Elections won’t heal Iraq’s scarred democracy, whatever the results

A thriving democracy? EPA/Alaa Al-Shemaree

On May 10, less than a fortnight after Iraqis voted in their third national election since the downfall of Saddam Hussein, a series of bombings killed 14 people in a single day – an everyday occurrence in Iraq since the US-led invasion.

Iraq has had a democratically elected government since 2003, but three years on from the departure of US forces, the question still remains whether the deeply divided state will survive. And whatever the ultimate result of the April 30 polls, they will do little to change the outlook for a country that remains chaotic and violent.

All the indications are that incumbent Nuri al-Maliki’s party, the State of Law, will have the biggest number of seats. The other Shiite Coalitions, the Islamic Supreme Council and al-Ahrar, will come second and third – although the Kurdish parties could also come third if united.

But the problem is that all the winning Shiite lists are under strong Iranian influence. It is clear that the Iranian government always favoured al-Maliki, while his former Shiite allies have hitherto opposed a third term for him. But they may yet change their mind under Iranian pressure and join a new government under the al-Daawa party, as happened in 2010.

On the other hand, they may insist that another leading member from al-Daawa should be nominated for the premiership. Another almost certain possibility is the formation of the new government will take longer than some are expecting.

Putting aside the false premises used to invade and occupy Iraq in 2003, recall that George W Bush and Tony Blair vowed to establish a new Iraq built on democracy, prosperity and respect for human rights. Eleven years after the tragic mistake of the invasion, Iraq is still beset by chaos, political instability, acute sectarian division, persistent terrorist attacks, unprecedented corruption, lack of essential services and appalling human rights conditions.

The human rights situation during Saddam Hussein’s dictatorship was of course unspeakable, but the country was free from terrorist organisations and internal stability was essentially maintained. After 2003, Iraqis’ hopes of replacing the old dictatorial regime with a truly democratic one were dashed by the occupying forces’ mistakes.

Rotten foundations

Perhaps their most heinous error was appointing US citizens and Iraqi expatriates with scant knowledge of Iraq to administrate and rule the country. Rather than treating the Iraqi state and its citizens as a nation of people, they saw it as a motley collection of Shiites, Sunnis, Arabs, Kurds, Turkomans, Assyrians and other smaller minorities.

More harmful still was the leniency with which the occupying forces met the surge of Iranian and terrorist elements into the country. Initially, the coalition did not react firmly to the chaos, looting and killings that took place after April 2003, simply because they were directed at Iraqis and Iraqi public places. And when this chaotic situation started to affect the occupying forces, they reacted by planning an early exit strategy.

This was the main reason the US administration pushed hard for the drafting and approval of a permanent constitution in a very short time, to be followed by a general election: suddenly, they could say they’d established a democracy, and their departure seemed less like giving up on a disaster of their own making.

Since the establishment of modern Iraq in 1921, the Iraqis had never been governed on a purely sectarian basis. The first King they chose, Faisal I, was a Sunni from the Arab Peninsula. All the parties established after that were composed of Arabs, Kurds, Turkomans, Assyrians and other minorities. So were the popular secret parties, such as the Iraqi Communist Party, the National Democratic Party, the Istiqlal Party and the Arab Socialist Ba'ath Party.

The leaders and members of these parties were Sunnis, Shiites, Kurds, Christians and even Jews before 1948. When the Muslim Brotherhood (Sunni) and al-Daawa (Shiite) parties were established in the 1950s, they never attracted any sizeable support.

New order

This mood changed dramatically after 2003. Shiite parties and personalities, until then living in Iran and elsewhere, returned victoriously to Iraq – some of them armed, trained and equipped by the Iranian regime. What is more, the US occupying forces favoured the Shiites and the Kurdish parties, claiming they were discriminated against by the Sunni-dominated Ba'ath Party.

When the new Iraqi Governing Council was formed in 2003 by the first US civil governor of Iraq, it was formed on a quota basis. Those who were appointed to it were chosen according to their sect, religion or nationality, not by merit. Even the Secretary General of the Iraqi Communist Party was identified as a Shiite rather than the leader of a cosmopolitan party. The Ba'ath party was banned, and its members were harassed and hunted – despite the fact that the vast majority of its followers were Shiites.

Iraq’s first three elections, in 2005, 2010 and 2014, were dominated by sectarian, religious, conservative and ethnic parties. The result was a government of Shiite-Kurdish coalitions, with a small Sunni presence. As I have written elsewhere, although the conduct of all the governments that emerged after each election was deplorable, it was the constitution and the influence of religious institutions that most hampered the democratic process.

Because it was always dominated by parties supporting the prime minister on a sectarian basis, parliament utterly failed to monitor the conduct of the government. The Kurdish parties did not bother about what was happening in Iraq as long as they had a free hand in their region, while the Sunni representatives in parliament were mainly interested in securing their own interests by propitiating the prime minister and his party. The result was vestigial (and sometimes non-existent) public services, unprecedented corruption, and rampant instability.

No matter what comes of the election, Iraq’s 11-year-old democracy, established on a misguided sectarian basis, is incapable of improving life for the country’s citizens. It will be a long time till Iraqis can distract themselves from sectarian and racial influences, amend their divisive constitution, and abandon sectarian and racial attitudes.

Until that happens, their struggling state will continue to go from failure to failure, their huge oil fortune will continue to be squandered and robbed, daily services will not improve, and instability will prevail.

More dangerously still, the spectre of civil war and full-blown collapse will continue to haunt Iraq.