The election results are in, and no one can say that they weren’t surprised. Ayad Allawi’s Iraqiya Alliance, a secular grouping that in the December 2005 parliamentary elections had been relegated to fourth place, has come out on top this time with 91 MPs. Nouri Al-Maliki, the incumbent prime minister and leader of the State of Law Coalition, which had been hoping to dominate the next government by winning as many as 120 seats in the current elections, has had to settle for 89. Both groups are now furiously courting some of the elections’ other winners, in particular the Sadrist movement (39 seats) and the Kurdish Alliance (43 seats) with a view to securing the 163 seats that any alliance would need in order to win a vote of confidence in parliament. Although the effort is only a few days old, it has already given rise to accusations (by the ruling party no less) of electoral fraud, to an effort to disqualify winning candidates because of alleged links to the banned Baath Party, and to the intense involvement of foreign nations (most particularly Iran) in an effort to influence the outcome.
The elections have also revived the spectacle of foreign analysts congratulating themselves at the establishment of what they are now once again claiming is the middle east’s freest democracy. If only they knew how hollow their words ring in Arab ears. Just about anyone who has spent any time in the middle east has seen first-hand that Iraqis continue to flee their country, and that those who have managed to settle abroad have no intention of returning unless forced. The Iraqi dream is not to bask in the light of their new democracy, but to find some way of reaching Australia or Canada, or at least to find a way to remain in Syria, Jordan or Lebanon.
Seven years later
Although the election did manage to attract some interest from the wider Arab population, it has not been discussed in the manner which neo-conservative idealists might have hoped: Arabs are too aware of the never-ending humanitarian crisis in Iraq to see the elections as anything other than a struggle for power between rival camps, both of which have failed to deliver on their promise of a better life for the country’s poor and destitute. The promise of freedom and a better life for Iraqis, by American, British and Iraqi leaders alike, have simply not been met.
“In Iraq, we are helping the long-suffering people of that country to build a decent and democratic society at the center of the Middle East. Together we are transforming a place of torture chambers and mass graves into a nation of laws and free institutions”, so declared President George W. Bush on 7 September 2003, six months into the occupation of Iraq. And yet, on 26 March 2010, the Iraqi Ministry of Human Rights has announced that that it unearthed 84 post-Saddam mass graves in the past year alone. Also, Human Rights Watch stated in a report published just over a year ago that “[a]buse in detention, typically with the aim of extracting confessions, appears common” in the new Iraq. In 2009, the US State Department itself reported that it found “credible reports of torture, some resulting in death” in the Iraqi penal system.
Leaving fundamental rights aside, Iraqis remain beset by a never-ending list of problems that render their lives miserable to say the least. In the same speech, Bush stated that “[w]e will provide funds to help them improve security. And we will help them to restore basic services, such as electricity and water, and to build new schools, roads and medical clinics”. After all the promises that were made, and the billions of dollars that were wasted, Iraqis still only receive four hours of electricity a day, are currently suffering from a housing crisis that is sometimes forcing dozens to live under a single roof, and have some of the highest unemployment rates in the region. With its huge operating costs, and incapacity to expend the little investment money that it has, the Iraqi state has been forced to take out new loans from multilateral organizations to plug a serious budget deficit, reducing even further its ability to meet its citizens’ needs. Meanwhile, the country’s legal framework remains as decrepit as it was back in 2003 – a provision that allows ministers to unilaterally forgive acts of corruption by ministry staff remains firmly on the books, effectively making a mockery of any attempts to fight corruption.
Different leaders, same difference
Given all of the above, the only question that deserves answering is whether any of the winners of the March 2010 elections can resolve these ongoing tragedies in the short or medium term. Both Maliki’s State of Law Coalition and Allawi’s Iraqiya Alliance profess to believe in many of the same fundamental principles – including that sectarianism has no place in Iraq and that Baghdad should maintain some measure of central control outside the Kurdistan region – to the extent that the only distinction between the two Alliances that could make any real difference in the lives of ordinary Iraqis is their respective capacities to govern and to deliver on their promises.
The evidence, either way, does not look promising. To start with, both individuals suffer from an insurmountable handicap: having lived in exile for over twenty years, their understanding of the functioning of the Iraqi state and its multitude of institutions remains weak. At the same time, they both remain detached from Iraqi society and the difficulties that their countrymen have to experience daily (both men’s families have remained safely abroad).
Maliki, who was prime minister for four years, far longer than any of his rivals, led an electoral campaign that was mainly based on the reduction of violence that took place in 2008, which he has taken credit for. But it is widely known that the plan that led to that reduction was not his own, and that he had very little input on its implementation. Basic services have also barely improved during his tenure, with electricity shortages being just about as bad as they have always been, and the state of hospitals so poor that Iraqis still feel compelled to travel to Damascus or Amman for basic medical procedures. Finally, corruption has only worsened during Maliki’s tenure. Any progress that has been made since 2006 has been made despite his administration and not because of it, while his attempts in 2009 to protect the former minister of trade from prosecution have permanently scarred his reputation.
Ayad Allawi, who claims to represent Iraq’s silent majority, the secular middle, is no better. During his short tenure as interim prime minister from 2004 to the beginning of 2005, he presided over a general deterioration in security, including the sieges of both Fallujah and Najaf. The state’s incapacity to deliver on basic services such as electricity continued unabated throughout 2004, and although there haven’t been any meaningful accusations of corruption against him personally, several members of Allawi’s government (including the ministers of defense and electricity) are widely believed to have embezzled billions of dollars.
Allawi has spent the remainder of his time since the start of 2005 in parliamentary opposition, where he has been particularly ineffective. He was the parliament’s worst truant, preferring to engage in photo opportunities with foreign heads of state in western and Arab capitals and leaving his party practically leaderless in the process. His failure to engage in the drafting of the constitution in 2005, leaving the process to be dominated by a group of parties who today represent less than 20 percent of the population and whose views are far outside the Iraqi mainstream on key issues such as federalism, was particularly damaging and illustrative of his disinterest in anything other than the exercise of sheer power. Although the formation of his expanded coalition in late 2009 gave him a new lease in life, the manner in which he shuttled between foreign capitals during the campaign trail and avoided contact with the people that he claims to represent strongly suggests that he remains as aloof and detached as always.
The country’s problems are so significant, and the leaders of its two main political camps so flawed, that it almost makes no difference who becomes the next prime minister of Iraq. Iraqis may very well have to wait for a new generation of home grown public servants, more in tune with local needs and with the mechanisms that are needed to resolve them than the current group of former exiles, to reach maturity.