Shortly after Hosni Mubarak of Egypt and Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali of Tunisia were deposed at the start of 2011, large numbers of young Iraqis called for their own demonstrations against Iraq’s corrupt political class. Nouri al-Maliki, who had just started his second term as prime minister despite not having won the March 2010 elections, clearly felt at risk and promised that he would not seek a third term in office. Three years later, shortly before the April 2014 parliamentary elections, Maliki once again appeared uncertain of his own fortunes and declared that he would not insist on a third term. “My mother did not give birth to me to be prime minister,” he declared, in an attempt to appear humble before millions of impoverished Iraqis.
Yet, Maliki went on to outperform all rivals by a significant margin in April’s elections. His State of Law alliance obtained the support of 24 percent of the voting public and 92 seats in parliament; Maliki personally secured 720,000 votes. His closest rival earned about a third that amount. But this electoral victory was achieved before Maliki lost control over around a third of Iraq’s territory to Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, or ISIS, an extremist organization, and before the army that Maliki had been micromanaging for years simply melted away. Although many outside observers have expressed shock at these developments, anyone who has read any serious analysis of Iraq’s current situation, including my book The Struggle for Iraq’s Future, would not have been surprised. Now, with a disaster – to which he has clearly contributed – staring him in the face, Maliki is insisting that he be returned for a third term.
In doing so, Maliki has the support of a significant number of Iraqi and foreign analysts who argue that if Maliki is not returned as prime minister the electoral results will have been “overturned.” There are a number of important problems with this argument.
The first is that the electoral results are not as clear an indication of Maliki’s popularity as some would have us believe. Rather, the results are a clear illustration of how far the benefits of incumbency extend in the Arab region. The benefits are real and are also long lasting: Ayad Allawi and Ibrahim al-Jaafari occupied the prime minister’s position in 2004 and 2005 respectively. Despite their terrible performances in government, they continued to attract hundreds of thousands of votes in successive elections (even 10 years later).
Moreover, being prime minister makes it very easy to toy with electoral results: In April 2014, many observers raised their eyebrows when Maliki counterintuitively won a majority of votes in many areas on Baghdad’s periphery that have suffered the brunt of his military offensives. In addition, creating vast patronage networks is a straightforward exercise in the absence of strong oversight frameworks. When state funds are invested in particular areas, citizens are made to feel that the funds originate from the prime minister personally. Even worse, Maliki’s allies (and his relatives) were caught on camera promising gifts to citizens (including land deeds) in exchange for their support. Finally, Maliki benefited from unprecedented control over state media, which allowed him to frame the national narrative around a strongman image.
The second issue is that Iraq’s system of government is parliamentary and not presidential. Personal popularity of specific politicians is in fact totally irrelevant to the question of who should become prime minister. The only legitimate criterion in parliamentary systems is in fact the ability to obtain parliament’s confidence. In other words, the parliament and the entire political system must have sufficient trust in the prime minister to allow him to negotiate agreements and offer concessions. Without that reservoir of trust, a parliamentary system cannot function.
Based on that criterion (which is the only one that is applicable), Maliki is perhaps the worst candidate possible to occupy the prime minister’s position, precisely because he will not be able to successfully negotiate any further agreements or convince anyone of his good faith. He only has himself to blame: In November 2010, Maliki entered into the Irbil Agreement, which allowed him to start a new term in office in exchange for a number of concessions and reforms, none of which he delivered. His unending series of broken promises have transformed him into the lamest of ducks, unable to convince anyone of his good intentions, even when he genuinely does promise reform. The hostility that he has engendered from those who do not support him will make it impossible for him to lead an effective administration.
Thirdly, it is very common in parliamentary systems around the world for the largest bloc to be excluded from the prime ministry or for it not to be allowed to dominate governments. Comparative data gathered for an upcoming book on government formations by Sona Golder of Pennsylvania State University and Garrett Glasgow of the University of California, Santa Barbara, show that in European parliamentary democracies the largest parliamentary bloc did not receive the prime minister’s position 29 percent of the time between 1945 and 2012.
In Germany, the largest bloc was not in government from 1969 to 1982 and again from 1998 to 2005. In Italy’s 2008 elections, Silvio Berlusconi’s People of Freedom Party obtained 46.8 percent of the popular vote and 344 (out of 630) seats in the lower house of parliament; nevertheless, Berlusconi was deposed as prime minister in 2011 after one of his political allies defected. Although his party was still the largest bloc by a wide margin, Berlusconi did not have enough confidence in parliament. Similarly, in the 2009 Lebanese elections, Saad Hariri’s Future Movement obtained 29 (the largest bloc by far) out of 128 parliamentary seats. Hariri occupied the prime minister’s position for 1 year and 3 months, until one of his allies withdrew its support, and he lost parliament’s confidence. Hence, although still the leader of the largest political bloc in parliament by far, Hariri was forced into opposition for years.
The analogy with Hariri is quite telling because he was forced into opposition for a combination of reasons, including allegations of his general incompetence. Maliki supporters should note that democratic legitimacy does not merely depend on personal popularity (in presidential systems) or on parliamentary support (as in Iraq), but also on the ability to govern in accordance with accepted democratic norms (including ensuring fair treatment for all by the security forces). Maliki has proven himself incapable of doing so, and should step down for that reason, if for no other.
In addition to the electoral, legal and political case set out above, a number of negative arguments to support a third term have also been made. For example, some have argued that Maliki cannot or should not be deposed now because to do so would be to cause for a major change in the state’s functioning during a time of national crisis. In response, I would argue that the spheres of influence that Maliki has created within the security services are clearly incapable of defending the country. Those dynamics cannot be allowed to continue, firstly because they represent a long-term threat to the country’s stability and secondly because of the short-term risk that ISIS has created. In other words, if we stay the course with the current political leadership, we are all going to drown in the process.
Others have argued that the security forces are already too loyal to Maliki and that any attempt to remove him could result in backlash by some officers or units. Once again, that is an argument for immediate removal. If personal loyalty to the prime minister is a genuine concern, then action should be taken immediately or we should just admit that Iraq is not a democracy and surrender our fate to the will of a single individual.
Some argue that, because any future prime minister (at least in the foreseeable future) would have to be Shiite, replacing Maliki would make no difference because Iraq’s Sunnis would continue to reject any Shiite leadership. That argument is in fact oblivious to the current dynamics within provinces like Mosul, Salah al-Din and Anbar. When one actually takes the time to sit with the families that live in these provinces, which very few people care to do, the vast majority of discussions revolve around the years of random arrests and horrific abuses in detention. It is seriously misguided to argue that sectarianism per se is more of an obstacle to reconciliation than years of abuse under Maliki.
Others have made analogies with the removal of Mohamed Morsi by the Egyptian military in July 2013, suggesting that Maliki’s supporters would take to the streets and wreak havoc along the lines of the Muslim Brotherhood if their man does not retain his position. Maliki, however, does not have that type of stature. He is not a religious figure, and although his party is religious is nature, its supporters are attracted to it for the reasons set out above and not because of its spiritual appeal. In fact, when demonstrators took to the streets following the start of the Arab Spring, Maliki promised that his supporters would organize counter-demonstrations, but only a few hundred supporters showed up (Moqtada al-Sadr, one of his principle critics, joked that they were paid for).
The final argument that is made in Maliki’s favor is that there is no one else who could govern the country. There appears to be a growing consensus in Iraq that there are in fact many candidates who could do a far better job than Maliki. The tragedy however is that all the country’s main political forces continue to look from within their own ranks for ideas on who could take over. A new idea must be immediately floated in Iraq and it must break out of the ethno-sectarian paradigm. There is no need to choose ministers from the current crop of corrupt political elites who have been running the country into the ground since 2005.
If parties understand the depth of Iraq’s existential crisis, they should also come to understand that they are all also to blame. What is needed today, aside from dealing with the immediate military threat that ISIS poses, is a leader who can start to clean up Iraqi politics and rebuild understanding and trust between communities. This will require administrators of integrity and a minimum level of competence. They should not be hard to find because over the years Maliki has targeted, demoted or fired any person of integrity who has stood in his way. These are the individuals that we should rely on if we are to turn the corner and repair state and society. Without their involvement, we are likely to continue drowning, even if the threat from ISIS is averted.
Zaid Al-Ali (@zalali) is a lawyer specializing in comparative constitutional law and international commercial arbitration. He is the author of The Struggle for Iraq’s Future: How Corruption, Incompetence and Sectarianism Have Undermined Democracy (Yale University Press, 2014).