For the first time in many years, Iraqis have voted for politicians who campaigned not on sectarian or ethnic fault-lines but salient issues such as the country’s economy.
When 2,000 Daesh militants swept through Mosul, Iraq’s second largest city, in mid-2014, hundreds of government soldiers were accused of abandoning posts without putting up much of a resistance to the terror group that was going to take over for the next few years.
In the years since the US invaded Iraq in 2003, billions of dollars were spent on training and equipping the Iraqi military. This left many wondering what went wrong.
“Corruption within the military was one of the main reasons behind the fall of Mosul. There was corruption at the highest level of the military brass,” Ali al Mawlawi, head of research at Baghdad-based think-tank Al Bayan Center, told TRT World.
A subsequent enquiry found around 50,000 soldiers were on the official payroll but didn’t show up for duty. These were “ghost employees” who paid a portion of their salary as bribes to the commanding officers who ensured the soldiers continued to receive salaries they hadn’t earned.
Frustration over such manifestations of poor governance was a central theme in Iraq’s parliamentary elections. The build-up to the May 12 vote saw political parties shun sectarian rhetoric to focus more on problems Iraqis face daily.
“We saw somewhat of a transition from identity-based politics to issue-based politics,” Mawlawi said. “The coalition blocs primarily focused on what they had to offer. Most of them crossed sectarian lines. A lot of them fielded both Sunni and Shia candidates from multiple provinces.”
The Sairoon bloc of Muqtada al Sadr, a fiery Shia cleric who once led a death squad accused of killing Sunnis and American troops, won the highest number of seats, delivering a blow to more established contestants like the incumbent Prime Minister Haider al Abadi.
In recent years, Sadr reinvented himself as a crusader against the system of political patronage that has marred the performance of government institutions. Sadr’s narrative shifted from militant sectarianism to power outages and unemployment — an Iraq First platform.
Then, for the 2018 elections, the cleric formed an unusual alliance with the secularist Communist Party and took a hard stance against both the US and Iran for the influence they wield over the Arab country.
Fractured political landscape
Reflected in the election results, Iraq’s political landscape is fragmented.
There are dozens of political parties. While Sadr’s Sairoon bloc won 54 seats, it is nowhere close to forming a majority in the 329-member parliament.
The runner-up, Hadi al Amiri’s Al Fatih bloc, won 47 seats while the incumbent Abadi’s Nasr alliance emerged with 42 seats despite the hefty claim of ridding the country of Daesh.
Former prime minister Nouri al Maliki’s State of Law alliance only managed 26 seats.
If the top four winners combine forces, they’ll muster a mere 169 seats — 165 the minimum required to form a government. Even if they do manage to cobble together a coalition, each of these blocs is made up of parties with the competing interest of securing a piece of government and bureaucracy.
Thanassis Cambanis, a senior fellow at the New York-based Century Foundation, told TRT World that Sadr still doesn’t have a clear shot to form a government considering what happened in previous elections.
“In the 2010 elections, Ayad Allawi had twice as many seats as Maliki, but it was Maliki who ended up forming the government” by forging an alliance with other parties.
Sadr himself cannot become the prime minister since he didn’t run in the elections. His Sairoon bloc remains in talks with other alliances to cobble together a coalition.
Cambanis says Iraq’s governing system is complicated because of similarities in the make-up of the different political parties.
For instance, there are multiple sectarian outfits with mirroring political ideologies. Their respective leaders all want a share in the governing machinery.
“There is no obvious way to form an effective opposition which can monitor the government’s performance,” Cambanis said.
A government made up of many political parties can once again lead to a stalemate over much-needed reforms, which have discouraged a majority of Iraqis from voting.
The turnout in the May 12 election — the fourth since Saddam Hussein’s regime was deposed in 2003 — was lowest, indicating that the public at large was disillusioned.
Bogged down in bureaucracy
WIth such fragmentation, a government representing various elected parties wouldn’t be any different from the outcome of previous parliamentary elections.
“Every government since 2003 has been a unity government with parties vying for important ministries to give their supporters jobs. It’s continuation of a system of patronage,” Cambanis said.
Political hirings have bloated Iraq’s public sector to an unsustainable level. Between 2004 and 2016, the public sector wage bill grew from seven percent to 44 percent of the budget, according to the World Bank.
Such a policy is sustainable only with high oil prices, Iraq’s dominant export and source of almost all its revenue.
The Iraqi government struggled to meet its expenses after the price of oil crashed in 2014. It subsequently imposed a hiring freeze, further aggravating the problem of unemployment as the state employs nearly half of the labour force.
The perks and privileges of a government job also reduce the incentive for people to work in the private sector.
“The system has been designed to encourage nepotism. All that a politician wants to do is to get jobs for his followers,” says Cambanis.
A bloated bureaucracy has also added layers of red tape, which slows down decision-making and hinders investment. For instance, an agricultural firm often spends up to eight years — just to get permission to use a new variety of seed.
The failure of incompetent officials in providing essential civic services such as electricity led to violent street protests in 2016.
Centralising the hiring process can decrease corruption and weaken the patronage system, which has dominated various ministries, according to Mawlawi.
“Ministries have powers to hire directly. So a minister hires people close to him or his party,” Mawlawi said.
A bright future?
The election on May 12 took place without any violence; a marked difference from the previous polls in 2014, when dozens were killed in suicide attacks and international news organisations pontificated on Iraq’s disintegration.
Today, Mawlawi said, those security concerns have subsided. Politicians can no longer rely on fear mongering to avoid focusing on economic issues.
“The previous elections happened before the fall in oil prices. So there wasn’t a fiscal crisis and people were more concerned about their security than their economic welfare.
Now young people want jobs, and they are worried they won't easily find work in the public sector.”
Sadr of Sairoon fielded fresh faces and promised technocrats as head of ministries. Other political parties have also vowed to fight corruption.
But, Cambanis said their optimism should be taken with a pinch of salt.
“I fear the twisted system of patronage in Iraq can go on surviving even as the country struggles with low revenue.”