The smell of the revolution: The prospects for reform under the next Iraqi government

In mid-March 2017, roughly five years ago, Iraq was in a very different place. It was before the popular protests that began in October 2019, before the liberation of Mosul and many other Iraqi cities from ISIS control, and before Massoud Barzani announced his referendum to separate the Kurdistan region. In a panel discussion entitled “Crisis of Governance and Imperative of Reform” at the Sulaimani Forum at the American University of Iraq Sulaimani, I warned, “I smell the revolution!” At the time, a lot of people probably thought it was not an appropriate statement. Everyone was looking forward to the bright times ahead after the victory against ISIS and given the world’s pledges to stand with Iraq to help rebuild. But for me and others who highlighted Iraq’s worsening problem of institutional frailty, it was alarming. The world was ready to help, but there was no one on the other side of table. It was another lost opportunity for Iraq’s political class to begin a real plan for reform.

The current situation

After the first session of the new Iraqi Council of Representatives was held on Jan. 9, 2022, according to the constitution, the winning political blocs have a period of no more than one month to choose the president of the republic, who assigns the candidate of the largest blocs as prime minister-designate within 15 days of his election. The prime minister-designate has only 30 days to present his cabinet to the House of Representatives for approval and begin exercising the functions of government, making it the sixth government formed since the 2005 constitution.

Regardless of the controversy between the political blocs about the results of the October 2021 elections, and the need for the judiciary to resolve various political and legal disputes, the next government will eventually be formed. In its first session the new government will find on its desk a number of thorny files, which vary in their degree of importance, danger, and urgency. The government’s first task will be to prioritize them.

How it chooses to do so will be shaped by several sets of factors, including intrinsic internal ones, such as the nature and makeup of the government and the alignment of other political parties and influential social forces, as well as regional and international developments, which will shape the government’s ability to maneuver as it seeks to maintain balance in its external relations. Moreover, its priorities when it comes to the security, economic, and service files will play an important role in determining if the government will be able to remain in office and complete its constitutional term.

The question of effectiveness

As there was not a single large winning bloc that could form a government on its own, all of the five previous coalition governments faced the challenge of cabinet cohesion to varying degrees. Whenever the challenges are great, government cohesion is tested, especially its ability to make critical decisions and enforce them.

The Council of Ministers usually includes ministers nominated by the combined blocs to form the government in proportion to each bloc’s number of representatives and weight within its sectarian or national component. Often, parties pressure a candidate for prime minister to accept ministers who are loyal to their bloc, regardless of their experience, competence, or compatibility with the prime minister and his priorities. Disagreements between blocs are usually reflected in the Council of Ministers’ workflow or in the competition between different ministries.

The lack of harmony between the government and the state’s executive and administrative apparatus reduces government effectiveness. Many ministers in successive governments have complained about their inability to implement the government’s vision within their ministries. Much of the Iraqi bureaucracy does not view political appointees with respect. Although administrations are obliged to submit to the primacy of political decisions, they spare no effort in trying to exploit political differences to delay the implementation of laws or apply them in a distorted manner.

The absence of integration and coordination between the federal and local executive authorities (in the Kurdistan region in northern Iraq or the governorates that are not organized in a region) will be one of the expected challenges for the next government.

The federal government in Baghdad has often turned a blind eye (especially during government formation) to what it considers to be transgressions in the policies of the Kurdistan region in terms of customs, oil exports without Baghdad’s consent, and the non-delivery of revenues.

After a while, but usually not long, differences begin to surface between the center and the region, resulting in mutual accusations and recriminations. Disputes between the federal and local governments in the governorates (outside the region) are frequent and also relate to the distribution and management of revenues. The delay in electing provincial, district, and sub-district councils since 2013 has complicated relations between the federal and local governments, with both sides blaming the other for project delays and poor services.

The Iraqi constitution separates executive powers from legislative and judicial ones. With increasing political tensions and fragile institutions, the government faces the challenge of maintaining a clear distinction and separation between these powers. With the possibility that a government will be formed with a coalition of majority blocs that will face, for the first time, an explicit parliamentary opposition, a potential increase in the overlap between the legislative and executive powers will be another challenge facing the new government and parliament.

The judicial authorities have also been tempted to slip into politics. When the previous government resigned under pressure from widespread protests two years ago, the previous parliament passed a lot of urgent legislation, including dissolving the Electoral Commission and assigning judges to run it. The judges conducted an unprecedented election. Despite the many complaints and appeals in previous elections, the Iraqi judiciary maintained a relatively decent reputation for being independent among large segments of society. It will be important for the incoming government and the political parties that constitute it or oppose it to preserve the judiciary’s reputation as a pillar of the Iraqi political system, instead of repeatedly getting involved in the details of political disputes that never seem to end.

The battle of first impressions to win back lost trust

From its first day, or perhaps even before, the new government will face the battle of first impressions. Experts will carefully consider the program that the prime minister-designate will present to the House of Representatives, evaluating the new government’s priorities, but most people will not bother to read a government program.

Government reports usually indicate high achievement rates for state programs that do not reflect how society perceives them. For example, according to an official report released in March 2020, the government of Adel Abdul-Mahdi claimed it had “achieved” 79% of its objectives over the course of the year. Opposition political blocs, by contrast, described the report as inaccurate and flawed, indicating that the real percentage did not exceed 39%.

While according to the official government report issued in June 2021, Mustafa al-Kadhimi’s government completed 71% of its agenda, unofficial press questionnaires estimated that the government has fulfilled only 7.1% of its promises. A parliamentary report gave the government slightly higher marks, assessing its achievement rate at 17.5%.

It is clear that there is a large gap between the official figures, parliamentary ones, and those based on independent or unofficial sources when it comes to the rates of achievement and government performance. Assuming the government report numbers are accurate, the only explanation for this gap may be the different standards by which achievement is measured, and the different priorities and perceptions between citizens and their elected representatives and the executive authorities. It is not easy for an observer to believe a government report’s claims that the security forces’ performance in the field of strengthening the sovereignty of the state and the rule of law has increased by 69% or that the government has completed 66% of its economic program.

Both traditional media and social media play a major role in creating impressions and distorting or confirming facts in the Iraqi political space. Despite the importance of opening government agencies to the public through the media, many Iraqis have become suspicious of the official discourse, accusing officials of a lack of credibility and noting the government media’s uncritical repetition of clichés that governments use to justify their failure to fulfill their promises.

The task of the next government will be difficult when it comes to forming more balanced impressions and raising the ceiling of expectations for conflicting priorities. Choosing achievable goals that align with citizens’ priorities and that the government can fulfil within a reasonable period of time will be key to regaining lost trust.

In addition, the type of opposition facing the new government will also affect confidence in it and whether it strengthens or weakens. Many traditional parties may be forced to join the opposition after their exclusion from government. Their power cannot be underestimated. They may flex their muscles by influencing and mobilizing the street, as well as their armed groups and their presence inside the state institutions. In addition to the traditional parties, there are also new political movements, some of which are trying to speak on behalf of and represent the protesters of the October 2019 movement. In total, there are approximately 40 deputies that are independent or from small blocs, a relatively large number of whom have decided voluntarily to be in the opposition. It is expected that they will have an influential and effective media presence; this will also affect the first impressions formed about the new government and its support or lack thereof.

Effective societal institutions, such as the religious authorities, markets, businessmen, tribal leaders, non-political organizations, and trade and professional unions, will also be influencing factors (despite the difference in the degree and type of their effects) when it comes to forming first impressions of the new government.

It is important that the new government selects credible and efficient personalities who are not involved in corruption or failure for both the governmental and advisory teams, as this will help give it an opportunity to catch its breath and consolidate its powers before starting battles on multiple fronts.

Balancing regional and international influences

The effects of external factors, both regional and international, have been largely reflected in the stability of the political situation in Iraq, especially during the past two decades. The new government will face complex and overlapping files related to Iraq’s relations with neighboring countries.

The nature and extent of Iranian influence on the Iraqi political scene has varied in the years since 2003 in line with the presence of U.S. forces in Iraq. Despite the competition between Iran and the U.S. for influence, there was an equation that prevailed until 2018 involving a kind of silent understanding between them. This balance played an important role in the relations between Iraq and both Iran and the U.S., especially during Iraq’s war against ISIS in 2014-17. But in the fall of 2018, it became clear that this careful balance had been disturbed.

Recently, Iran has begun to review the way it approaches Iraqi politics, to avoid offending Iraqi pride, especially after the popular protests in southern and central Iraq.

Iraq has also become more open and communicative with its Arab neighbors in recent years, after a rupture in relations that lasted until 2016. Recently, mutual visits of government officials have resumed and joint economic projects have been discussed.

With campaigns against normalizing these relations heightening the traditional caution developed over decades of regional tensions, the new Iraqi government will have its work cut out for it when it comes to translating the political rapprochement with the Gulf and neighboring countries into economic and service projects that citizens can actually feel. Maintaining the priority of Iraqi interests will likely be another card that the opposition will play. The new government will be asked to answer rhetoric about replacing the influence of one dominant neighbor with that of another.

Just as the regional presence in Iraq has been a thorny issue, the international presence has been even more complex. Successive Iraqi governments failed to benefit from international attention to Iraq to open new avenues for cooperation beyond defense and security after either the 2003 regime change or the involvement of the international coalition — at the behest of the Iraqi government — in the summer of 2014 following the fall of Mosul and the occupation of a third of Iraq’s territory by ISIS.

After the Iraqi government announced its victory over ISIS at the end of 2017, a conference for the reconstruction of Iraq was held in Kuwait in the spring of 2018, in which 76 countries and regional and international organizations announced promises of support exceeding $30 billion. Although Iraq had hoped for up to $88 billion in support, the Iraqi government was unable to turn these promises into reality, and little of the money actually reached Iraq.

Therefore, the new Iraqi government may have to take a different approach to foreign relations, putting national priorities (especially economics) before the interests of the sub-entities within the Iraqi political system.

Challenges to the government’s survival and longevity

Security file

The security file will likely be one of the most pressing for the new government. Although ISIS has lost its ability to completely control cities and villages and seize territory like it did in 2014, ISIS cells have recently begun carrying out operations in the governorates of Diyala, Kirkuk, Salah al-Din, and Anbar against the Iraqi army, Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF), Peshmerga, and civilians. In the areas where control overlaps between the Peshmerga, the federal forces, and the PMF in northeastern and western Iraq, especially in the areas around Kirkuk, the Iraqi government will need more coordination and joint measures to control the security situation and consolidate the fragile peace there.

With the fragility of the political scene and its impact on the performance of official security institutions, the danger of popular discontent and the loss of a sense of security necessary for citizens to move around freely and conduct business have increased recently. Perhaps the most dangerous task that the new government will face will be the challenge of subordinating the armed factions and security services to a unified command under the control of the commander-in-chief of the armed forces and reforming them. The way in which it choose to deal with this file will determine the government’s survival.

The increasing deterioration of security in southern cities such as al-Amara, which has recently witnessed a rise in assassinations of figures from the judiciary, police, ordinary citizens, and armed factions, indicates how fragile the situation has become. Fighting could easily break out that appears to be political or clan-based, but in reality is largely driven by traditional competition for influence between gangs of drug dealers and smugglers at the border crossings.

Most of the tribes possess large caches of weapons, in many cases more and better weapons than what the local police and law enforcement agencies have. For the past decade, the Iraqi government has been forced to fight battles in Basra to enforce the law. Even in 2015-17, when the Iraqi security forces were fighting battles in northern and western Iraq to liberate cities from ISIS’s control, local governments had to seek help from federal forces to deal with inter-clan battles. Tribes in the south repeatedly used drones and other advanced weapons in their clashes with each other.

The economic, financial, and administrative files

Among the other pressing issues that the next government will face is the need to diversify the economy and transition in a gradual and orderly manner away from reliance on oil rents. It will also need to create real job opportunities outside the traditional government sector. There are nearly 4 million permanent employees in government institutions, while another 4 million receive government subsidy grants from the social welfare network, and there are 4 million retirees or pensioners. In a country of around 40 million, more than 30% of people rely directly on government salaries and subsidies, which account for nearly 60% of Iraq’s total budget.

The database of the Ministry of Labor and Social Affairs includes 1.6 million job seekers, while millions more are not registered with the ministry. Every year this decade an estimated 800,000 young people have entered the labor market.

Foreign and local investors will monitor the practical steps that the government takes to provide a suitable work environment. While successive governments have been keen to invite investors and foreign companies to do business in Iraq, the obstacles imposed by government departments work against the encouraging rhetoric. Even if the new government has good intentions of reforming the Iraqi economy, unless it also reforms the administrative system, it is unlikely to achieve real results.

The Council of Ministers’ first decision at the beginning of this year was the approval of a “strategy for administrative reform in government departments.” It is a typical government document, similar to many others in its formulation, but distinguished by its diagnosis of the many problems suffered by Iraq’s administrative system. It set timelines for implementation that ranged from several months up to five years. It included measures for legislative reform, the issuance of a new civil service law, the shift toward administrative decentralization, and the restructuring of ministries and administrative units (governorates, districts, and sub-districts). The paper suggested steps for institutional development, boosting the efficiency and effectiveness of the state’s administrative apparatus, simplifying government service procedures, standardizing databases, resource management systems, and public spending, and applying good governance standards.

The next Iraqi government’s fiercest battle may well be when it undertakes structural administrative reform. Its institutions have become riddled with corruption, as both governmental and international reports have noted. The paradox is that the entities entrusted with carrying out the reform process will also be accused of similar practices, and their path to boosting citizens’ confidence will be littered with challenges.

Service provision

The government’s inability to provide basic services to citizens has been one of the main drivers of violent protests in the last few years. Although the government has annual budgets of more than $100 billion, citizens are frustrated by its failure to provide basic services, especially when compared to other countries with more modest resources. Many important files, such as electricity, water, housing, health, education, environmental issues, pollution, and others, are likely to compete for the next government’s attention, all of which are in need of bold and creative solutions. If the government doesn’t address these files, they will be easy for the opposition to wave in front of it, attracting support from broad social strata.

Social problems

According to recent official and independent data, there has been an alarming exacerbation of some social problems. While it may not be the new government’s job to find quick solutions to all of society’s problems, the way it deals with these complicated issues will affect things positively or negatively. A large part of society is still waiting for the government to be involved in matters that modern states no longer interfere in. The increasing rates of divorce, suicide, organized crime, and domestic violence are all concerning and point to the need for further study to suggest what the state can do to help root out or reduce these problems.

While large segments of society have begun to reject sectarian and ethnic differences, the dangers of social division and polarization have not diminished; instead, they have increased, and even taken on new shapes and forms. There is a great feeling growing, especially among young people, of deprivation and marginalization, that they are separate from the classes that control Iraq’s oil wealth and distribute it in ways that are viewed as biased and unfair. One of the new government’s main tasks — one that most of its predecessors have failed to accomplish — is to restore popular confidence in the system through deep and comprehensive reforms. The system continues to face imminent collapse, an outcome that has been repeatedly postponed by increases in oil prices.

A review of previous reformers and reform efforts

In October 2020, the Iraqi government announced the release of a report to the Emergency Cell for Financial Reform, which it called the “white paper,” focusing on financial and economic reforms and improving the performance of financial institutions. Its purpose was to diagnose problems and their roots in a systematic and “credible manner locally and internationally,” and to formulate proposed policies in the main sectors of the economy. Despite some notable differences, the paper was reminiscent of previous government reform efforts that were aborted for various reasons.

In August 2015, former Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi issued a first package of administrative, financial, and economic reforms. This included unprecedented measures, such as the abolition of senior positions like vice presidents and deputy prime ministers, the abolition and merging of ministries, the exclusion of bodies and sites from quotas, and reforms to state expenditures and resources, including the customs and tax sector. It also included measures to improve electricity and services and combat corruption by forming a committee to address the issue led by the prime minister himself, along with judges and other high officials. International experts and investigators were hired to help build up Iraq’s capacity to fight corruption and recover stolen money.

Prime Minister Abadi initially garnered significant popular and societal support for his platform. The political forces reluctantly agreed, forced to accept the measures temporarily. They then delayed and obstructed them through the Council of Representatives, which chipped away at the measures through legislation or political pressure. Senior officials who were fired were returned to their positions by judicial decisions. In addition, some of the administrative employees of the Prime Ministry itself, which was supposed to be supervising the reforms, opposed and even demonstrated against the reduction of its financial privileges.

Beginning in 2016, an official Iraqi team linked to the prime minister worked to design an effective vocational training plan, with the aim of creating jobs and reducing the militarization of society. The promise of international support culminated in a statement signed in Tokyo in April 2018. The program was supposed to help create hundreds of thousands of non-governmental jobs in about eight years, but it was never implemented due to the change in government.

At the beginning of 2017, a team of Iraqi government and academic specialists worked in cooperation with international experts to produce a “vision for Iraq 2030,” which included important ideas to transition Iraq away from a rentier economy and build a stable state and a safe and productive society.

In December 2017, a group of Iraqi expatriate specialists and former officials wrote a plan for national revival, which they called the manifesto. It included an analysis of the roots of the crisis and sharply criticized the post-2003 regime, accusing it of being “based on societal hatred and the marginalization of entire groups of the people.” The paper laid out 20 challenges facing Iraq along with proposals to address them. Two of its authors later went on to serve in two successive governments, but there was no opportunity to follow through with the manifesto’s vision given the complex reality of politics.

In February 2019 the Ministry of Planning announced “Iraq’s vision for sustainable development 2030” centered on “empowering Iraqis in a safe country, a unified society with a diversified economy, a sustainable environment, justice and good governance.” Like the others before it, this document had plenty of beautiful ideas, but it too lacked binding mechanisms to turn them into policies on the ground.

Despite the warm international welcome when the white paper was issued, it met with sharp popular and political criticism in Iraq. Perhaps the most important criticism leveled against it is the contradiction between the recommendations it lays out and the government’s actual spending and policies. The weakness or absence of interaction between the team that issued the paper and many key stakeholders led to harsh reactions against it.

Perhaps the new government should reconsider the mechanisms and means of implementing any reform plan to ensure both the highest level of political support as well as widespread public understanding and acceptance.

Past, present, and future obstacles

Despite the varying challenges faced by previous reform attempts, one of the main reasons for their failure was the lack of political will to pay the costly bill of any real reform.

For many years, politicians, clerics, academics, media professionals, and large segments of society have exchanged accusations of corruption, failure, and inability to provide services. Although many of these were grounded in reality, only a few made their way to court.

Corruption has become, in the eyes of many citizens, embedded into the culture and in many cases even enshrined into law. Everyone brags about denouncing corruption, and few admit to committing it, but when a representative came out and admitted that he was corrupt and all of his peers were too, instead of being referred to the judiciary, he was re-elected — more than once.

There are multiple institutions in Iraq to combat corruption, including those with preventive, oversight, and judicial missions. As the next government struggles to create a positive first impression, it will face the challenge of overcoming the great public dissatisfaction with the poor results of previous anti-corruption efforts.

In August 2016, a team of international investigators and experts was hired by the United Nations Development Program (UNDP) to help the Iraqi government build institutional capacity to combat corruption and assist in cases with an international dimension, despite parliamentary opposition. More than 40 major files were studied and transferred to the Commission of Integrity. In March 2019, months after the formation of Abdul-Mahdi’s government, he announced before the House of Representatives the existence of more than 40 other corruption files that include most of the branches of the Iraqi state. Procedures to consider these cases have not been announced since then.

By the end of 2020, in Kadhimi’s government, the Iraqi government signed another memorandum of understanding with the UNDP “to enhance transparency, accountability, and integrity in the public and private sectors.” It was preceded by the formation of a permanent committee to investigate corruption and important criminal cases. The committee’s steps were bold at the start, as it made arrests and investigated senior officials for corruption, including in the retirement department and the electricity sector, as well as companies contracting with the state. However, the committee itself was accused by parliamentarians of being a tool for settling political and financial disputes. It is difficult to confirm or deny such accusations.

Growing popular pressure and the official efforts announced, including the use of international institutions, were unable to restore lost confidence. Therefore, the next government will need to fight to do so by addressing the major existing corruption files and following up on the accusations exchanged by political blocs during the elections and periods of political conflict and mass mobilization.

Opportunities and possibilities

Given the current political and social realities, the situation may seem bleak. Some may think that reform simply cannot be carried out — an impression perpetuated by the sizeable boycott of the recent elections. Despite this, there are still important cards that the new government can play if the political will for change is there.

Economic analysts believe that oil prices may remain high in the coming months, if not rise further, given the increasing possibility of conflict in Ukraine. Despite the danger of relying almost completely on a volatile commodity such as oil, windfall revenues may make it easier for the next government to take some important steps to address the arduous task of regaining the confidence of a disgruntled and resentful street.

In addition, the increased chances that the U.S. and Iran will sign an agreement to return to the 2015 nuclear deal may mean Iraq is able to play a positive role in bringing Riyadh and Tehran closer together. This would likely help to accelerate the pace of joint economic projects with regional countries and reduce external tensions and their impact on the domestic arena.

Where to begin?

If the next government includes mainly key powerful politicians, then establishing a specialized team to lead a clear reform effort will be a must. Such a team should be empowered by the necessary authorities and mandates. Any reform program should reflect the lessons learned from the experiences and failures of previous governments.

Many countries that have successfully carried out reforms did so by forming a special reform team linked to top executives. Its mandate should include determining reform priorities and supervising implementation of the government program in a semi-independent manner, separate from traditional government channels.

The team will also need to work to create international and local support for the success of the program and raise awareness among stakeholders involved in or impacted by the reforms. Many previous attempts failed due to misperceptions and confusion among those involved in implementing these programs.

Iraqis are usually patient with arduous paths and difficulties that they face together, especially, when the ultimate goals are clear, but they also must have confidence in the plan and trust those responsible for executing it. Unfortunately, trust is now shaken, not only in politicians, but in the entire system.

Survival of the government coalition and the possibility of reform

The success of the next government will mainly depend on the strength and cohesion of the political alliances that support it and its ability to overcome potential causes of disengagement. Managing the contradictions between what the street demands and what the political forces require will be one of the most important tests of the next government’s success. The way it deals with the accumulated differences between Baghdad and Erbil may accelerate the disintegration of the ruling coalition or prolong its survival. In the event that a broad opposition is formed, the government’s ability to survive will be contingent on it quickly achieving clear accomplishments that provide sufficient popular cover to give it more time to complete its term.

The smell of the revolution, which I warned about years ago, has now become noticeable to many — and not just pessimistic political and economic analysts or sociologists. If the ruling political class does not heed the call for real reform and accept the costs involved, the collapse of the system cannot be prevented by short-term or cosmetic measures. High oil prices may postpone the inevitable as long as there is enough money to pay the salaries of government employees, but that will only raise the cost of reform and make it harder to pay the bill when it ultimately comes due.

Iraq is now approaching another turning point and it has a new opportunity, if only a brief one, to bring about change and re-engineer the system by making citizens a priority. Otherwise, recycling the failures of the past means nothing but waiting for the next gale storm.

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