Iraq’s new government must deliver results quickly, or fall
A year-long political deadlock following Iraq’s 2021 elections finally broke with the formation of a new government on 27 October. The country’s main political blocs hashed out an agreement to form yet another ruling coalition based on ethnosectarian power sharing—the business-as-usual approach that has weakened a succession of recent governments.
Incoming Prime minister Mohammed Shia al-Sudani has vowed to reform the economy and fight corruption. Both of these are urgently needed, but the Iraqi population is growing increasingly impatient with governments that promise big and make little progress. Al-Sudani’s administration must break the pattern, and fast, if it hopes to survive.
Paralysis and breakthrough
Under the power-sharing system adopted after the 2003 US-led invasion of Iraq, government posts and departments have been shared out among the various ethnic and religious groups. Often a long and fraught process, vying for power and potentially lucrative posts tends to come at the expense of policy considerations and development priorities of a young and steadily growing population.
''Many pressing governance issues are not being addressed. Successive short-lived governments have developed plans and strategies to address Iraq’s problems but have signally failed to deliver. Many Iraqis believe this political system enables corruption. They also believe it absolves the political parties from accountability, as nobody has to take full responsibility for the success or failure of the government.''
Populist leader Muqtada al-Sadr’s Sadrist party won the most seats in the October 2021 elections, which followed the collapse of the previous coalition government amid a wave of popular protest. However, al-Sadr was unable to form a majority government, and negotiations dragged on for months—the longest gap between the elections and government formation since Iraq’s new constitution in 2005.
Over the summer of 2022, Iraq came to the brink of civil war. Political tensions boiled over when peaceful demonstrations outside the parliament turned violent, with at least 30 people killed. The violence only ended when al-Sadr ordered his followers to lay down their arms and go home. Al-Sudani was then able to pull together a majority coalition, albeit without Sadrist participation.
The task ahead
Iraq’s challenges are daunting. It is struggling to recover from decades of conflict. Its fragile economy is susceptible to oil price shocks and the impacts of climate change, both of which aggravate existing inequalities and grievances. The private sector is in the doldrums, and unemployment is widespread. Poor basic services such as water supply, electricity and health, have made living conditions unbearable in a summer of scorching temperatures, sandstorms and record drought.
Confidence in the Iraqi political system’s ability to meet these challenges is low. The 2005 constitution aimed to heal divisions by means of more consensual government between the country’s main ethnosectarian groups: Shia, Sunni and Kurds. An unintended consequence has been that elections do not really disrupt political patronage—as virtually all parties are included in every governing coalition, the distribution of power remains largely unchanged.
Many pressing governance issues are not being addressed. Successive short-lived governments have developed plans and strategies to address Iraq’s problems but have signally failed to deliver. Many Iraqis believe this political system enables corruption. They also believe it absolves the political parties from accountability, as nobody has to take full responsibility for the success or failure of the government.
Focus on delivery, not grand new plans
One of the major impediments to progress in the past has been a lack of continuity in reform programmes from one government to another. The new government needs to focus on implementation. Rather than reinvent the wheel it should align its plans and strategies with those already developed by its predecessors.
In the area of economic reform, ambitious plans were outlined in a white paper published by the previous government. These already helped Iraq to weather the Covid-19 crisis and volatile oil prices, and they have the backing of the Iraq Economic Contact Group, launched in 2020 by the European Union, G7 and World Bank.
Among other things, the new government’s economic reforms must prioritise creating jobs for Iraq’s young people. Youth unemployment is soaring, at an estimated 35.8%. Even the highly educated are unable to find quality jobs, in either the public or the private sector.
Another top priority is rooting out corruption and rebuilding public trust in the authorities. This was a key manifesto pledge of every recent government, but little has changed. Once again, solid groundwork has been done. Last year, Iraq launched a national integrity and anti-corruption strategy for 2021–2024. The previous government also signed up to an EU-supported transparency and accountability initiative.
Finally, key government departments and services need to be insulated from politics by placing them under independent technocratic state entities. This would help them to hire and retain competent management, maintain continuity and implement long-needed restructuring programmes. Delivering basic services is central to meeting citizens’ expectations of the state and to the emerging of a more balanced and durable social contract.
Al-Sudani’s government needs to hit the ground running. The previous government fell amid a wave of protests that racked the country from late 2019. A year of paralysis has only deepened Iraq’s problems, and its people’s disenchantment with politics. The new government has a narrow window to show commitment—and results. This is not the time for grand new plans.
Shivan Fazil is a Researcher with the Middle East and North Africa Programme at the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI). Prior to joining SIPRI, he worked as project specialist with the United States Institute of Peace, senior policy officer with Oxfam GB, and director of communications and research assistant at the Middle East Research Institute. He is a co-author of the SIPRI policy report Reform within the System: Governance in Iraq and Lebanon.
Follow him on Twitter: @ShivanFazil
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Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.