Can Iraq’s new PM deliver reforms and fight corruption?

Can Iraq’s new PM deliver reforms and fight corruption?

Three weeks before he was named Iraq’s prime minister-designate, Adel Abdul-Mahdi wrote an editorial in which he argued that the position should not be about the person in the role, but instead should be all about “rules and institutions.” He said that the authority of ministers should be bound by regulations, and demanded a strong judiciary, the establishment of an anti-corruption police force, and auditors to surveil the government. However, judging by the parliamentary blocs that underwrote his selection this week, as well as his past performance, many Iraqis expressed skepticism over how far he can take the fight against corruption.
Abdul-Mahdi was previously vice president. And between 2014 and 2016, he served as oil minister.
Harith Hasan Al-Qarawee, a fellow at the Central European University in Budapest, questioned how the groups that put forth Abdul-Mahdi’s name would allow him to embark on the structural change that Iraq desperately needs. “Abdul-Mahdi’s premiership was the result of a deal that might not last, and that might leave him alone without any bloc behind him in Parliament.” Al-Qarawee went on to say that “without a bloc of his own, how can he sustain his support ... while at the same time embark on reforms by taking on the blocs that support him?”
Further complicating Abdul-Mahdi’s mission, according to the Iraqi scholar, is a “new factor — a restless Iraqi street.” Over the past few months, Basra and many other southern Iraqi cities have witnessed riots that sometimes turned deadly.

Throughout his long career, Adel Abdul-Mahdi has often switched sides with seeming ease. He started out as a Baathist, then became a communist before reinventing himself as an Islamist.

Hussain Abdul-Hussain

The experience of other countries that have witnessed sweeping changes might be instructive. Change usually is the result of a shift in the political culture, reflecting a swing in the popular mood. Had Abdul-Mahdi made it to the premiership at the head of a reform movement, or had he built a parliamentary coalition around his vision of reform, as spelled out in his editorial, change might conceivably be on the cards. But it is unlikely that a prime minister who owes his job to the same groups that have been accused of corrupting the state will be able to fix the country.
Judging by their past experience with Abdul-Mahdi, many Iraqis believe he is not even willing to reform. Social media has been buzzing with speculation. Haidar Hassan Kazem, a soccer player with a considerable following on Twitter, questioned the wisdom behind “rewarding” Abdul-Mahdi. “He served as the minister of finance, the minister of oil and as the vice president,” Kazem tweeted. “What has he achieved in his previous roles? And did he ever succeed in the past for us to reward him and make him prime minister?”
Abdul-Mahdi’s past failure has not been the only concern for Iraqis. Footage widely shared on social media shows him with fighters of the Badr militia, an Iranian-sponsored paramilitary group.
Iraqis are also unsettled by Abdul-Mahdi’s apparent political opportunism. Throughout his long career, the 76-year-old prime minister-designate has often switched sides with seeming ease. He started out as a Baathist, then became a communist before reinventing himself as an Islamist. In 2003, he began to recast himself as a moderate Islamist. He also styled himself as someone who could mediate between Washington and Tehran, a role that many other Iraqi politicians raced to play, hoping that such a triangulation would allow them to win the approval of both America and Iran and make them “consensus candidates” for top government jobs. And of course, consensus candidates, like Abdul-Mahdi, are usually colorless individuals who avoid taking difficult positions on equally difficult issues — which are legion in Iraq. It is not a status that augurs well in a prime minister.
Tired of endemic corruption and the failure of successive governments, Iraqis have little choice but to hope that any kind of change might be for the better, even if it involves the elevation of an establishment politician to the top spot. But with someone who has achieved as little as Abdul-Mahdi in his previous jobs and who owes his premiership to the corrupt politicians he promises to eliminate, it is only normal for Iraqis to express skepticism, if not outright rejection, of Abdul-Mahdi’s accession.

• Hussain Abdul-Hussain is the Washington bureau chief of Kuwaiti daily Al-Rai and a former visiting fellow at Chatham House in London.
Copyright: Syndication Bureau

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