Dozens of people came out to protest against the provincial council due to the heightened power shortages in Basra; and when the number of demonstrators increased beyond control, security officers called for further reinforcements and fired live ammunition at demonstrators who were throwing stones at them. One person was killed and two others injured, prompting the central government to intervene and set up a commission of inquiry, as well as promising to increase Basra’s share of the electricity output.
What is striking in this incident is that peaceful citizens were killed not by bullets fired by terrorists or the occupation forces but by government bullets and this comes at a time when the country has not been able to extricate itself from a political labyrinth to learn who will be the country’s next Prime Minister. Iraq’s parliament has been unable to take any decisions since last March, and when the first parliamentary session since the elections was held, the leaders of the disputing parties decided that this parliamentary session would remain open until a Prime Minister is chosen. Some Iraqi observers believe that due to the differences with regards to forming the cabinet this represents a circumvention of the Iraqi constitution.
The political situation is further complicated because Iraq has not changed much since Prime Minister Nuri al Maliki first took office and despite the relative improvement in security it is still the country most at risk from terrorist attacks, according to the Maplecroft Terrorism Risk index. This report, published on 16 February, shows that the civilian death toll from acts of violence in Iraq exceeded 4000 in 2009, with approximately 100-500 civilian deaths taking place each month. Some people see the situation in Iraq as a recurrence of the sectarian model, and therefore they explicitly justify the sectarian quota system. One Iraqi commenter drew attention to the fact that the United Nations had sought the help of a Lebanese consultant at the beginning of the invasion to help achieve stability in Iraq. Perhaps the most important question at this stage is: is Iraq in need of a strong central government, i.e. greater powers for the post of prime minister?
In an interview with Nuri al Maliki (published 9 June in the New York Times) he said that “every country needs a strong leader…especially Iraq” and that “I will not be a prime minister with the job of a traffic cop.” These comments reveal an attempt to endow the position of prime minister with greater power, and this is a position that al Maliki is striving to keep hold of, especially following his rejection of the National Iraqi Alliance’s proposals to put forward a number of other prime ministerial candidates. Al Maliki is within his rights to insist that he stands once more as his coalition’s candidate and it is important that we note that the constitutionality of the “largest bloc” has not yet been resolved because this was something announced immediately after the elections and not before.
It is also clear that al Maliki’s primary rival Iyad Allawi, the leader of the Iraqiya bloc, does not enjoy a consensus within parliament with regards to becoming the next Prime Minister. It is true that his election bloc won almost a quarter of the votes, and that according to the law he has the most right to form a government. However the right to form a government is one thing whilst possessing the capability of convincing the representatives of the people is another. Allawi has been unable to achieve a breakthrough with the important Shia majority or to build consensus amongst his representatives. Despite the conviction of many that Allawi is capable of taking up this post as a secular figure who has called for reconciliation with the Baathist remnants and also as he is able to improve Baghdad’s relations with Iraq’s Arab neighbouring states, these talents and capabilities are not finding strong support within Iraq.
The ongoing crisis of governance in Iraq today revives the question that was continuously being put forward in the period following the independence of the modern state in the second half of the last century, which is that countries newly emerging from colonialism do not possess the institutions (or the blueprints to form institutions) to guarantee the political stability of the ruling regime, therefore individuals – not to mention charismatic politicians who enjoy popularity – alone have the capability of creating political stability through force or provisional agreements.
There are no similar models of this issue of political stability, with the exception of the US and western Europe following the end of the Second World War, and in reality this debate is about the necessity of the presence of strong personalities capable of imposing a certain level of stability to ensure that government institutions are able to carry out their functions. This is why regions like the Middle East and North America were vulnerable to the influence of totalitarian regimes that could completely take over an issue, making it impossible for politicians or institutions to resolve this problem or crisis.
In his important book ‘Inventing Iraq: The Failure of Nation Building and a History Denied,’ Toby Dodge stated that it was the Iraqi state’s failure to create a national principle for the legitimacy of governance following the coup d’état against the Hashemite ruling family that resulted in Iraq finding itself in a position where there is continuous conflict over who has the right to govern. The 2005 and 2010 election results confirmed that the ability to build a national consensus which transcends ethnic and sectarian determinations remains something that is far off. Most Iraqi politicians today are placing the blame on the intervention of neighbouring countries, and this is true, however foreign intervention is something that occurs infrequently and is incidental to old problems.
The problem of the legitimacy of governance is not specific to Iraq as most regional countries are suffering from this historical crisis; the problem is that the Iraqi people are being asked to deal with this issue now before others. The Lebanese, the Syrians, and others, have found temporary solutions to this problem; they are not ideal but it is clear that they are doing the job for the time being. Today, with the Americans confirming their intention to leave Iraq at the end of next year, it will be up to the Iraqis to prove that they are capable of solving their problems in a manner that does not harm the entire state project. So what will the Iraqis do?
There is a classic answer that is useful to political science students and that is that “a weak government is better than an authoritarian regime.” Iraq is not in need of a strong prime minister, or for the central government to enjoy greater powers, but rather the important lesson that must be learned from the Basra incident, and many others, is that central government’s capability of controlling a multi-ethnic and multi-sect country like Iraq is fraught with failure. Therefore the solution is to give the governorates more powers to govern and rule so that each governorate or province is responsible for its own services and affairs. The more the role of the central government is limited to sovereign function, the more the conflict over who has the right to govern the country will diminish, because this governance – in its diluted form – is one that’s duties do not exceed directing work and achieving consensus, rather than intervention in sectarian and local party disputes.