High Hopes and Missed Opportunities in Baghdad – Part 1

Dysfunction among policymakers in Baghdad points to a deeper rot in Iraq’s political system, undermining prospects for long-term stability in the country. 

This essay is the first in a two-part series examining Iraqi political discourse, competition, and potential for reform. Read the second installment here. This analysis lays out the reasons why Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi failed to implement his ambitious 2015 reform agenda, as well as the growing desire among Iraq’s 33.4 million people to transform their country’s political system. Next week, we will dive deeper into the interpersonal rivalries, powerbrokers, communal competitions, and debates that are preventing successful reform in Baghdad.

Images from August 12th Friday protest in Baghdad’s Tahrir Square, shared on social media by activist Ahmad Abd al-Hussein.
Images from August 12th Friday protest in Baghdad’s Tahrir Square, shared on social media by activist Ahmad Abd al-Hussein.

On October 19, dozens of pensioners gathered in central Baghdad to demand higher salaries. Although relatively tiny, the latest protest highlights simmering popular discontent against the Iraqi government over ongoing political dysfunction, rampant corruption, and lack of policymakers’ accountability to the people they ostensibly represent. Demonstrations in Baghdad’s Tahrir Square have become a weekly occurrence, as citizens call on Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi to strengthen sweeping government reforms. Thus far, the official response has been too slow, toothless, and factional to assuage growing popular anger.

Ongoing turmoil in the Iraqi Parliament exemplifies the challenge Abadi’s government faces. Dysfunction among legislators points to a deeper rot at the core of the country’s political system. Today, Iraq lacks Ministers of Finance, Interior, Trade and Industry, and Defense – even as the country launches its climactic battle against the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) in Mosul. Since Abadi announced an ambitious reform strategy in 2015, factional infighting within Parliament has handicapped the plan’s implementation.

Thus far, the official response has been too slow, toothless, and factional to assuage growing popular anger.

Today, Iraq ranks 161 out of 168 countries on Transparency International’s Corruption Perception Index. A legacy of patronage politics and power-struggles among key parliamentary actors has exacerbated Iraqi social instability, economic woes, and insecurity. The government’s turmoil has received scant analysis or attention, in part due to its complexity, as well as the dramatic military campaign further north. However, the nature of political struggle in Baghdad illuminates the political and ideological cleavages that threaten to undermine any progress made against ISIS, and leave critical economic and security portfolios without leadership.

Roots of Failure

Many Iraqis – especially youth – have lost faith in their country’s political system. A recent International Crisis Group report quotes one young man in Baghdad who declares that “The only thing politicians know well is how to steal, steal, steal.” Political leaders are often accused of spiriting away public funds to the detriment of government services.

Parliament’s actions have done little to shift these negative perceptions. Abadi’s reform agenda, announced on August 9, 2015, aimed to restore public faith in the government and its ability to enhance efficiency (although some analysts have offered alternative interpretations). Central to his plan was the installation of technocrats to key cabinet posts, reducing spending, and addressing patronage networks that shaped political discourse and participation.

Yet less than two months later on November 2, Parliament voted to revoke the Prime Minister’s mandate for conducting reforms – thus ending an 11 week period during which the head of state rode a wave of popular support. The actions of Members of Parliament in Baghdad seemed to confirm the public’s general perception of corrupt leadership, and their official unwillingness to govern.

“The only thing politicians know well is how to steal, steal, steal.”

Abadi’s failure was largely rooted in his lack of support among Shia rivals. Many believed that the Prime Minister’s agenda was an attempt to establish an alternative political platform that could marginalize militia parties. Moreover, Abadi failed to set forth any comprehensive plan for addressing political corruption – the public’s most serious grievance. Instead, he emphasized eliminating “waste” rather than “theft” as his agenda’s main priority. He established two committees in August 2015: One on transparency – which has not been heard from since – and another to examine political parties’ use of public property.

Timing was also not on the Prime Minister’s side. Many critics in Baghdad and abroad questioned whether, amidst the current security emergency, this was the right moment to pursue reform. As the Washington Institute’s Michael Knights noted, “the effects of Abadi’s plan [were] akin to the results one might expect if he had hired McKinsey or Boston Consulting Group….This sort of work is typically something to perform at a moment when the country is not in crisis.”

Will of the People

Abadi’s decision to pursue reforms was rooted in popular sentiment against waste in Baghdad. In summer 2015, protesters organized massive street demonstrations in the capital, demanding better services. Importantly, these demonstrations represented a genuine, cross-sectarian, liberal, and young constituency expressing concern over electricity shortages, the first round of financial emergency in the country, and the government’s failure to implement anti-corruption promises.

Abadi initially attempted to seize on this popular unrest, recognizing that widespread protests represented both a challenge to his authority and an opportunity to pursue reforms that he has always felt necessary. Yet the Prime Minister’s failure to make sufficient progress that summer – specifically, his inability to convince Parliament of his plan to create a technocratic cabinet – left many young Iraqis deeply frustrated and created a void into which alternate voices for change could emerge.

In summer 2016, prominent Shia cleric Moqatada al-Sadr began calling on Abadi’s government to renew its push for a technocratic cabinet and anti-corruption measures. He mobilized his Shia support base, reigniting the protests from the previous year – albeit with different, more sectarian actors. The Sadr narrative was founded on underlying grievances of mainly Shia communities in the country’s large southern cities who have, according to Brookings’ Ken Pollack, “been waiting very patiently for decades to get the basic services to which they [felt] entitled.”

Sadr’s maneuvers were politically motivated, and highlighted the fracturing of Baghdad’s political landscape. Critically, he claimed the protesters’ message, at once boosting his popularity on the Iraqi street and asserting leadership over the country’s populist political discourse. In April 2016, the cleric demonstrated his power by bringing one million demonstrators to the capital without any violence, stampedes, or riots. On April 30, these crowds stormed Baghdad’s International Zone (where government buildings are located), with almost no opposition from security forces.

“This sort of work is typically something to perform at a moment when the country is not in crisis.”

These actions terrified the Shia political establishment, which quickly coalesced around an anti-Sadr platform. Former Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki used the unrest as entrée into a renewed political role – working tirelessly to undermine both Sadr’s machinations and Abadi’s authority. In April, as the Sadr movement threatened to consume the Baghdad government, Maliki attempted to bring the situation under control as a means of demonstrating his leadership ability. Meanwhile, Sadr has been unable to translate his activist maneuvers into the political clout needed to challenge the Prime Minister’s position.

For protesters, however, both the 2015 and 2016 demonstrations gave voice to widespread anger at Baghdad’s continuing inability to curb its excesses. In a country where nearly 60 percent of the population is younger than 25 years, discontent with the governing elite will constitute a serious problem for Iraq’s future political development.

Puppeteers in Baghdad

Iraq today faces an array of crises in addition to the jihadist threat, including serious economic stagnation, youth unemployment, and degradation of state institutions. As long as Parliament and the Prime Minister remain unable to demonstrate that it is addressing these issues, discontent across Iraqi society will grow. Over the medium- and long-term, this frustration will likely widen the divide between Iraq’s government and the people it purports to represent. For the state to construct a viable and sustainable public-political relationship, it will be important to address these systemic problems.

Yet in Baghdad, ingrained networks of corruption, patronage, and interpersonal competition handicaps any effort to reverse damaging trends in the country. Figures like Nouri al-Maliki and Moqtada al-Sadr evince a more fundamental factionalization of Iraqi political discourse, worsened by bitter rivalries and opportunistic maneuvering. Who pulls the strings of government in Baghdad? How do various actors shape Iraq’s political future, and what mechanisms give these figures authority within the country’s democratic process? Have Baghdad powerbrokers co-opted popular frustration, and to what end?

The answers to these questions point toward a better understanding of forces shaping Iraqi political and social futures under the surface of the current crisis — and will be the focus of an essay next week. The past two years in Iraq has been a period of intense upheaval. Abadi’s reform agenda sought, in part, to address feelings of uncertainty and anger stemming from it. The figures, mechanisms, and debates that will guide the country’s future governmental development will thus operate within a fragile system where the cost of deadlock, obstinance, and failure is great.

Ultimately, ISIS may be the least of Iraq’s problems. Political challenges and Baghdad’s ability to overcome them — often overlooked and under-analyzed in the context of today’s security emergency — will determine whether 33.4 million Iraqi citizens will move beyond the legacy of the past decade’s violence.

Read the second installment here.