Tuesday,21 November, 2017
Current issue | Issue 1283, (18 - 24 February 2016)
Tuesday,21 November, 2017
Issue 1283, (18 - 24 February 2016)

Ahram Weekly

The Myth of Iraq's government of technocrats

Far from ending the crisis in the country, a government overhaul could pitch Iraq into another spell of political uncertainty, writes Salah Nasrawi

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Al-Ahram Weekly

Iraq’s Shia Prime Minister Haider Al-Abadi has declared that he wants to replace politically appointed members of his cabinet with technocrats and experts in a bid to push reforms stalled by government inefficiency, corruption and power struggles.

Al-Abadi’s proposal for the reshuffle comes amid continuing uncertainty, which has prompted Shia spiritual leader grand Ayatollah Ali Al-Sistani to go silent in protest over the failures of the Shia-led government in its mismanagement of the country and in dealing with the needs of the Iraqi public.

“I call for fundamental change to the cabinet to make it include professional and technocratic figures and academics,” Al-Abadi said in a televised speech on 9 February.

Al-Abadi declared his “full confidence” that Iraq will be able to “bypass this dilemma.” However, his move to shake up Iraq’s unity government is likely to be a leap into the unknown.

Sectarian and ethnic disputes reverberate throughout Iraq’s dysfunctional political system and a government collapse could increase communal divisions. 

Iraq’s government crisis started a few months after Al-Abadi assumed office in September 2014. A unity government was formed with an agenda of power-sharing by Iraq’s three main communities and reform plans that included fighting corruption and improving public services.

The programme raised cautious optimism that real change was coming after eight years of corrupt, inefficient and heavy-handed rule under previous prime minister Nuri Al-Maliki.

Yet, soon frustration began setting in as Iraqis discovered how powerless and inept Al-Abadi was in delivering on his reform promises.

Thousands of people have been turning out in Baghdad and various cities in the Shia south of the country since last summer to vent their anger at the government over corruption, poor governance and lack of basic services.

Months of demonstrations have failed to bring about significant changes, prompting Al-Sistani to call on Al-Abadi to take “drastic measures” to fix his government.

In response, Al-Abadi scrapped the posts of vice-president and deputy prime minister. He also called for the elimination of “political and sectarian quotas” for senior posts, an increase in oversight to prevent corruption and for services to be improved.

However, the measures fell short of the public’s expectations and were dismissed as aiming at getting rid of Al-Abadi’s troublesome competitors rather than introducing genuine reforms.

In reality, Iraq’s political system is rotten to the core. The real obstacle to reform is not a lack of ideas but a lack of a political will by stakeholders to overturn a system that has served most of them rather well.

Under a formula forged by the Occupation Authority following the US-led invasion in 2003, a power-sharing system based on distributing government posts to sectarian and political blocs was introduced.

In theory, the system was meant to ensure consensus, democracy and partnership between Iraq’s diverse ethnicities and sects, but in practice it has created a political class or oligarchy that has dominated the state and its resources.

Almost all government posts are now occupied by members of the Shia, Sunni and Kurdish ruling parties, many of them having their own militias and controlling economic resources and making it impossible for independent professionals to exercise control over the state apparatus.

As a result, it is expected that Iraq’s political blocs will torpedo Al-Abadi’s new attempt to replace politically appointed ministers with technocrats.

The Shia Iraqi National Alliance (INA), which forms the backbone of Al-Abadi’s government and whose leader Ibrahim Al-Jaafari is one of the ministers whom Al-Abadi reportedly wants to replace as foreign minister, has declined to give public support to the reshuffle plans.

At an emergency leadership summit on Saturday, the Alliance insisted that the present quota-sharing system that distributes seats in the government according to sectarian and ethnic quotas should remain in place.

The Iraqi Supreme Islamic Council (ISIC), one of the main INA factions, categorically rejected Al-Abadi’s proposals, suggesting that the prime minister should also go with the other ministers he wants to fire.

In a statement following an emergency meeting headed by its leader Ammar Al-Hakim on Sunday, the group called on other Shia factions to create “a majority political bloc” to form a new government.

Key Sunni leaders and groups have also voiced scepticism at the proposals. Speaker of parliament Saleem Al-Jubouri said the reforms should not be “whimsical” and consultation should be carried out with the parliament to endorse any reshuffle.

The main Sunni coalition, the Iraqi Union of Forces, said that “no individual should unilaterally make a decision” and “all [political groups] should be partners in carrying out” a government reshuffle.

The Kurdish groups also expressed their reservations.

The main constraint to Al-Abadi’s ambitious plans, therefore, is political. His government was formed according to a political agreement between the blocs, and a reshuffle will raise the key question of how to balance the different factions within Iraq’s volatile political system

In addition, Al-Abadi’s idea of replacing the political appointees in top government positions with technocrats and professionals seems irrelevant, as Iraq’s governance problems lie with its bureaucracy, which has been battered by years of corruption, political and sectarian patronage, mismanagement, scandals and poor leadership.

One of the ways Al-Abadi could make his reforms felt would be by cutting Iraq’s huge civil service down to size and improving its efficiency and not only by changing the portfolios and responsibilities of new cabinet members.

Entire ministries and other government institutions in Iraq are now controlled by political factions and their militias, which makes it impossible for any technocrat to carry out his duties and responsibilities independently.

There are no signs that Al-Abadi has relinquished his plans, and insiders say he has formed a committee to select candidates for jobs in the new government that he will ask the parliament to endorse.

A question remains: if Al-Abadi does not have the political backing to streamline Iraq’s dysfunctional officialdom or create conditions for reform, how can he venture on overhauling a governing system that has been created by an oligarchy and serves the interests of entrenched patronage networks?

One theory swirling around in Baghdad is that Al-Abadi is working closely with the US Obama administration on the rearrangement of the Iraqi leadership in preparation for the post-Islamic State (IS) era.

According to this theory, which could not be confirmed independently, the government reshuffle, which should include some of the top ranks in the political factions, is a precondition set by Washington to continue its support for Iraq in the war against IS.

As it emerged in Iraqi media outlets, Iraq will need a new and competent leadership that can tackle the deficiencies of the governments that have been behind Iraq’s current mess and respond effectively to the challenges ahead.

Some outlets have gone as far as suggesting that an agreement has been reached between Washington and Tehran on the need to have a new Iraqi leadership to replace the country’s political class that is behind the disastrous consequences of state failure.

Whatever the reasoning and the intentions behind Al-Abadi’s call for a government of technocrats to replace his inefficient politically appointed ministers, he faces a mighty challenge.

Inexperienced, unsupported and faced by formidable rivals, Al-Abadi will probably fail. He will also appear increasingly politically naive and weak to his supporters.

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