What are the main roadblocks holding back sustainable power sharing in Iraq, as hoped for by the drafters of Iraq's 2005 Constitution? Two scholars illustrate that while Iraq's political arrangements are still contested regionally, internal governance challenges could still be the biggest hurdle to stability.
In recent years, it has often been said that Iraq is pulled at the seams by foreign meddling; for much of the country's post 2003 history, this is hard to dispute.
Between 2003 and 2011, foreign interference in Iraqi politics has involved neighboring countries providing border sanctuaries for non-state groups and elements of the former regime, as well as their fundraising efforts. On all four points of the compass, this problem endured despite persistent efforts by Iraq and its allies to clamp down on these arrangements.
During the entire post-2003 period, some countries have bankrolled lobbying efforts, elevating formerly obscure figures to power broker status. In some cases, political parties or dynasties have been given favoured trading status by a neighboring country, making transparent governance in Iraq a more distant prospect. Proxy militias have been funded, further threatening stability.
Many of these foreign efforts have torn at the 2005 Iraqi Constitution, which contains a number of articles that are clearly intended to uphold equitable power sharing, attempting to delineate central, federal and provincial authority.
A Stronger Federal Government?
It is only in recent years that Iraq's neighbors have tried to compete for influence through non-violent means. For the most part, this change has been strongly welcomed by the Iraqi government. The question now becomes whether these efforts may create new challenges: could stronger regional support for Iraq's federal government risk over-centralising the Iraqi state? Turkey's reaction to the Kurdish independence referendum and Iran's reaction to the Basra protests suggest that some countries still favour a stronger centre.
At the same time, viewing Iraq's situation through this regional lens risks missing the complex internal dynamics of governance weakness within Iraq. While sometimes linked to foreign influence, these problems often cut across ethnic, sectarian or indeed political lines.
We invited two scholars to discuss these issues. Bill Park, Visiting Research Fellow in the Defense Studies Department, King's College London, considers how the aftermath of the 2017 Kurdish independence referendum may be upending the traditional dynamic of federalism in Iraq, where strong Kurdish autonomy (stronger than what was constitutionally agreed) was partially propped up by Ankara. This could be set to change.
Kirk Sowell, publisher of Inside Iraqi Politics, paints a picture of complex local dynamics across Iraq, suggesting Iraq's road to sustainable power sharing, as envisaged by the 2005 Constitution, still has a very long journey ahead.
William Park, Visiting Research Fellow in the Defense Studies Department, King's College London
Is Turkey Shifting from Erbil to Baghdad?
At the end of May, President Erdogan of Turkey and his Iraqi counterpart Barham Salih, attended a Ramadan dinner in Istanbul. Their meeting was just the latest in a series of Ankara-Baghdad tete-a-tetes, including a mid-May visit by Iraqi Prime Minister Adel Abdul-Mahdi to Ankara, during which trade and energy relations, post-conflict reconstruction of Iraq, water management, and enhanced security cooperation were discussed. They also agreed that the damaged pipeline that runs from Iraq’s oilfield into Turkey should be repaired and made operational as soon as possible.
Although Ankara mostly desisted from following through on its threats to economically boycott the Kurdistan Region Iraq (KRI) in the run-up to the September 2017 independence referendum, and Kurdish oil continues to flow through Turkey, Ankara-Erbil relations are today cooler than they once were. Politically Ankara is not prepared to countenance Kurdish independence, while the KRG’s indebtedness, its loss of control over Kirkuk’s oil, and the slowing down of investment opportunities in the region, have made it a less attractive economic partner. Ankara applauded Baghdad’s October 2017 retaking of Kirkuk and most of the other disputed areas from the Kurds, even though this led to reduction in transit fees due to a year-long halt in Kirkuk oil flows through the pipeline to Ceyhan.
The prospect of enhanced trade with Iraq, a piece of the considerable reconstruction pie, and an improved dialogue on Turkey’s campaign against the PKK on Iraqi soil, have encouraged Ankara’s cultivation of Abdul-Mahdi’s’s more amenable government. Turkey would like Iraq to drop its legal case against Turkey’s role in exporting Kurdish oil, currently pending with the International Chamber of Commerce. It also seeks increased imports of Iraqi energy to take the place of supplies from US-sanctioned Iran. Ankara therefore has a stake in restoring Baghdad’s pipeline as an alternative to the KRG’s, and in BP’s refurbishing of the Kirkuk oilfields. Balancing Baghdad’s political over-dependence on Iran also has its virtues.
Ankara ran out of patience with the sectarian and dysfunctional al-Maliki regime in Baghdad and shifted its attention to Erbil instead. But Turkey has little stake in an overly-decentralised Iraq per se. In any case, today’s politically and economically chastened KRG has little alternative to dependence on Turkey to facilitate the export of its energy, to provide its food, and to provide the bulk of foreign investment in Iraqi Kurdistan. The ‘special’ Ankara-Erbil nexus may be just a little less special in future.
Kirk Sowell, Publisher, Inside Iraqi Politics
Iraq's Federalism Suffers from Entrenched Structural Challenges
Federalism is a principle for which there is a strong theoretical case but which can fall short when imposed on a society in which it has no organic roots. Countries in which federalism have worked are places where the decentralization of authority grows out of the country’s history based on a broad social consensus. In Iraq, federalism has failed to produce positive results. This is because of three features of any modern democratic state which have failed to develop.
The first point of weakness relates to revenue. If provincial officials had to raise revenue by levying taxes on their citizens, it would strengthen political accountability, but the fact that over 90% of spending is simply handed down by the federal government actually strengthens the rentier state. A key focus of both federal MPs and provincial officials is lobbying Baghdad for more money, and when there are service failures, invariably officials just say, “Baghdad didn’t send us our money.”
The second problem relates to the culture of corruption and weakness of legal institutions. The poster child for this problem is Basra and the current chairman of its provincial council, Sabah al-Bazuni. Along with former governor Majid al-Nasrawi, Bazuni was indicted for corruption (electricity contracts) in 2017. Nasrawi fled to Iran, while Bazuni was convicted and sentenced to prison. He was released from prison last December 27, which was a Friday, and by Monday had returned to his office and resumed his duties as council chairman. He is now leading the effort to establish an autonomous Basra region.
However, the troubled southern province is at most only slightly exceptional in the brazenness of its official corruption.
Other key provinces, including Baghdad, Anbar and Ninawa, have experienced a “musical chairs” game of rotating governors as council members are bought off in order to switch sides. Former vice-president Osama al-Nujayfi recently declared that all eight of the members of the council elected on his list in 2013 “have been purchased.” The autonomous Kurdistan Region likewise, which was for years wrongly thought of as a success by some observers, has a governance model based on clan rule, patronage and security repression.
The third structural problem relates to the non-democratic nature of the political parties themselves. In a democracy, when a party performs poorly in an election, the leader steps down and the party’s rank-and-file elect a new leader. But Iraq’s parties are closed personality vehicles controlled entirely from the center, such that the division of local positions is decided in Baghdad by national political leaders, and if a party performs poorly in an election, its share of offices goes down, but the leadership is unaffected. It is thus unimaginable, for example, for locals in Basra to join a national political movement and elect new people they know who are opposed to Maliki, Sadr or Hakim. Thus despite having the form of a federal democracy, there is no structural mechanism by which citizens in a province can exchange one official in a province for anyone other than another member of the kleptocracy.
Main image: Iraqis queue to vote in the December 2005 national elections in Husaybah, Anbar. Photo credit: Sheila M. Brooks, US Marine Corps.