a recognition of the fact that there is a near universal sense across Iraqi public opinion that the state and its ruling elite have completely failed them. The whole non-Kurdish political elite recognizes this but does not want to resolve the crisis in a way that will involve limits being placed on their own party political power or their personal ability to financially exploit the Iraqi state.
The Shia members of the ruling elite blame profound corruption for bringing the system to its knees without recognizing their central role in that corruption.
The Sunni Green Zone politicians see the system’s persecution and marginalization of their constituency as the key, without recognizing that ‘their constituency’ does not and probably never has recognized them as its leaders.
The Kurdish politicians see their own internal money worries as a result of the relationship with Baghdad with some recognizing that it is partly the weakness of their own rentier system. For the regional government in Irbil, Baghdad’s profound weakness has the upside of limiting its ability to put pressure on the Kurdish Regional Government. However, their own system’s structural weakness, its bloated payrolls and party personal corruption, mirrors and is statistically worse than Baghdad’s, with the KRG, as a non-state actor, having less room for maneuver.
Barring Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, Muqatda al-Sadr and Prime Minister Haider Abadi, no national actors appear willing to embark on a reform process that will limit party political power whilst all acknowledge the pressing need for change.
The most probable short term outcome will be piecemeal and reactive reform with the system continuing to limp from one crisis to another. If this is the case, Prime Minister Abadi’s call for reform will achieve little but the further weakening his own legitimacy and chances of him retaining his job.
However, the causes of the crisis will not go away:
- In the short term, with low oil prices, the lack of government cash is what is worrying the whole of the ruling elite.
- The next problem they will face is the undoubted societal pain that will come with International Monetary Fund driven economic reforms.
- Finally, the fear of another civil war or a popular uprising against this failed system increases with every passing day.
Against this background what can Prime Minister Abadi do? He does not have control over his own party, over the parliament or the cabinet.
Nuri al-Maliki, the previous Prime Minister, was a far more astute player. He attempted to bypass the ruling elite and cabinet by building a shadow state to run Iraq, keeping Shia popular discontent in check through sectarian fear mongering. Easier to do this with oil at $100 plus a barrel. In pursuing this strategy, sectarian ideology coupled with shadow state building while leaving elite corruption to flourish, Maliki drove the rise of Daesh and simply delayed and hence exacerbated the current crisis.
For better or worse, Prime Minister Abadi does not have the Machiavellian capacities of his predecessor. This means he is either blamed for authoritarianism because he bypasses cabinet in the decision-making process or blamed for incompetence because he cannot get laws through parliament or implement meaningful reform. He and his team’s proposed solutions are rational, technocratic long-term solutions to the economic situation, focusing on increasing the efficiency of government while sliming down its payroll. They do not and probably cannot address the structural faults of the post-2003 system, the muhasasah or apportionment system, which was built in at birth and needs to be confronted if the Iraqi state is to be saved.
In order not to run out of money the Government of Iraq will have to do a deal in April with the International Monetary Fund which will lead to a cut in the food rationing system, basic commodity price rises, cuts in the government pay roll, cuts in government wages and increased charges for government services.
The most likely outcome of this will be another ‘Iraqi summer’. A return to Sadrist encouraged, but not controlled, popular protest in the face of a failed reform program, electricity shortages and more stories about the industrial strength corruption that has done so much to undermine public support for the Iraqi state.
Ironically, in the face of geographical (though certainly not ideological nor organizational) military success against Daesh, because of the problems laid out above, we will see rising levels of extra-parliamentary protest and violence and the further de-legitimization of the Iraqi state. This violence will primarily be amongst those groups claiming to represent Shia public opinion not Sunni.
I suppose whether Abadi survives as Prime Minister is not really that important, it is whether the Iraqi state can survive and avoid a return to civil war, a war which looks as if it could be fought amongst Shia groups, fighting for what will be left of the Iraqi state.
Toby Dodge is Director of the LSE Middle East Centre and Kuwait Professor.