Next week’s general elections in Iraq are the first to be held since the US military withdrawal in 2011. Some analysts claim that because the Americans are no longer present the exercise is attracting less attention. However, there may be another reason for the relative decline in interest regarding how Iraqis vote.
Over the past decade, holding elections has become part of the Iraqi political routine, thus no longer inspiring exceptional interest.
The less international attention Iraq attracts, the more boring it becomes and the greater its success in normalization after decades of abnormality under despots.
Iraq’s greatest achievement since the end of Saddam’s rule is the consensus built around the idea of choosing and changing governments through elections. Today, few Iraqis support such traditional Arab methods of choosing and changing governments as military coups, assassinations, revolutions and civil wars. The presence of numerous lists and over 9,000 candidates indicates the popularity of the electoral exercise.
That, however, does not mean Iraqis have full confidence in the electoral system. They don’t. Many believe that state control and sectarian calculations still undermine the credibility of elections as a means of setting the national agenda.
Nevertheless, many Iraqis, perhaps even a majority, admit that even bad elections are better than coups d’état or civil wars. The history of electoral politics shows that parliamentary democracy needs decades before it establishes unassailable credentials and becomes part of the political culture. In Britain, the birthplace of parliamentary democracy, genuinely free and fair elections started only after the First World War. Should one expect Iraq to do in 10 years what Britain did in 150?
The good news is that because Iraq chose proportional representation, it would be virtually impossible for the government to engineer one of those 99 percent victories seen in such places as Egypt or Algeria.
Incumbent Prime Minister Nuri Al-Maliki may yet win enough seats to claim a chance to form another administration. However, even if he manages to hang on, the government he would head would be different.
The coalition that has sustained him in power has simply melted away. Maliki’s core support—coming from one wing of the Al-Da’wah party—accounts for around 11 percent of the electorate. Thus without attracting other mainly Shi’a parties plus the Kurds and some Arab Sunni groups, Maliki would not have been able to keep his post.
In fact, if Iraqi politicians are mature enough they should be able to construct a different coalition with someone other than Maliki as prime minister.
Criticizing Maliki may be easy, bearing in mind his government’s failure to solve such mundane problems as the shortage of water and electricity in Baghdad, not to mention rampant corruption that, according to some Iraqis, has gone beyond the “normal” limits in so-called developing countries.
The least one could say is that the Maliki government is guilty of underachievement.
Iraq could have done much better.
However, the fact is that Iraq could have also done worse.
A nation emerging from half a century of brutal dictatorship cannot be turned around overnight.
Over the past 10 years, despite frequent terrorist attacks, Iraq has achieved a certain degree of political and economic stability. Despite numerous predictions of sectarian civil war, Kurdish secession and worse, Iraq has managed to navigate its way out of many storms.
Set against the current chaos in many parts of the region, that is no mean achievement. Still, the risk is that Maliki and his friends might mistake stagnation for stability.
Under Maliki, corruption has become a method of redistribution, filling the gap caused by the absence of institutions capable of providing social protection and welfare. In the Maliki system a few thousand people of influence within or close to the government receive part of the national income, treating it as booty, and then distribute it among their families, entourages and, ultimately, voters. Compared to what used to happen under Saddam Hussein, corruption in Iraq has now been “democratized,” in the sense that the booty is distributed among a much larger number of recipients.
Paradoxically, however, even that method of “distribution through corruption” is a sign of the weakness of Maliki’s government. In classical Arab despotic systems, the ruler takes more often than he gives.
In post-monarchy Iraq, governments were always far too strong and society far too weak. In the past decade, however, that balance has been modified, with government becoming weaker and society stronger. Today, Iraq is witnessing the re-emergence of a private business sector that had all but disappeared under Saddam. The government still influences the media, often by bribing them, but it no longer enjoys total control. Political parties, public opinion leaders and parliamentarians could still be, and in many cases are, bought by the government. But because they no longer fear for their lives they do not show the degree of blind-though-feigned obedience that is the norm in classical Arab despotism.
Many, including some Iraqi friends, might accuse me of starry-eyed naïveté. But I believe that compared to the average in its region, Iraq is not doing all that badly. Its economy is growing, the private sector is expanding, and a new generation of politicians is coming up, many as candidates in next week’s election, while the old political guard, many of whom are returning after decades in exile, is fading away. Iraqis are beginning to learn about bread-and-butter politics, as opposed to the politics of grand but empty ideals with which Arabs were deceived for generations.
Maliki’s critics often claim he is trying to become “another Saddam.” This may be a fair fight in political terms. But, even if he has such a dream in his heart of hearts, the truth is that Maliki cannot become another Saddam; no one can.
Iraq has moved beyond that nightmare.