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Premature excitement about Iraq's new government reforms

- August 14, 2015

Demonstrators chant in support of Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi during a demonstration at Tahrir Square on Sunday in Baghdad. (Khalid Mohammed/AP)
Following more than a decade of decrepit government performance and spurred by popular protests in many parts of the country, Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi proposed a reform plan on Aug. 8, which was then expanded and approved unanimously by parliament on Aug. 11.
The plan was met with widespread approval within Iraq and abroad: Protesters carried signs saying that they were “delegating” the prime minister to reform the government; the Shiite religious establishment in Najaf offered its full support; Iraqi and international commentators were also quick to praise the plan.
However, having reviewed it in detail and having followed developments in Iraq’s governance structure for the past 10  years, I felt deeply depressed after reading Abadi’s plan. Had I been given an opportunity to do so, I would have voted against it.
Those who have offered their support ignore a number of key aspects of the plan, including the historical context. The fact is that, in 2006, 2010 and 2014, after each of Iraq’s three post-constitution governments were formed, “programs” were drafted and approved by parliament, each of which look almost exactly like Abadi’s reform program. They all promised to “revitalize the anti-corruption agencies,” broaden Iraq’s tax base and improve services. And, just like Abadi’s plan, they were totally silent on how these objectives would be achieved. What’s more, following Iraq’s previous round of national protests in 2011 after the outbreak of the Arab spring, then-Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki canceled all ministries of state, stated he would establish new anti-corruption measures and that ministries should merge to streamline the state bureaucracy.
If most of Abadi’s plan sounds familiar to longtime Iraq watchers, it is because it has indeed almost all been said before.
Some enthusiasts have argued that, this time, the pressure to reform from the street and from the religious establishment will be too great to ignore, but those exact sentiments were expressed following the 2009 and 2010 elections and the 2011 protests. As of yet, Abadi’s supporters have been unable to articulate exactly why government will have to get its act together this time, most probably because we have in fact not reached the critical point of no return just yet.
The political context is also hard to ignore. Abadi’s plan was conceived in the midst of an ongoing power struggle among Shiite political circles. It is no secret that Vice President al-Maliki has been vying to undermine his former colleague since he was ousted from the prime minister’s position last year. What is less well known is that he and several other political forces (all of which are closely aligned to Iran) have been mounting a serious challenge to Abadi’s authority over the past few weeks. In that context, the key proposal to dissolve the vice-presidents’ positions is not so much an attempt to cut down on government bureaucracy, as it is to weaken a political rival.
And while few will dispute that al-Maliki should be sidelined, it is worth noting that al-Abadi’s own record is not particularly inspiring either. During al-Maliki’s entire tenure as prime minister, al-Abadi never appeared to differ from his party colleague on any important policy matter. He also does not have any major accomplishments to his name from his own eight-year tenure in parliament.
Finally, his performance as prime minister over the past year has not been particularly impressive. Those who followed Abadi’s parliamentary career clearly prefer him to al-Maliki, but they are equally reluctant to celebrate Abadi as the hero of modern Iraq (just yet).
In addition, the constitutional context in which the reform plan was written is not particularly reassuring. Although Abadi claims to want to reform the constitution, that text makes it clear that the only way in which it can be amended is through a referendum, which would take years to organize in the current security climate. This means that any major reforms passed in the current context will either have conform with Iraq’s current decrepit constitution, or they will necessarily open the door to an even more lawless environment than the one we are living in now, in which any sitting prime minister can change the constitution at will. And that is why the proposal to cancel the vice president’s position is so problematic: Contrary to what some commentators have written, several constitutional provisions actually require for there to be a vice-president.
Furthermore, Iraqi law actually provides that it is the president’s prerogative to nominate his or her vice-president; the prime minister should not have any authority on the matter. The plan will be challenged legally and politically and has put the entire constitutional system of government in doubt, all for changes that will not make much difference in practice.
Finally, the issue that Abadi’s supporters appear to ignore the most is the plan’s actual content. Its proposals are minor, hopelessly vague, dangerous in their tendency to concentrate power in the PM’s hands or impossible to implement.
Most commentary on its substantive provisions focuses on the elimination of certain offices, including the vice president and the deputy prime minister positions and the revoking of their security detail among other privileges. While these are all welcome measures, on their own, they will not make an important difference. Compared to the amount of money that has been stolen from the state since 2003, the funds that will be saved through these measures is actually very low. They will also not make the state more effective, given that those offices had little impact on the state to begin with. The suggestion by some international observers that this measure risks alienating Sunnis by depriving their leaders from senior positions is completely misplaced given how unpopular and irrelevant these leaders have become in recent years.
The plan also calls to eliminate the system through which government portfolios are distributed on a sectarian basis in favor of a more meritocratic system. It would be generous to describe this proposed measure as part of a “plan” given that it does not include any detail whatsoever on how this particular objective will be met. The political parties that populate parliament and control government (including and perhaps even especially Abadi’s own Dawa party) have treated ministries like private treasure-troves that they can plunder at will since 2003. That is a privilege that they will be unwilling to surrender without a fight.
Parliament may have voted in favor of the general principle, but the real challenge will be to develop a plan that eases the parties out of all levels of the state’s bureaucracy, ends partisan abuse of government offices and ensures that parliament will accept a plan that will deprive them of their cash cow. Until such a plan is developed, there is nothing to discuss; this proposal has been on the table with the same lack of detail for years now.
Just as unrealistic is the plan’s time frame, which requires for a huge number of senior officials to be confirmed by parliament in the next few weeks. If actually carried through, there is no way that more than a small number of these individuals will be properly vetted before parliament makes its decision, opening the doors wide for yet more political appointments and abuse.
Even more worrying is the way in which the plan concentrates power in Abadi’s hands. The plan grants the prime minister the authority to dismiss governors and even directly elected local officials, in case of “poor performance, violating the law or corruption.”
There are so many problems with this provision that they are difficult to count.
First, there is no reason to believe that the prime minister will be a good judge of who needs to be dismissed, particularly given how loyal he has been to his own political party over the years. Will the prime minister be just as willing to dismiss a political ally as he is an official from a rival party? If so, that will probably be a first in world politics.
Second, the measure goes completely against the constitution’s decentralizing features and the increasing tendency among many of Iraq’s provinces toward greater autonomy, instead concentrating power not just in Baghdad but directly in the prime minister’s hands. In that respect, Abadi’s plan has taken its cues from a long and disastrous Iraqi tradition of centralism and clearly illustrates his incapacity to seek modern solutions to Iraq’s long-standing problems.
The third reason why this particular measure is so worrying is its overt contempt for institutional safeguards. In any constitutional system, the courts are supposed to judge whether officials should be sanctioned for acts of corruption. Systems of government cannot function properly without oversight from an independent judiciary, and this plan has usurped that authority by granting Abadi the authority to judge members of the political class.
As a result, Abadi’s plan is actually a lucid illustration of how little Iraq’s political elites understand about governance. Iraq’s court system is known to be rife with corruption. Report after report has detailed how executive abuses have been totally ignored by judges since 2003. There is a desperate need to reform the judiciary, in order to provide an independent and credible check against executive abuses, and yet the only mention of the issue in Abadi’s proposal is a requirement that the judiciary submit a reform plan of its own. This is not only an admission that the government does not have an opinion of its own on this issue, despite the fact that it has been pressing for years; but it is also a serious error of judgment to consult a judiciary that is corrupt to the bone on the matter of its own reform.
Worse still, the plan calls for the courts and anti-corruption agencies to be “activated” and corruption cases sent to them “immediately.” Rather than establish institutional mechanisms that will ensure that no act of corruption, when discovered, will go unpunished, the plan relies on the prime minister’s discretion to allow for outstanding cases to move forward, which will always be politicized. In so doing, Abadi has failed in exactly the same way that his three predecessors (Allawi, Jafari and Maliki) did and which I document in detail in my book, “The Struggle for Iraq’s Future.”
One analyst commented that were the plan to be successful, Abadi could become the “Mandela of Iraq.” However, one of the South African transition’s most important legacies was the establishment of an independent and progressive constitutional court and strengthened rule of law. Abadi, and anyone who is interested in genuinely improving Iraqi governance should pay close attention to that lesson. Abadi’s failure to take this issue seriously is evidence of the poverty of ideas and the absence of capacity at the highest levels of Iraq’s government.
Even if Abadi manages to satisfy the narrow political objective of sidelining his political rivals, governance in Iraq is extremely unlikely to improve without significantly more effort than has been offered thus far.
A few sacrificial lambs may be cast out of the political system to appease protesters, until the weather improves and demand for electricity declines, in the hope that the numbers of demonstrators will also recede. However, unless the current plan is seriously reconsidered, the political parties will be impossible to uproot from government departments given the absence of an effective police force and an independent court system. Policy formation and implementation will remain as weak as it is today, and the country will continue to drift into an economic morass from which it may not recover.
Barring a surge in oil prices and/or production sometime over the next two years, Iraq is heading for a crisis that will lead to even worse services and even more popular anger at the political elite. The outcome of ever increasing popular anger without any genuine hope of improvement is likely to be very painful.
Some more cautious analysts have described Abadi’s plan as a “step in the right direction.” In fact, on its own, the plan does almost nothing and has all been said before. If Abadi really wants to impress and offer some genuine hope for our country, he has a lot more work to do.
Zaid Al-Ali is a lawyer specializing in comparative constitutional law and was a legal adviser to the United Nations in Iraq from 2005 to 2010. He is the author of “The Struggle for Iraq’s future: How Corruption, Incompetence and Sectarianism Have Undermined Democracy.” (Yale University Press, 2014)