Recent coverage of Iraq’s internal breakdown has focused mostly on the rampaging horror of ISIL, and rightfully so. But the comparatively drier story of the political decay of Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki is a tale inseparably linked to that same violence — or at the very least, the American response to it.
In his recent New York Times interview, President Obama specifically linked his restrained bombing campaign of select ISIS targets with a desire to keep Maliki weak and unpopular. I’m not going to use American power to “bail out” a flaling government, he said, noting that the United States will not be a firm ally of any prime minister until they prove they’re “willing and ready to try and maintain a unified Iraqi government that is based on compromise.”
Understanding the inability of the Iraqi political class to fulfill this demand is a story of the failure of Iraq’s parliamentary political institutions.
The post-Saddam Iraqi constitution gave the country a parliamentary system moulded in traditional European fashion. It featured a party-list based electoral system, a figurehead president appointed by parliament, and an executive prime minister selected from among the factions of the legislature.
In 2005, the year of Iraq’s first general election, a formal alliance of Shiite parties, led by Dawa, an Iranian-backed ex-terrorist group, won a strong plurality of seats, and after months of negotiations with Kurdish and Sunni parties — whose votes were needed for an outright majority — Dawa deputy leader Nuri al-Maliki was confirmed as prime minister (the party’s actual boss, Ibrahim al-Jaafari, deemed too religiously dogmatic).
In elections five years later, Maliki’s Shiite coalition narrowly lost its plurality to the secular, pro-western party of longtime Bush administration darling Ayad Allawim. Yet Maliki was able to stay prime minister by forging a parliamentary alliance with a smaller, more extreme Shiite faction led by a clique of fundamentalist clerics including the now long-forgotten Moktada al-Sadr. This was controversial at the time, but it was consistent with the generally understood parliamentary custom that the incumbent PM should get first crack at forming a coalition government post-election — a precedent ultimately upheld by the Iraqi courts.
Though he had originally come to power with multi-denominational backing, the longer Maliki remained in power, the more brazenly sectarian his government became. This was largely a byproduct of his country’s worsening Sunni-Shiite civil war. A life-long Shiite partisan, Maliki had little qualms about using his position as commander-in-chief to deploy grossly disproportionate violence to crush suspected hotbeds of Sunni extremism (emphasis on suspected) or purge suspicious Sunnis from senior positions in the military, intelligence service, bureaucracy, and cabinet.
Those who expected this dark legacy of division, bloodshed, and favoritism to eventually be rejected by voters were shocked when Maliki’s coalition was able to regain its parliamentary plurality during elections held in April of this year. The Obama administration seemed particularly crestfallen.
Yet good news of a sort arrived this weekend when a fresh procedural bombshell was dropped — word came that Iraq’s president had requested Dawa’s deputy leader, Haider al-Abadi, to assume the prime ministership in Maliki’s place.
Under the terms of the Iraqi constitution, this was within the president’s prerogative — like a constitutional monarch, the Iraqi president is supposed to formally summon the leader of parliament’s “largest bloc” to assemble a government, with Article 76(iii) granting him the additional power to nominate someone else if the initial nominee is unable to get things together within 45 days.
But Malaki had not formally passed that deadline. Despite the fact that this most recent election was held over three months ago, the countdown for assembling a government does not begin until election results are ratified and parliament formally appoints a president — which only happened on July 24. Malaki is also quite indisputably still leader of parliament’s “largest bloc;” members of his coalition have denounced the president’s alternative guy as representing “no one but himself.” Maliki, for his part, has dubbed the whole thing a “coup,” and some are predicting the constitutional standoff may result in a complete collapse of Iraqi political authority at the moment the country needs it most.
It is, of course, naive to blame any country’s political dysfunction entirely on the system of government they use. Yet it’s hard to deny Iraq’s preexisting political problems have likely been exacerbated by the country’s decision to adopt a complex, European-style parliamentary model, with a proportional representation electoral system that incentivizes politicians who appeal to trans-geographic religious identities and an executive branch that produces rulers who owe their power to a mastery of parliamentary maneuvering, rather than broad-based popular approval.
Had Iraq instead chosen to adopt a blunter presidential system — with a strong executive president elected by multiple-round popular vote and a separately-elected parliament from which ministers could be chosen — many of the country’s problems would doubtless still exist, and possibly even some new ones. Yet the fundamental question of who gets to rule the country would have been far less ambiguous and contestable, and the creation of a unity cabinet much faster and easier.
If Iraq’s political authority does completely break down in coming weeks, the temptation will be strong to insist its people were “never ready” for democracy, and declare the experiment failed. Yet democracy comes in many flavors and the taste Iraqis were given was a decidedly acquired one.
Unfortunately it’s probably too late to try another.
Discuss on Facebook