On 10 June 2010, Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s State of Law bloc and the Iraqi National Alliance (INA) formally announced that they had formed a political coalition. The overwhelmingly Shi’ite coalition is merely four seats short of a parliamentary majority which Iraq’s Kurdish Alliance says it may provide as political partners. Such news has come as little comfort to the Iraqi population which is increasingly frustrated by the governing authorities’ long-standing failure to provide jobs, improve social services and upgrade infrastructure.
It would be wrong to overstate the significance of the announcement by the State of Law bloc and the INA. The two political groups have yet to announce who will become the next prime minister. Al-Maliki and INC leader Ammar al-Hakim first signalled that they would form a coalition in April 2010 but discussions failed to advance partly due to their inability to agree on who would lead the new government. While al-Maliki insists that he will lead the cabinet, members of the INA, particularly the influential cleric Muqtada al-Sadr and his supporters, have championed former Prime Minister Ibrahim al-Jaffari.
That Sadrists and State of Law have shown little inclination to make concessions on the nettlesome issue of leadership. In early-June al-Maliki warned that a failure to renew his mandate as prime minister would trigger a descent into the sectarian violence similar to the one that plagued Iraq in 2006. A prime minister with strong executive powers, he said, was key to effective governance and stability. Yet some members of the INA have suggested that they would accept al-Maliki’s return only if he agrees to divert power away from the prime minister’s office by strengthening that of the cabinet. Al-Maliki for his part has long complained that his post lacks authority and is hobbled by a cabinet which answers to individual parties and not to him.
While politicians in Baghdad continue to haggle for positions of power, the Iraqi public is becoming increasingly frustrated over the lack of basic services and employment. Official figures reveal that unemployment stood at 15.2% in 2008, although unofficial sources say it exceeded 30% that year. Voters went to the polls in March in a political campaign dominated by promises not only of jobs but also housing, electricity and better drinking water – pledges that have yet to materialise. Perceptions that the political elite in Baghdad are there merely for prestige and money has led to increased social resentment. Iraqi newspaper Al-Alam reported in June 2010 that the country’s top politicians made almost 200 times more than the average citizen.
The level of disillusionment with the governing elite was reflected on 20 June, when riot police used water hoses to disperse an angry crowd of protestors demonstrating against electricity blackouts in the southern city of Nasiriyah. Some of the protestors carried rocks and sticks. The protests came merely two days after a demonstration over the lack of electricity turned violent in the southern oil hub of Basra. Two people were killed and another two left wounded after police opened fire.
These events have forced the government to publicly acknowledge the inadequacy of electricity supplies in Iraq. On 21 May, following public calls for his resignation, Electricity Minister Karim Waheed stepped down and admitted that the administration had failed to supply enough power in recent years. This is despite billions in US dollars in American aid.
Political bickering risks further unrest
The risk of further protests erupting derives from the fact that social frustrations have been fuelled by the failure of politicians to form a new coalition government. There is little to guarantee that a cabinet will emerge in the immediate future. Some of the demonstrators in Basra carried chairs which they said represented the ongoing bickering between political factions over government posts in Baghdad.
Public anger over the government’s failure to increase employment and provide or upgrade basic services may jeopardise efforts to bring stability to the country. The heavy-handed approach of the security forces has hardly helped. Civilian deaths resulting from clashes between police and demonstrators will only stoke public resentment against the authorities. Shi'ite Grand Ayatollah Bashir al-Najafi, who supports the right to peaceful demonstration for improved services, says that civilian bloodshed is a "red line" that must not be crossed by the security forces.
High summer temperatures and the lack of quick-fix solutions to electricity shortfalls mean that the risk of further protests and violent clashes remains elevated. Further civilian casualties at the hands of the security forces may also lead a greater number of Iraqis to take to the streets.
It is not inconceivable that a coalition between State of Law and the INA could eventually provide better social services than the incumbent government. This is even with al-Maliki as prime minister. The recent protest in Basra was, after all, organised by followers of Moktada al-Sadr - a man who has sought to straddle the divide between popular sentiments of the street and high politics in Baghdad. Yet, Iraqi politics will continue to be defined by competing interests, which will deter the country from developing as rapidly as its people deserve.