Once again, Iraq is at a crossroads
May 03 2021
By Naufel Alhassan*
In 2003, following the toppling of the regime of Saddam Hussein, Iraqis had high hopes for fundamental change in their lives after three and half decades of tyranny. In the years since, however, many of these expectations have gone unfulfilled.
The fall of Mosul and many other Iraqi cities, towns, and villages during the summer
of 2014 to a newly emerged and expanding ISIS played an important role in changing
the dominant political equations in the country. ISIS represented an existential
threat to Iraq, one that was qualitatively different from previous terrorist groups
The level of frustration among Iraqis reached a boiling point in late 2019, giving
rise to mass public protests in Baghdad and many southern Iraqi cities in October.
While protests have been a recurring feature of life in Iraq since 2003, the October
2019 protests were fundamentally different in terms of the extent of participation
and their geographical spread, as well as the number of people injured and killed.
Although it has been more than 18 months since then, many of the big questions raised
by the protests remain unanswered, most of which revolve around the sustainability
of the post-
The response by the main political parties to the 2019 protests ranged from a complete
denial of any essential failures in the system to a partial admittance of failure
while simultaneously blaming external forces. During the first week of the protests,
Prime Minister Adel Abdul-
The decline in trust in the system and the governing elites by multiple segments of the population and the factors that resulted in the October 2019 protests have been widely studied. In particular, researchers have pointed to the deep tensions and disagreements between the political parties and coalitions, as well as their effect on hindering government efforts to reform the system and redirect state priorities, especially in regards to the economy, finances, and services. Similarly, there is no shortage of analysis of the reforms needed to enable Iraqi institutions to provide a decent level of services and address their recurring shortcomings. Many Iraqi and international specialists have written studies and research papers laying out recommendations and policy plans.
Some of these plans came close to the vision that many Iraqis had for their country
immediately after the fall of the dictatorial regime in 2003 — of an Iraq that would
live up to its constitutional guarantees of providing the basic requirements for
a free and decent life, including income, housing, and education. Even though candidates
and politicians keep recycling these hopes and aspirations in campaign slogans and
unfulfilled promises, they continue to resonate in Iraq and have been repeatedly
put forward by demonstrators in Baghdad and other cities. Protesters once again presented
these same demands in 2019, as they had in previous years, due to the government’s
consistent failure and inability to address them. The October 2019 protests, which
have been described as “one of the largest grassroots political mobilizations," also
saw new demands voiced, but they did not deviate far from the long-
The failure to provide jobs and services drives deep unrest
More than 40 million people now live in Iraq, twice as many as 25 years ago, and more than four times the population in 1970. According to estimates from the Ministry of Planning, the population will double again in less than a quarter of a century, if current growth rates, which are among the highest in the region, continue. As a result, the Iraqi government will have to establish a favorable business climate that facilitates the creation of nearly a million jobs annually by the end of the current decade.
It is clear that this will not be feasible as long as the government remains the
primary employer. At present, more than 3.26 million citizens are working as permanent
As the current business climate is unable to stimulate private sector job creation,
the government is almost the only outlet for the approximately 700,000 young people
entering the labor market every year, including hundreds of thousands of university
and graduate school degree holders. The frustration caused by the lack of job opportunities
has provided a recurring source of fuel for protests, although it is far from the
only one. The primary driver of protests has been the limited ability of government
institutions to keep pace with the increasing demand for basic services, including,
most importantly, the provision of a stable supply of power in cities, especially
in the hot summer months. Many other political factors have also played a role in
previous waves of protests, and political parties, local civil society, and ethnic
and religious groups have frequently organized demonstrations in Baghdad and elsewhere,
including in Kurdistan and the western provinces, since 2003. However, the October
2019 protests were mainly sparked by the government’s inability to provide decent
job opportunities. The clashes between the security forces and civilian protesters
that followed led to the downfall of the Adel Abdul-
Shrinking revenues and multiplying expenditures
In recent years, the payroll bill for government employees and contractors has accounted
for a significant portion of the Iraqi government's total operating expenses. In
2004 the combined cost of all government employee salaries and pension benefits was
less than 4 trillion dinars, or about 12.4% of total government spending (31 trillion
dinars), according to the final accounts prepared by the Ministry of Finance. This
percentage has increased rapidly in the years since as both the number of government
employees and their salaries have shot up in tandem, reaching 30% of total government
expenditure in 2005 and 2006 and 38% in 2010 and 2011. This increase is even more
significant considering that total annual spending more than doubled from 30 trillion
dinars in 2005 to 70 trillion dinars in 2010 — before rising sharply again to 119
trillion dinars in 2013. While the period 2015-
Oil export revenues have accounted for the largest share by far of the Iraqi state's net income in recent decades, ranging from 98% in 2003 and 2004 to about 79% in 2015.
The approved budget for 2019 is based on the assumption that non-
Reports from international energy organizations have laid out multiple scenarios
for the future of oil. With the increase in global interest in environmental issues,
the world is rapidly moving away from oil and toward greater use of clean, renewable,
and alternative sources of energy for power generation and transportation. Therefore,
Iraq's dependency on oil as its main — and sometimes only — commodity to finance
its expenditures represents an ever-
Economic reform begins with political reform
In order to answer the question of whether the Iraqi political system is able to reform itself, it is first necessary to review previous attempts that failed. There are many reasons why, but the most important is the lack of political support and the absence of political and popular will to foot the bill for reform.
Since 2004, political blocs have become accustomed to forming consensual governments
from different and often intersecting coalitions. These coalition governments avoid
These examples suggest the success of fundamental reform depends on the existence of an effective and coherent government backed by a large and unified parliamentary bloc. Difficult reform decisions also need popular support from a public that understands what is at stake. Unfortunately, it is not possible under the previous or current electoral system, according to the amendments recently approved by parliament and promulgated by Law No. 9 of 2020, to produce such a coherent and effective government or a large unified parliamentary bloc. Given the huge number of parties and entities registered with the Electoral Commission, which now total about 250 competing for 329 seats in 83 electoral districts, the emergence of a large bloc capable of forming a coherent and effective government is a fantasy.
Moreover, the election law is not the only factor that determines the outcomes of the electoral process leading to the formation of a government. The current political system is intentionally designed to impede the creation of an effective government capable of carrying out reforms. It is governed by a party system that has resulted in a monopoly over political decisions by a small group of leaders, most of whom were not elected in a democratic or transparent process. Nonetheless, the government is usually formed according to formal rules and procedures that appear, at least on the surface, to be democratic.
Reforming the political system is key to avoiding imminent collapse
One of the great paradoxes in Iraq is that its party system cannot be described as democratic, and therefore, it is natural that the system is unable to produce true popular representation. Voter participation in elections has fallen over time, reaching a low of 44% in 2018. The main parties in Iraq have been led by the same people for the past two decades. Although many of them have witnessed divides and the rise of new splinter parties, the majority of these new parties are not democratic either. The dominant feature of Iraq’s parties is that they revolve around the personality of a single leader who will eventually be succeeded by one of his family members. Internal party elections, if they take place at all, are a mere formality rather than a means of ensuring the transfer of power to new party cadres, most of which were established to represent the interests of a family or limited leadership, even if they took on national, religious, sectarian, or regional trappings.
The lack of transparency within the parties and their inability to allow for real,
meaningful change in leadership is another source of discontent and frustration among
many societal groups, especially the youth, who represent about two-
National parties as an alternative to sectarian, ethnic, or local ones
Reforming the party system in Iraq is a necessary precursor to reforming the electoral process so that it can produce a functioning and effective government and a stable parliament. Therefore, reforming the political parties law will be as important as reforming the electoral law. The presence of many parties does not necessarily indicate a mature political process, but rather reflects a state of confusion and political disorientation. While citizens have the right to join or switch between these parties freely, the bulk of them are “seasonal” parties that are formed before the elections and do not exercise any political or social roles afterwards.
Although the Iraqi constitution and the literature of most Iraqi political parties emphasize the concept of citizenship and patriotism, it is clear that the overwhelming majority of them lack comprehensive national representation, and they are often based around regional, religious, or sectarian identities. No party or political bloc has managed to win seats in all of Iraq's governorates in any election to date. With the exception of a single attempt by one of the coalitions in the 2018 elections to compete in all 18 governorates, Iraqi parties more narrowly focus on specific regions, sects, and ethnicities, in spite of their “national” slogans.
Therefore, many researchers, politicians, and activists are discussing proposals
to reform both the electoral law and the party system so that it enables the formation
of large parties that represent the Iraqi electorate across all governorates. If
Iraq had a small number of larger, cross-
Moreover, delaying the implementation of Article 65 of the constitution, which required the establishment of a second and higher chamber within the legislature to represent the governorates and regions — known as the Federation Council — hindered another opportunity to usher in a more measured, sober political process. In the absence of this important body, political forces have been compelled to fill the vacuum by seeking the help of unelected political and religious figures or parties from outside Iraq.
The need for a new common Iraqi national vision
In the end, leaders and stakeholders in the political process have the following six main tasks:
Efforts to achieve such comprehensive reforms will likely face political obstacles and legal restrictions, and may even require constitutional amendments in some areas. However, the dangers of neglecting or delaying the political changes required to allow for comprehensive political, economic, and structural reform will be severe. Yet, decision makers still have a chance to take a different path, starting with a comprehensive review and objective assessment of the reasons why the new system has failed to achieve the desired goals. Time is running out, however; decision makers will soon lose the few remaining options to avoid the potentially horrific collapse of the political process. According to some who have long been involved, the political process has become worn out and lacks the ability for renewal and change needed to produce alternatives to address current and future challenges.
On an April morning back in 2003, in a moment broadcast on television around the world, a group of Iraqi youth set out to tear down a statue of Saddam Hussein in Baghdad’s Alfirdos Square. Toppling the statue of the former Iraqi dictator seemed easy at first. But raising its feet from the base proved far more complicated, and in the end it required the intervention of military vehicles and the use of ropes — and only came after a great effort.
Will the revitalization of the political process also require complicated and dangerous surgery? Or will mistakes be corrected and reviewed before it is too late? We can only hope and pray it’s the latter.
*Dr. Naufel Alhassan is an Iraqi politician and former official. He served in many
high executive and advisory positions in the Iraqi government, including chief of
staff and senior advisor for Prime Minister Haider Al-