Iraq’s elections will serve as an indication of how the state will restore its sovereignty after fifteen years of direct and indirect foreign influence.
As Iraq’s parliamentary elections approach on May 12, the new Iraqi government will face continuing demands to reform and restructure the political system, which thus far it has attempted with only minimal success.
Now that ISIS (Daesh) is expelled from Iraq, how will a new Iraqi government reform and govern its territory, forging a functional sovereign state?
The Iraqi state has survived the reemergence of ISIS, but the contours of Iraqi politics, identity, and culture have been transformed since 2014. The new Iraqi government faces two daunting challenges in terms of strengthening its cohesion.
First, is the issue of internal territorial sovereignty, which includes the central government’s agreement over the internal border issues with the Kurds in which both sides agree, and the reintegration of territory and populations previously under ISIS’ control.
Second, is how the new Iraqi government balances its relations with its neighbors, assuring some restoration of cohesive foreign policy, rather than different Iraqi political actors conducting their own foreign policies vis-a-vis neighboring states.
The management of Iraq’s sovereignty, as well as calls for reform, will prove to be one of the most daunting challenges for its new government.
Internal territorial sovereignty
The struggle to maintain the cohesion of Iraq’s territorial sovereignty was challenged by the bid of Iraq’s Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) for an independence vote in the fall of 2017.
The central government’s territorial sovereignty was strengthened when it seized Kirkuk, which KRG forces captured in 2014 to preempt its fall to ISIS, and when the KRG’s independence campaign floundered. The crisis led to tense relations between Baghdad and the KRG, but also a realisation that the Kurds will still have to participate in Iraq’s political process, rather than carving out their own state.
The Kurdish parties in the elections, rather than running on dreams of independence, now run on the platform of gaining votes to influence the parliament in Baghdad, in addition to running on more local, pressing reformist issues, such as ending corruption and nepotism within the structure of the KRG.
The Iraqi state has restored its rule over ISIS-held areas. Many Arab Sunnis feared that after the victory over ISIS, a Shia-dominated government would rule as a conqueror of these territories, and called for a separate federated status, like the KRG.
Nowhere was this issue more critical than in Mosul. The question remained as to how Arab Sunnis in this city, and in Anbar and Salah al Din provinces, would reconcile with the central government. It was the central government’s rule prior to 2014 that led to the conditions that allowed ISIS to find fertile ground in Mosul.
Rather than a future federated status, it appears the most pressing issue for this demographic is reconstruction of Mosul as well as Anbar and Salah al Din, and this constituency is placing their hopes on Arab Sunni politicians gaining a presence in the parliament so that they could lobby for funds to continue the rebuilding process.
In both parts of Iraq, the calls for devolution have been tempered by more pressing local needs, such as reconstruction and the need for reforms, particularly to create employment.
At least for now, the Iraqi state is seen by both demographics as the only institution where these issues can be addressed, within a national parliamentary process.
Relations with foreign powers
As a result of the 2014 ISIS invasion, foreign powers found an opportunity to interfere in Iraqi domestic politics. Both Iran and the United States became involved by providing military aid to combat ISIS, while Turkey and the Gulf states influenced Iraqi politics by patronising factions who could advance these states’ foreign policy goals.
Today, Iraq’s state bears similarities to the Lebanese state, which also is weak, yet it remains relatively stable in a post-Arab Spring Middle East. In analysing Lebanon’s recent elections, analysts commented on which Lebanese politicians had Iranian or Saudi support, indicating that the vote was also an indication of Tehran’s and Riyadh’s relative strength in that nation.
Commentators will invariably examine the same dynamic in Iraq’s elections. Iraq is still a weak state, and new government will face the challenge of developing more domestic cohesion to be able to speak with one voice to it neighbors and to exercise a more significant regional role.
Relatively speaking, the future of Iraq’s survival does provide some optimism, compared to the situation in Libya, Yemen, and Syria.
In the most pessimistic scenario, the status quo will persist in Iraq as a loose Shia-Kurdish federation, governed by a de-facto Shia-Kurdish alliance of political elites, with an alienated Arab Sunni demographic.
In the most optimistic scenario, the crisis of ISIS would have proved such an existential shock to the Iraqi people that they would at least hope to find common ground that transcends sect and ethnicity. This sentiment may translate into votes in the ballot box.
In this scenario, the new Iraqi government will consolidate national cohesion only if it can establish a greater degree of consensus among its various communities than has emerged in the post-2003 period.
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