Next May, for the third time since the fall of Saddam Hussein, Iraqis will select a new parliament, from which will come the president and prime minister.
While the elections will probably be acceptable by international standards, the kind of democracy that has taken hold in Iraq is a far cry from what the Bush administration could have imagined when, 15 years ago, it undertook a massive military campaign to effect a regime change in Iraq.
Under Saddam, Ba’athist Iraq was half regime of terror and half rentier state. Now violence has been privatized; it is the feat of militias, foremost among them the Islamic State, but there are others, some of which are close to the ruling factions.
The redistribution of the oil rent, on the other hand, is the affair of the state and is the political economic core of Iraq as an organized society. Election is the mechanism through which Iraq’s power brokers — a combination of strongmen, tribal shaykhs, militia leaders, notables, political or business entrepreneurs — stake a claim on the state’s oil revenues.
The greater their political influence, the greater the share they can syphon off to cover their own expenses and redistribute to their constituents.
For the poorest local clients, their vote and loyalty is rewarded with a bit of financial aid for school or medicine, a job in the service of the patron (often as an armed retainer), a job in the municipality or the government. The more entrepreneurial can get loans, contracts and licenses from those relationships.
What the political actors have discovered is that their individual position is stronger without the intermediation of national political parties. Iraq is often portrayed as a nation terminally polarized between Shiites, Sunnis and Kurds, but the political reality is that of massive fragmentation around personalities.
Some 200 parties, some (not all) regrouped in more than two dozen coalitions, will contest the upcoming elections in May. The largest coalitions — including the ruling coalition of PM Abadi — will present a different configuration of alliances than what was the case for the last election, five years ago.
Iraq’s most established party, al-Dawa, a Shiite party founded in the wake of the 1958 revolution, will be split between two coalitions respectively, led by the current and former prime minister, both issued from its ranks.
This situation speaks to highly factional, volatile, personalistic politics, founded on local relationships between patron and clients and with a deficit of national consciousness and loyalty.
Governance is reduced to a quarrel between power brokers to get a larger share of the oil pie — the latest budget was rejected by the (Kurdish) president at the request of factions dissatisfied with their portion of appropriations.
Absent any economic development in the private sector, citizens are trapped in that zero-sum factional game: The best they can hope for is for their patron to secure more state money for their neighborhood or village, which means less funding for other neighborhoods or villages.
Incumbent PM Abadi has endeavored to elevate himself above factionalism, speaking to the unity of Iraq and great national causes like defeating Daesh and thwarting Kurdish plans for independence. His claims ring rather hollow, for the Abadi government has become a de facto Iranian protectorate, and Tehran benefits from a weak, factionalized Iraq.
Tehran supported Abadi’s takeover of Kirkuk from Kurdish peshmergas, but it has its own channels to the KRG (the government of Kurdistan) and will not want the Kurdish province to fall under Baghdad’s control.
Likewise, Daesh’s exactions in Syria and Iraq has given Iran enormous leeway to expand its influence in both countries — for the international community, it was the lesser of two evils.
But a protracted, low-intensity conflict against a scattered jihadist threat better serves Tehran’s interests than a unified Iraq undergoing rapid reconstruction. In fact, international donors have snubbed Baghdad’s request for reconstruction funds.
They seem to have given up on the country, giving it attention only to the extent that it harbors dangerous radicals. The incentives are there for that to go on for a while.
By default, Abadi is poised to stay as head of government after May’s elections, if only because oil prices have recently increased, and his position may benefit most from the windfall. But Iraqi democracy is a petty, miserly game of deals and influence, with declining buy-in from the population.
Ethnic polarization — the fear of another open conflict with other communities — may be the necessary glue that keeps clients loyal to patrons. But in the world of the political elite, it’s everyone for themselves, and some unexpected accommodations are possible.