At last, after months of deadlock following national elections in May, Iraq is on its way to a new government. The president, Barham Saleh, and prime minister, Adil Abdul Mahdi, are both veteran Iraqi politicians known as technocrats and reformers. The international community greeted their ascent with optimism, in the hope that these figures will drag the government out of the corruption, institutional incoherence, and alienation in which it has been mired since 2003.
But the international community has repeatedly invested too much hope in the ability of one or two individuals to change an entire failing system. Today’s narrative conjures up memories of a version from 2006, when Nouri al-Maliki replaced Ibrahim al-Jaafari as prime minister, and 2014, when Haider al-Abadi replaced Maliki. Both leaders subsequently failed to tackle the vested interests and structural constraints that hinder reform.
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Even the most well-intentioned reformers in Iraq are hamstrung by the muhasasa taifa, a system of sectarian apportionment that has informally structured government formation since 2005. This system was set up to give representatives of the different communities in Iraq—Sunni, Shiite, and Kurd—a stake in government and hence a commitment to peace. However, the system circumvents the constitution and marginalizes the role of parliament by empowering party bosses to allocate the three top positions and the majority of cabinet posts based on sectarian and ethnic identity. This covert backroom apportionment, fuelled by unrestrained corruption and carried out in the name of ethnosectarian balancing, has delegitimized the post-2003 governance of Iraq and alienated the vast majority of the population from the ruling elite.
The way Saleh (elected by parliament) and Abdul Mahdi (designated by Saleh) gained power this fall strongly suggests that their appointments were the result of muhasasa dealings rather than the functioning of parliamentary democracy. If this turns out to be true, any efforts they make to reform Iraq’s corrupt government will be hampered by the debts they owe to the powers that put them in place.