In 2003, following the toppling of the regime of Saddam Hussein, Iraqis had high hopes for fundamental change in their lives after three and half decades of tyranny. In the years since, however, many of these expectations have gone unfulfilled.
Iraq’s post-2003 political system has been characterized by instability driven by a variety of factors, including but not limited to ethnic and sectarian tensions, interventions by neighboring countries, and security challenges created by terrorist groups, militias and gangs, and the remnants of the previous regime. In addition, the political landscape during almost every Iraqi administration since 2003 has been dominated by weak, divided coalitions incapable of implementing much-needed structural reforms. This failure of governance was compounded by the lack of efficient institutions and a bureaucracy that did not even recognize the legitimacy of the new system. Iraq’s government institutions were built to serve a system wholly different from the democratic federal constitutional one that was meant to be established following the 2005 referendum and its bureaucracy remained full of officials, far down into the ranks, chosen on the basis of loyalty under the previous regime. This issue was not addressed by the process of de-Baathification, which in application often ended up exacerbating problems of corruption and favoritism, and bureaucratic opposition and loose chains of command have continued to hinder the implementation of many key laws, regulations, and decisions.
The fall of Mosul and many other Iraqi cities, towns, and villages during the summer of 2014 to a newly emerged and expanding ISIS played an important role in changing the dominant political equations in the country. ISIS represented an existential threat to Iraq, one that was qualitatively different from previous terrorist groups like al-Qaeda. The response to this threat was equally unprecedented on both the security and political fronts. On the former, the religious authority in Najaf, for the first time in nearly a century, intervened by issuing a fatwa for jihad, while on the latter Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, also for the first time, asked the Islamic Dawa Party in writing to change its candidate for prime minister, Nouri al-Maliki, even though his coalition won an overwhelming majority of votes in the 2014 election. The main challenge to the political process, however, was the result of the decline in trust in the government by a number of segments of the population that had welcomed the fall of the previous regime. This decline in trust began soon after 2003 and grew steadily worse in the years that followed.
The level of frustration among Iraqis reached a boiling point in late 2019, giving rise to mass public protests in Baghdad and many southern Iraqi cities in October. While protests have been a recurring feature of life in Iraq since 2003, the October 2019 protests were fundamentally different in terms of the extent of participation and their geographical spread, as well as the number of people injured and killed. Although it has been more than 18 months since then, many of the big questions raised by the protests remain unanswered, most of which revolve around the sustainability of the post-2003 political system and its ability to correct itself over time.
The response by the main political parties to the 2019 protests ranged from a complete denial of any essential failures in the system to a partial admittance of failure while simultaneously blaming external forces. During the first week of the protests, Prime Minister Adel Abdul-Mahdi said, "About 90% of the demonstrations are valid and their demands are legitimate." But he did not rule out "the presence of infiltrators among the security forces, not just among the demonstrators," adding that “the security forces still include people who may not believe in the current situation for one reason or another.” While Muqtada al-Sadr, former Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi, and other political and religious leaders called for the government to resign in the first days of the demonstrations, the Fatah bloc and the State of Law were less motivated by such demands. There were also those that saw the political system as unable to fulfill its fundamental purpose and viewed any attempt to reform it as futile and only aimed at temporarily delaying its painful collapse, including through the use of violence.
The decline in trust in the system and the governing elites by multiple segments of the population and the factors that resulted in the October 2019 protests have been widely studied. In particular, researchers have pointed to the deep tensions and disagreements between the political parties and coalitions, as well as their effect on hindering government efforts to reform the system and redirect state priorities, especially in regards to the economy, finances, and services. Similarly, there is no shortage of analysis of the reforms needed to enable Iraqi institutions to provide a decent level of services and address their recurring shortcomings. Many Iraqi and international specialists have written studies and research papers laying out recommendations and policy plans.
Some of these plans came close to the vision that many Iraqis had for their country immediately after the fall of the dictatorial regime in 2003 — of an Iraq that would live up to its constitutional guarantees of providing the basic requirements for a free and decent life, including income, housing, and education. Even though candidates and politicians keep recycling these hopes and aspirations in campaign slogans and unfulfilled promises, they continue to resonate in Iraq and have been repeatedly put forward by demonstrators in Baghdad and other cities. Protesters once again presented these same demands in 2019, as they had in previous years, due to the government’s consistent failure and inability to address them. The October 2019 protests, which have been described as “one of the largest grassroots political mobilizations," also saw new demands voiced, but they did not deviate far from the long-time calls for a state based on citizenship, stable institutions capable of delivering services, a political system that is more representative of the people, a more just and equitable distribution of wealth, higher living standards, a state that provides security and has a monopoly on the use of force, and a judiciary that is transparent, efficient, and honest.
The failure to provide jobs and services drives deep unrest
More than 40 million people now live in Iraq, twice as many as 25 years ago, and more than four times the population in 1970. According to estimates from the Ministry of Planning, the population will double again in less than a quarter of a century, if current growth rates, which are among the highest in the region, continue. As a result, the Iraqi government will have to establish a favorable business climate that facilitates the creation of nearly a million jobs annually by the end of the current decade.
It is clear that this will not be feasible as long as the government remains the primary employer. At present, more than 3.26 million citizens are working as permanent staff (non-contractor) state employees, according to the government budget law for the current year recently approved by parliament. However, this figure is dwarfed by the approximately 9 million individuals who receive some type of regular income directly from the government, including more than 4 million retirees and nearly 1.4 million families that receive periodic subsidies from the social protection network, as well as hundreds of thousands of daily wage-earners and contractors within various government ministries. In addition there are at least a million families currently registered in the Ministry of Labor and Social Affairs databases waiting to be covered by the social protection network’s monthly subsidies.
As the current business climate is unable to stimulate private sector job creation, the government is almost the only outlet for the approximately 700,000 young people entering the labor market every year, including hundreds of thousands of university and graduate school degree holders. The frustration caused by the lack of job opportunities has provided a recurring source of fuel for protests, although it is far from the only one. The primary driver of protests has been the limited ability of government institutions to keep pace with the increasing demand for basic services, including, most importantly, the provision of a stable supply of power in cities, especially in the hot summer months. Many other political factors have also played a role in previous waves of protests, and political parties, local civil society, and ethnic and religious groups have frequently organized demonstrations in Baghdad and elsewhere, including in Kurdistan and the western provinces, since 2003. However, the October 2019 protests were mainly sparked by the government’s inability to provide decent job opportunities. The clashes between the security forces and civilian protesters that followed led to the downfall of the Adel Abdul-Mahdi government and the deepening of the mistrust between the government and large segments of Iraqi society.
Shrinking revenues and multiplying expenditures
In recent years, the payroll bill for government employees and contractors has accounted for a significant portion of the Iraqi government's total operating expenses. In 2004 the combined cost of all government employee salaries and pension benefits was less than 4 trillion dinars, or about 12.4% of total government spending (31 trillion dinars), according to the final accounts prepared by the Ministry of Finance. This percentage has increased rapidly in the years since as both the number of government employees and their salaries have shot up in tandem, reaching 30% of total government expenditure in 2005 and 2006 and 38% in 2010 and 2011. This increase is even more significant considering that total annual spending more than doubled from 30 trillion dinars in 2005 to 70 trillion dinars in 2010 — before rising sharply again to 119 trillion dinars in 2013. While the period 2015-18 witnessed austerity budgets and relatively conservative spending, the 2019 budget allocated 43.4 trillion dinars for government salaries, in addition to more than 18 trillion dinars for social services, including pensions for retirees, subsidies for the social protection network, and other expenditures — accounting for a total of about 65% of expected oil revenue for that year. As for the current budget for 2021, it has allocated about 53.8 trillion dinars for the salaries of registered employees on permanent staff, in addition to 31.4 trillion dinars in spending for so-called social services. The total of salaries and social services is 85.2 trillion dinars, which exceeds the expected oil export revenues for the year (81.2 trillion dinars). This raised the planned deficit in the 2021 budget to more than 28 trillion dinars.
Oil export revenues have accounted for the largest share by far of the Iraqi state's net income in recent decades, ranging from 98% in 2003 and 2004 to about 79% in 2015.
The approved budget for 2019 is based on the assumption that non-oil sectors will contribute around 12% of the total budget. The 2021 budget, however, has set an ambitious target for them to contribute about 20% of the total — a goal that current economic data and political conditions suggest will not be easy to achieve.
Reports from international energy organizations have laid out multiple scenarios for the future of oil. With the increase in global interest in environmental issues, the world is rapidly moving away from oil and toward greater use of clean, renewable, and alternative sources of energy for power generation and transportation. Therefore, Iraq's dependency on oil as its main — and sometimes only — commodity to finance its expenditures represents an ever-increasing risk. The coming Iraqi governments will have to face the dilemma of the worsening deficit by generating sufficient revenues to run the apparatus of state, including paying the salaries of the armies of government employees as well as creating new jobs for the increasing number of young people entering the labor market. The painful collapse of the system is inevitable unless fundamental and comprehensive reforms are implemented — and quickly. The recent government white paper presented different “urgent remedies” to address some of the major failings of the Iraqi economy. However, given its lack of teeth and a real mechanism for implementation, the white paper is likely to join other previous studies and policy papers gathering dust on the government’s bookshelves.
Economic reform begins with political reform
In order to answer the question of whether the Iraqi political system is able to reform itself, it is first necessary to review previous attempts that failed. There are many reasons why, but the most important is the lack of political support and the absence of political and popular will to foot the bill for reform.
Since 2004, political blocs have become accustomed to forming consensual governments from different and often intersecting coalitions. These coalition governments avoid zero-sum conflicts that would jeopardize their political survival if they were to go against the will of the large political blocs by implementing any real radical reforms that might harm their interests. Therefore, most of these administrations, either willingly or unwillingly, have focused on files that did not affect the key interests of the main political blocs — and thus any reforms pursued were far from fundamental.
These examples suggest the success of fundamental reform depends on the existence of an effective and coherent government backed by a large and unified parliamentary bloc. Difficult reform decisions also need popular support from a public that understands what is at stake. Unfortunately, it is not possible under the previous or current electoral system, according to the amendments recently approved by parliament and promulgated by Law No. 9 of 2020, to produce such a coherent and effective government or a large unified parliamentary bloc. Given the huge number of parties and entities registered with the Electoral Commission, which now total about 250 competing for 329 seats in 83 electoral districts, the emergence of a large bloc capable of forming a coherent and effective government is a fantasy.
Moreover, the election law is not the only factor that determines the outcomes of the electoral process leading to the formation of a government. The current political system is intentionally designed to impede the creation of an effective government capable of carrying out reforms. It is governed by a party system that has resulted in a monopoly over political decisions by a small group of leaders, most of whom were not elected in a democratic or transparent process. Nonetheless, the government is usually formed according to formal rules and procedures that appear, at least on the surface, to be democratic.
Reforming the political system is key to avoiding imminent collapse
One of the great paradoxes in Iraq is that its party system cannot be described as democratic, and therefore, it is natural that the system is unable to produce true popular representation. Voter participation in elections has fallen over time, reaching a low of 44% in 2018. The main parties in Iraq have been led by the same people for the past two decades. Although many of them have witnessed divides and the rise of new splinter parties, the majority of these new parties are not democratic either. The dominant feature of Iraq’s parties is that they revolve around the personality of a single leader who will eventually be succeeded by one of his family members. Internal party elections, if they take place at all, are a mere formality rather than a means of ensuring the transfer of power to new party cadres, most of which were established to represent the interests of a family or limited leadership, even if they took on national, religious, sectarian, or regional trappings.
The lack of transparency within the parties and their inability to allow for real, meaningful change in leadership is another source of discontent and frustration among many societal groups, especially the youth, who represent about two-thirds of the population. The latest opinion poll conducted by Al-Bayan Center for Planning and Studies, an independent Iraqi think tank based in Baghdad, showed that only 40% think that the upcoming elections are important for the improvement and development of the country. More than 83% of those polled preferred to vote for non-partisan, bloc, or coalition candidates. About 78% of the respondents also confirmed that they would vote for electoral programs that focus on services, the economy, infrastructure, security, border protection, and health and education, against a small minority who spoke about political issues related to external relations or internal disputes.
National parties as an alternative to sectarian, ethnic, or local ones
Reforming the party system in Iraq is a necessary precursor to reforming the electoral process so that it can produce a functioning and effective government and a stable parliament. Therefore, reforming the political parties law will be as important as reforming the electoral law. The presence of many parties does not necessarily indicate a mature political process, but rather reflects a state of confusion and political disorientation. While citizens have the right to join or switch between these parties freely, the bulk of them are “seasonal” parties that are formed before the elections and do not exercise any political or social roles afterwards.
Although the Iraqi constitution and the literature of most Iraqi political parties emphasize the concept of citizenship and patriotism, it is clear that the overwhelming majority of them lack comprehensive national representation, and they are often based around regional, religious, or sectarian identities. No party or political bloc has managed to win seats in all of Iraq's governorates in any election to date. With the exception of a single attempt by one of the coalitions in the 2018 elections to compete in all 18 governorates, Iraqi parties more narrowly focus on specific regions, sects, and ethnicities, in spite of their “national” slogans.
Therefore, many researchers, politicians, and activists are discussing proposals to reform both the electoral law and the party system so that it enables the formation of large parties that represent the Iraqi electorate across all governorates. If Iraq had a small number of larger, cross-sectarian parties competing nationally in parliamentary elections, this could facilitate the formation of more effective, stronger, and more harmonious governments. It would also ensure a relatively large opposition that can monitor government performance without fear of the government intruding or bypassing the political minority.
Moreover, delaying the implementation of Article 65 of the constitution, which required the establishment of a second and higher chamber within the legislature to represent the governorates and regions — known as the Federation Council — hindered another opportunity to usher in a more measured, sober political process. In the absence of this important body, political forces have been compelled to fill the vacuum by seeking the help of unelected political and religious figures or parties from outside Iraq.
The need for a new common Iraqi national vision
In the end, leaders and stakeholders in the political process have the following six main tasks:
- Redesigning and restructuring the political system to be able to produce an effective, coherent, and representative government. An excellent first step would be to amend Article 11 of the Parties Law (No. 39 of 2015) to require parties wishing to participate in national elections to have a minimum number of members in each governorate. This would create large national parties that would facilitate the formation of more stable governments, while local parties’ focus would be on provincial, regional, and other local elections. Article 5 of the same law must also be implemented; it clearly states that “the party is established on the basis of citizenship” and “the party may not be established on the basis of racism, terrorism, unbelief, or sectarian, ethnic or national fanaticism.” Implementing this would support the goal of separating federal parties from local ones.
- Reforming the judicial, supervisory, and legislative systems that have been unable to confront the organized corruption that affects major parts of the state and society. Since 2005 multiple attempts to issue the Federal Supreme Court law as required by the constitution have failed. However, a recent consensus enabled the issuing of an amendment to the Supreme Court Law (Order No. 30 of 2005), which is one of the key prerequisites for certifying election results. According to the current laws, the judiciary is not directly elected by citizens, and there is an ongoing debate about the advantages and disadvantages of having the people play a role in choosing the leaders of the judiciary or whether it is better handled by the executive or legislature. The Iraqi constitution affirms the independence of the judiciary (Article 87) and does not allow judges to engage in political activity (Article 98). However, reform of the judicial system has been a priority for protesters in recent years. In 2016 and 2020, the Iraqi government signed Memoranda of Understanding with the United Nations Development Program to request assistance in combating corruption. Despite some partial improvement, Iraq remains at the bottom of the list on the Corruption Perception Index (ranked 160 out of 180 countries).
- Unifying the security system to enable the state to regain a monopoly on arms and impose its authority by enforcing the law. Applying Article 32-First of the Parties Law (No. 39 of 2015), which prohibits political parties from conducting activities of a military or paramilitary nature and dissolves any party violating that law, may be a legal first step. Realistically, without a serious dialogue with the parties and forces that control or influence militias, it will not be feasible to achieve this goal. Nevertheless, a transition from a conflict-based mentality to a peace-building society will be a prerequisite before an effective economic reform plan can be implemented.
- Redirecting and redistributing wealth and spending it in a more equitable and effective manner. As discussed above, oil exports represent the largest source of Iraqi revenue. While the constitution clearly indicates that “oil and gas is the property of all the Iraqi people in all the regions and governorates” (Article 111), government employees and contractors enjoy by far the largest share of such revenues. Approval of the draft retirement and social security law currently being discussed by the House of Representatives should be expedited, as part of the effort to establish a comprehensive social protection system in Iraq. This may also relieve significant pressure on the demand for government jobs. The establishment of the Federation Council (as indicated in Article 65 of the constitution) could help to speed up the issuance of many important stalled laws related to the distribution of wealth, such as the oil and gas law, and lead to a reassessment of the means and methods of distributing and managing wealth in the governorates. More broadly, it is also important to establish a constitutional body that looks after the political process instead of the interests of outside sponsors.
- Directing the economy to facilitate the process of stimulating growth and creating decent job opportunities in a productive society. Many ministries and government departments were established to serve the state’s pre-2003 goals and visions. State institutions need to be restructured in line with the new constitutional vision calling for economic reform, diversification of resources, and encouragement of the private sector (Article 25). The viability of many governmental structures needs to be reassessed according to modern economic principles. This requires setting a clear path for spending in the form of a law (a budget for three-five years), which can be partially modified every year, without changing its key direction. Without linking the reform plan with the budget, it will simply be another empty slogan.
- Finally, ensuring representatives from across society agree on high-level national goals that constitute an Iraqi vision for the next decade. It will be the task of successive governments to compete over how to implement them. A reform package could be realized through new regulations, laws, constitutional amendments, and a process of national dialogue, with the ultimate goal of building trust between citizens and the political system.
Efforts to achieve such comprehensive reforms will likely face political obstacles and legal restrictions, and may even require constitutional amendments in some areas. However, the dangers of neglecting or delaying the political changes required to allow for comprehensive political, economic, and structural reform will be severe. Yet, decision makers still have a chance to take a different path, starting with a comprehensive review and objective assessment of the reasons why the new system has failed to achieve the desired goals. Time is running out, however; decision makers will soon lose the few remaining options to avoid the potentially horrific collapse of the political process. According to some who have long been involved, the political process has become worn out and lacks the ability for renewal and change needed to produce alternatives to address current and future challenges.
On an April morning back in 2003, in a moment broadcast on television around the world, a group of Iraqi youth set out to tear down a statue of Saddam Hussein in Baghdad’s Alfirdos Square. Toppling the statue of the former Iraqi dictator seemed easy at first. But raising its feet from the base proved far more complicated, and in the end it required the intervention of military vehicles and the use of ropes — and only came after a great effort.
Will the revitalization of the political process also require complicated and dangerous surgery? Or will mistakes be corrected and reviewed before it is too late? We can only hope and pray it’s the latter.
Dr. Naufel Alhassan is an Iraqi politician and former official. He served in many high executive and advisory positions in the Iraqi government, including chief of staff and senior advisor for Prime Minister Haider Al-Abadi. The views expressed in this piece are his own.
Photo by HAIDAR HAMDANI/AFP via Getty Images