Friday, April 21, 2006

Thoughts on Iraq Politics

Although I probably stated at some point that I would not comment on Iraqi politics, I just wanted to share a few non-controversial thoughts about the government formation process here since it has been in the news so much lately.

In political science (comparative politics specifically), there is a system for elections known as “consociational democracy” in which a party must gain a certain percentage of an ethnic minority or minorities’ votes in order to gain office. An example of this would be in, say, Bosnia, a party would have to get ten percent of all Muslim, Croat, and Serb votes in order to win an election. The idea behind this system is that it prevents a government from being formed along strict ethnic/sectarian lines, and is therefore useful for preventing or healing the wounds of a civil war in a country divided between two or more ethnic groups.

When I first came across the concept of consociational democracy while preparing for my general exams at Harvard, I thought this is one of the reasons they don’t let political scientists actually run governments.

Yet for a country with deep divisions such as Iraq, this scheme actually sort of makes sense. For although the Shi’a represent roughly 60% of Iraq’s population, they can not simply impose a prime minister and government on the Sunni Arab and Kurdish minorities without reaching some sort of compromise. (In fact, the Shi’a “United Iraqi Alliance, or UIA, only has 130 of the 270 seats in the Council of Representatives, so although they have the right under the constitution to select the Prime Minister, they need backing from both the major Kurdish and Sunni parties). Thus, Iraq has by default a consociational system, ensuring (at least in theory) that all ethnic/sectarian groups will have some input into the composition of the new government.

However, the downside of such a system, as made painfully clear over the past three months since the election results were announced, is that it can take a long time for a workable compromise to be reached. So on the one hand, it is remarkable that for the first time in Iraq’s history, its major ethnic/sectarian groups are sitting down and negotiating with so much at stake, instead of massacring entire villages in order to establish might is right. On the other hand, while the politicians dither, unauthorized military formations such as insurgents and religious militias wage a low-level war of attrition in the streets.

For the past two weeks, the problem has largely come down to who the UIA selected to be its nominee for Prime Minister, specifically the sitting PM, Ibrahim al-Ja’afari. I won’t go into detail regarding Ja’afari’s strengths and weaknesses. But although he consistently polls as the most popular individual politician in Iraq, the Sunnis and Kurds have been adamant that they will not accept him. So his nomination was essentially dead upon arrival, and the process of government formation became deadlocked.

This political standstill has been perpetuated by a Catch-22 within the UIA. Ja’afari has refused to withdraw as the PM nominee until voted out by his party, and the Da’wa Party has refused to vote him out unless he withdrew. This is the Iraqi political equivalent of a married couple trying to decide where they want to dine out on Saturday night, only each says they have no preference and that where ever the other wants to eat is fine with them. (Okay, not exactly, but you get my point).

Taking a step back, the larger problem is that the Iraqi representatives who are negotiating for and ratifying a government are not strictly accountable to the Iraqi people. In the fall of 2004, it was decided that the seats in Iraq’s parliament would be distributed according to a system of proportional representation (similar to Europe and Israel) rather than by direct election of representatives (what we do in the US and Britain). The reasoning behind this at the time was that it would be easier to provide security for candidates if they could campaign centrally as part of a list rather than if they had to disperse to the provinces to canvas for votes. Also, at the time, few were willing to settle the difficult questions of land ownership in and around Kirkuk. (If somebody buys me a beer when I return to the States, I can explain how I was on the losing side of the interagency argument against this system).

However, proportional representation encourages the backbenchers in any party list to be more responsive to the party leadership than the popular constituency that voted for them. If not, they will find their name in a lower position on the list for the next elections, or left off the party list altogether in the next election.

Conversely, if the leaders that are taking three months to form a government while sectarian violence gains momentum in the streets of Baghdad had to answer directly to the people now or during the next election, there would likely be a greater sense of urgency to form a government.

So that is why it is taking so long to form a government in Iraq. Again, it is important to emphasize how significant that the Shi’a, Sunni Arab, and Kurdish leaders are talking after Saddam spent the last thirty years setting them against one another. A government will be formed soon, and then the challenges of actually governing will make the formation process look like the easy part.