Instability in Iraq shows liberalism’s bumpy road ahead

Instability in Iraq shows liberalism’s bumpy road ahead

Following parliamentary elections in May that were marred by allegations of fraud, Iraq now finds itself in the middle of a constitutional crisis. A month-and-a-half of backstage talks between Sairoon, the alliance loyal to Shiite cleric Muqtada Al-Sadr that secured the larger slice of parliamentary seats, and other main blocks were insufficient to reach an agreement on the formation of a government. The Iraqi Parliament’s mandate has already expired and the recount of the vote, which started on Tuesday, is expected to take at least a few weeks.
Events in Iraq are yet another illustration of the promise and pitfalls of the expansion of liberal norms and institutions in Arab countries. Elections, in particular, have become a critical mechanism to managing political disputes peacefully; a kind of steam valve for many states struggling to find stability or recovering from long years of conflict.
The lack of a democratic culture or tradition, however, on top of a complicated environment often involving the threat of armed clashes, high levels of corruption, and sometimes predatory foreign meddling, means that elected governments are often weak. As a consequence, their governance record is generally poor.
In some instances, elections become a winner-takes-all contest, where the vote is simply a means to an end without a true commitment to liberal principles. Egypt post-2011 — where the undemocratic nature and incompetence of the democratically-elected Muslim Brotherhood government quickly led to a popular backlash and eventually to military rule — is an obvious example. This kind of development is well captured by Jordanian diplomat Marwan Muasher in his book “The Second Arab Awakening and the Battle for Pluralism.”
As various electoral processes in the West that have led to the rise of populists show, democratic systems have inevitable weaknesses. But in most Arab countries today the stakes are higher, as the demographic, economic, environmental and security challenges are much more pressing and there is not enough institutional resilience to withstand periods of political uncertainty.
This often leads to further instability and the always-looming prospect of the forceful take-over of power by yet another strongman or the military, or even the eruption of new civil wars. Iraqis of all generations have seen too much of that, but they could be in for another chapter.

A major concern now is what will happen if the recount shows a different result.

Dr. Manuel Almeida

The way Iraq’s main political factions have let the process of forming a majority government drag on beyond what could reasonably be expected is worrying. It is probably not a coincidence that Daesh has stepped up its attacks over the past few weeks, and among its targets have been ballot warehouses.
Despite the expiration of the current Parliament’s mandate, an Iraqi constitutional expert explained to the Kurdish Rudaw news agency that the government of Prime Minister Haider Abadi still retains full authority until Parliament approves the new Cabinet. But there is strong opposition to this view, including from Al-Sadr.
A major concern now is what will happen if the recount shows a different result. Initial reports note substantial differences between the electronic results and the manual recount, and the first accusations of tampering with ballot boxes are already emerging. In a country where the national army is one among many armed groups, a deadlock of this kind would be deeply problematic.
Other cases where democratic and power-sharing mechanisms have played a simultaneously valuable but problematic role abound. One is Lebanon’s political system, of which Iraq’s is a replica. After one-and-a-half decades of civil war, the Taif Agreement of 1989 set the stage for the end of the conflict and reformed the power-sharing system between Lebanon’s main religious communities. This agreement helped ensure peace, but it also contributed to Lebanon’s political dysfunctionality while failing in one of its main goals of eliminating political confessionalism.
Lebanon’s political system has always been seriously hindered by foreign pressure. The influence of Syria’s Baath regime following the civil war mostly exacerbated divisions between Sunnis and Shiites. Today, Hezbollah’s imposition of its role as a political party and a heavily armed militia above the state calls into question the country’s democratic credentials.
Another case is Tunisia. Since the uprisings of 2011 that led to the downfall of former President Zine El-Abidine Ben Ali, Tunisians have seen no less than seven prime ministers. In the face of major challenges, such as widespread youth unemployment and deep inequalities, the damage of this perennial instability on the confidence of citizens, investors and international creditors is incalculable. It also becomes a major obstacle to government officials’ ability to push forward much-needed programs and reforms.
In May, the prospect of yet another change in leadership looked very real. The Nidaa Tounes party, of current Prime Minister Yousseff Chahed, was calling for a government reshuffle, while its partner in the national unity government, Rached Ghannouchi’s Ennahda, opposed the move on behalf of stability.
Only a few days ago, however, came the kind of news that brings hope about the prospects and impact of liberal norms and institutions in the region: Tunis’ municipal council voted in Souad Abderrahim as the new mayor, making her the first female to be elected mayor of an Arab capital. Ironically, Abderrahim, a pharmaceutical manager who ran as an independent under the list of the mildly Islamist Ennahda, has been criticized for her conservative views on the role of women in society after stating that single mothers should not benefit from social assistance.

  • Dr. Manuel Almeida is a political analyst and consultant focusing on the Middle East. He is the former editor of the English online edition of Asharq Al-Awsat newspaper and holds a Ph.D. in International Relations from the London School of Economics and Political Science.
    Twitter: @_ManuelAlmeida
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