Political Changes in Iraq


Photo: President of Iraq. Mr Fuad Masum

Since the first Gulf War of 1980-1988, Iraq underwent a difficult transition to democracy which has seen the emergence of civil conflicts and system instability. The second Gulf War in 1991, the international economic sanctions in 1991–2003, and the fall of the Saddam Hussein regime in 2003 did not succeed to resolve the internal problems, but have often exacerbated pre-existing ethnic and religious tensions. This has resulted in an increasing number of casualties, which, since 2003, have amounted to about 123,000 people (World Bank 2014, p. 4). However, the real number of deaths is estimated to be much higher than the one reported by official statistics. Same considerations apply to the number of violent attacks which have dropped significantly since the beginning of the conflict.

In 2014, Iraq had an estimated population of approximately 32 million inhabitants. About 75-80 percent Arabs, and the remaining 15-20 percent of Kurdish Turkoman and Assyrian origins. The Kurdish minority lives for the most part in northeastern Iraq (Kurdistan Regional Government, henceforth KRG). Islam is the official religion and accounts for almost 99 percent of the population. Shia Muslims correspond to 60-65 percent of the total population, while Sunni Muslims to approximately 30-34 percent. The remaining population is made of Christians (about 1 percent), Hindus, Buddhists, Jewish, and people not affiliated to the above mentioned religions (CIA World Factbook 2015).

Electoral engineering (Sartori 1994) has been key for the Iraqi transition to democracy, whose main goal has been to reduce the power of the Shiite-Kurdish majority, expanding the representation of the Sunnis. The intended consequence, most clearly expressed in the Iraq Study Group report of 2006 and in the 18 benchmarks of 2007, was to speeding up the de-baathification process. Simultaneously, it limited the incentives for violence and sectarian conflict (Haggard and Long 2007, p. 2).

In order to bring democracy back to the table after decades of authoritarian subjugation, attempts at creating a more representative territorial structure have been made by national and international authorities. A proportional system of electoral representation was introduced after the fall of the Saddam Hussein’s regime in 2003. As a consequence, since the first elections in 2005, several different lists of independent candidates (almost 36 in the elections of 2014) have emerged. The first free elections have been held in 2005 and have seen the victory of President Jalal Talabani and of Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki (6 April 2005). Both have been re-elected in the polls of 20 May 2006. Mr Talabani, of Kurdish origin, represented, for the first phase of transition, the most prominent figure of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan. Mr al-Maliki represented, instead, the leading figure of the Shia leading coalition ‘State of Law’. In the elections of 2014, Mr al-Maliki was re-elected as Prime Minister but was replaced in 2016 by a Shiite politician Haider al-Abadi[1]. Mr Fuad Masum, also of Kurdish origins, became instead the new President (Al Jazeera 2014; Wikipedia 2015).

In the light of a persistent electoral fragmentation of the political spectrum, Haggard and Long (2007, p. 3) have identified in the ‘engineer’s dilemma’ a critical situation for future stabilization and consolidation attempts in Iraq. The ‘engineer’s dilemma’ refers, in this case, to a situation in which the presumed institutional change aimed at enlarging the representation of the Sunni minority has ended up in an unexpected increase of violence. Among the problems of political inclusion associated with this failure in constitutional and electoral engineering, the authors mention ‘the fragmentation of the combatants, their weak representation in the formal political process, and the presence of extremists and the associated process of outbidding’ (Haggard and Long 2007, p. 3). The fiscal and federal structure, which continues to favor the two major allies (Shia and Kurds), also plays a dominant role in reducing the prospects for peace and stability. Interestingly, always according to the authors (see Haggard and Long 2007, p. 8), these problems of ‘engineering’ have contributed to exacerbate the demands of radical nationalists to re-establish a Sunni hegemony, and increasing the jihadists’ requests for an Islamic ‘caliphate’.

An additional important and often neglected issue of the Iraqis political system concerns the increasing autonomy of the Kurdistan National Assembly, which also thanks to the number of seats (111) and the relative power of the Kurdish minority, makes it de facto an autonomous regional state or, in other words, a ‘state within a state’ (UNPO 2013). This has clear repercussions not only for Iraq’s future national unity and long-term stability, but also for future redistributive attempts. The territorial distribution of natural resources in the contemporary federal structure continues to favor existing winning coalitions, not avoiding the creation of insider-outsider divides. The limits of such a constructed ‘consociational democracy’, aptly highlighted by Lijphardt (1999), have become in this way more apparent (Haggard and Long 2007, p. 12). This can also be seen in the formulation of the new constitution, which, adopted by a referendum on 15 October 2005 (amended in 2013), has established a mixed legal system of civil and Islamic law, still subjected to multiple interpretations[2].



[2] According to the Arab Barometer for Iraq (2012, p.5), about 72 percent of respondents agree that ‘religious practices should be kept as a private matter and separated from public life’, 85 percent that ‘religious leaders should not interfere in voters’ decisions’, whilst only 31 percent that ‘Islamic law was appropriate for their country’.

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