Many Iraqis have ceased to look back at the Saddam Hussain era with an icy glare of criticism as public disdain for Iraqi politicians grows across the country.
Last week and more than a year since the country’s last general election was held, an Iraqi president and prime minister were finally appointed by the nation’s parliament. While it is interesting that none of the politicians appointed to high office is in any way related to those who ostensibly won last year’s election, the governmental paralysis has seen a year of significant upheavals, administrative chaos, increased insecurity and political violence, and further entrenched chronic instability in a country that has seen little stability since the US-led invasion in 2003.
This has been the longest Iraq has been without a government since elections were first held in post-Baathist Iraq. While it is rare for Iraqi governments to form immediately following the conclusion of elections, the gradually increasing interim periods between polling dates and the formation of governments presages a desperate future for the war-torn country that could see its current political process face dissolution.
Lack of popular support
As Iraq has been touted as a democracy since the ouster of long-time strongman Saddam Hussein in 2003 at the hands of an international US-led coalition, its success has long been predicated on the buy-in of the Iraqi people themselves.
Democracy, by its nature, relies on popular participation in the political process to derive its legitimacy but contemporary Iraq has seen popular support for democracy rapidly decline since 2010.
In fact, the rapid decline has been matched by a longing for the stability provided by Saddam’s rule. This attitude has been reflected with increasing regularity since the invasion. While some initially greeted the downfall of the Baathists, they have now changed their minds and expressed regrets.
Kadhim al Jubouri, a Baghdad mechanic, was so jubilant that the Baathists had been ousted from power that he took to the streets and repeatedly swung a sledgehammer at Saddam’s statue in Firdaws Square in central Baghdad. The same statue was later infamously torn down by US troops in one of the more iconic images of 2003.
Jubouri was later interviewed by the BBC in 2016. Having witnessed 13 years of difference between Saddam and Iraq’s newfound democracy, Jubouri expressed that he was ashamed of having taken a hammer to his statue and instead now wanted Saddam back and exclaimed that, rather than just one tyrant in Baghdad’s palaces, Iraq now had one on every street corner.
This decline has presided over gradually shrinking voter turnout over the years. In the two general polls held in 2005, turnout was at 58 and 79 percent respectively. In 2010, this dipped to 62 percent which, while lower, was still an acceptable turnout which held more or less steady in 2014. However, by 2018, turnout had plummeted to 45 percent, despite the fact that Daesh had been declared defeated a year earlier, and many had expected Iraq’s ostensibly increased security situation to reflect a more stable polity.
What transpired, in reality, was a deepening of Iraq’s underlying political and social crises, far from the solely securitised atmosphere Iraqi elites had insisted was the reason behind its political malaise. In 2021, in a staggering display of public insouciance with their political elites and the almost two-decade-old promise of democratic accountability, stability and economic prosperity that had failed to materialise, almost three out of five of all Iraqis decided to boycott the elections.
With the support of the political process – rather than any one political candidate or government – at an all-time low, the popular foundation of what constitutes an Iraqi democracy is now in peril and may be at risk of total failure.
Chaos in the halls of power
This public disdain for Iraqi politics and politicians is further exacerbated by the behaviour of the key players in today’s political crisis, all of whom have been involved in some capacity or another since Saddam’s ouster in 2003.
While he was ostensibly the winner of the past two general elections in 2021 and 2018, Shia cleric Muqtada al Sadr also won those polls arguably by virtue of the fact that he has a more organised grassroots movement to back him at a time when the general populace was not interested in the elections. However, Sadr’s mercurial tendencies have seen him make alliances, break alliances, and then dig himself into isolation as Iraq’s other political players moved on without him.
First, Sadr campaigned on an anti-sectarian platform, despite his history as the leader of some of Iraq’s most infamous and deadly sectarian Shia militias. To bolster his anti-sectarian credentials, Sadr forged a political understanding with key leaders in northern Iraq as well as the Sunni Arab bloc led by parliamentary speaker Mohammed al Halbousi.
Between October last year and January this year, Sadr and his new allies were successful in having Halbousi reinstated as a speaker but had failed to make any further gains. Some of Sadr's candidates for the presidency were repeatedly blocked by his rivals from the Coordination Framework – an umbrella bloc of Shia hardliners with overt ties to Iran and from whom the new prime minister, Mohammed Shia al Sudani, hails.
Rather than continue to use his parliamentary dominance to stall out his opponents, Sadr took the extraordinary step – and without consultation with his allies – to command all his MPs to resign their parliamentary seats in June. In one unfathomable move, Sadr ceded his parliamentary majority to his apparently erstwhile foes and rivals, leaving his allies stranded and forced to reconsider their positions.
Since then, there have been short outbursts of violence as Sadr continues to demand new elections, including by attempting to force the Supreme Federal Court – Iraq’s highest judicial authority – to declare the 2021 elections that he won null and void. Naturally, this would mean that Sadr was effectively saying that his own electoral victory was illegitimate, a reality not lost on either his foes or the general Iraqi public.
But Sadr is not alone in shouldering responsibility for Iraq’s never-ending crises. Rather than set the standard for behaviour in the public sphere and acting as leaders, Iraqi elites have instead presided over almost two decades of rampant corruption, sectarian violence and nepotism. This indicates that today’s ongoing chaos is, in fact, a symptom of a failing political process and is not, in fact, the fundamental cause of it, leading to the question of exactly how long Iraq can continue to weather such storms. My guess is not very long at all.
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