Changing the rules of the game: Reforming the party system in Iraq

The roots of the current political system: A historical view

Speaking on the eve of U.S. forces’ entry into Iraq in March 2003, then-U.S. President George W. Bush said that one of the reasons for the war was to “liberate” Iraq’s people and to help them achieve a “united, stable, and free country.” (1) Many hoped Iraq would become a promising democracy that would serve as an example for the region, although for a variety of reasons that did not come to pass. Building a democracy requires parties that believe in democracy and are capable of establishing institutions that foster and sustain it, while in Iraq the reality was closer to trying to establish a democracy without democrats. (2)

Yet less than two decades later, Iraq’s political arena is now crowded with large numbers of parties and formations. In its latest report the Independent High Electoral Commission said there are 267 parties officially registered and another 49 in the process of completing their registration. (3) Nonetheless, the number of significant, active parties does not exceed more than a dozen or two at most.

In December 2002, months before the regime change, the Iraqi opposition organized a conference in London. It included about 320 opposition figures representing more than 20 opposition parties as well as independent activists. (4) The conference was boycotted by a few key opposition parties, such as the Islamic Dawa Party, the Communist Party, the Syrian wing of the Ba’ath Party, and other small Islamic and nationalist parties. In addition to the Ba’ath Party, which monopolized power in Iraq from the 1968 coup until 2003, there were a few parties representing various strains of opposition to the dictatorial regime, among the most prominent of which were the Dawa Party (a Shiite Islamic party established in Iraq at the end of the 1950s); the Iraqi Communist Party (founded in 1934); the main two Kurdish parties, the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP, established in 1946) and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK, established in 1975); the Iraqi Islamic Party (the Iraqi branch of the Muslim Brotherhood movement founded in 1960); and the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI, established in Tehran in 1982). Originally established as an umbrella organization for mainly Islamic Shiite parties, SCIRI soon turned into a competitor to the parties from which it was founded (including, primarily, the Dawa Party as well as smaller parties like the Organization of Islamic Action, the Mujahideen Movement, the Kurdish Islamic Movement, Jund al-Imam, and other Islamic parties), and after years became one of the largest and most important of them.

After a short period of regime change in Baghdad in 2003, dozens of organizations, political parties, newspapers, and media channels began to appear, making the Iraqi political space extremely crowded. Many new parties were established in parallel to the former Iraqi opposition parties, some of which were nothing more than branches or splinter factions of the old ones. The other, larger group were new organizations and parties whose leaders were not in exile during the previous regime. Among the most important of these was the Sadrist Movement, from which several political and military organizations splintered off, such as Asa’ib Ahl al-Haq, al-Nujaba movement, and others. Many new Kurdish, Turkmen, and Arab parties also emerged, including ones labeled as liberal, democratic, and nationalist. Other parties focused on ethnic, religious, or local issues.

While the main goal of most of the older opposition parties was to overthrow the previous regime, what they sought to replace it with differed according to their ideology. The Shiite Islamic parties aspired to an Islamic state similar to, or slightly different from, the Islamic regime in Iran (5). As for the Sunni parties, the literature of the Muslim Brotherhood (an Islamic group founded in Egypt in 1928) (6) and Hizb ut-Tahrir (an Islamic political party established in Jerusalem in 1953 that does not recognize national borders) called for the restoration of the Islamic caliphate (7). While the Iraqi Communist Party was calling for a state that would achieve socialism and establish a communist society, the Arab nationalist parties in Iraq (including the National Social Democratic Movement, the Arab Nationalist Movement, the Socialist Movement, and the National Nasserist Party) did not stray far from the slogans of the Ba’ath Party to unite all Arab countries. As for the Kurdish nationalist parties (such as KDP, PUK, and Gorran), although they spoke of autonomy within an Iraqi federal framework, at the end of the day they aspired to independence and the establishment of a separate Kurdish state.

Despite the major differences in the political systems these parties aimed to establish, they almost unanimously agreed that the system of government should be “republican, representative (parliamentary), democratic,” as in Article (1) of the constitution, which was written by the representatives of these parties and then approved in a public referendum in December 2005. The constitution’s second article prohibits the enactment of any law that conflicts with the principles of democracy. It also called for, in the preamble, “strengthening national unity, adopting the path of peaceful transfer of power, adopting the method of equitable distribution of wealth, and granting equal opportunities for all.” This was confirmed by all the parties that participated in the political process through their electoral or governmental programs. These broader common goals are not much different from the stated goals as a reason for changing the previous regime and establishing a new political system.

How did the parties manage the major transformations?

The performance of Iraqi political parties over the past two decades can be assessed in how they manage three major transformations. The first is the transition from an authoritarian political system to a democratic and pluralistic one through cooperation between the parties to form stable electoral, parliamentary, and political alliances that led to the formation of effective governments. The second is through the participation of these parties in managing the transformation of the state from a central to a federal system, supporting successful government programs in terms of providing security and basic services, and the smooth transition from a directed economy to a free market one. The third is related to the ability of parties to manage the social transformation from an oppressed society to a free, productive, and reconciled one, capable of including the youth as an important part of society within their activities and organizations. Despite the great challenges faced by the various governments since 2003, the parties that participated in the political process (to varying degrees) were unable to succeed in managing these three transformations.

To understand and evaluate the performance of Iraqi political parties in managing these three types of transitions, we need to answer the following five questions:

  1. How were the seven governments formed?

Although the constitution indicates in Article 76 that the president should assign the candidate of the largest parliamentary bloc to form a cabinet, a simple review of the seven governments formed in Iraq since 2003 makes it clear that in reality they have not been formed smoothly and directly on the basis of the election results.

The interim government was formed under the leadership of Iyad Allawi in June 2004 after he was chosen by the Iraqi Governing Council with the approval of the U.S. governor L. Paul Bremer and the U.N. envoy Lakhdar Brahimi, who consulted with the Shiite authority in Najaf and other political actors. In May 2005, Ibrahim al-Jaafari was chosen as the head of the transitional government after a vote of 128 of the 140 members of the United Iraqi Alliance list. Nouri al-Maliki was chosen to be prime minister in May 2006 following American pressure and the decision by Kurdish, Sunni, and some Shiite parties to reject the nomination of al-Jaafari. Al-Maliki was chosen again for prime minister after the 2010 elections, even though his coalition (State of Law), which won 89 seats, came in second behind the Iraqi List coalition headed by former Prime Minister Allawi (91 seats). The Federal Court interpreted the meaning of the largest parliamentary bloc such that it allowed for the merger of winning blocs after the election. In September 2014, Haider al-Abadi was chosen to lead the government after the religious authority in Najaf, political forces, and external parties rejected al-Maliki’s candidacy for the post even though his bloc won first place in the April elections. In September 2018 Adel Abdul-Mahdi was chosen to form the government following a political agreement between the two leading blocs (Sairoon, with 54 seats, and Fatah, with 47 seats). When Abdul-Mahdi’s government resigned following the escalation of popular protests at the end of 2019, the political process re-entered the chaos of choices, with conflict and controversy over constitutional interpretations related to the nomination of the prime minister. Mohammed Allawi was nominated by the president in February 2020 to form a government and apologized for failing to do so weeks later. Then, Adnan al-Zurfi was nominated on March 16, 2020, after the president sent a message to the political blocs that failed to agree on a candidate by the constitutional deadline. Al-Zurfi had no more luck than his predecessor and also made his apologies in April 2020. Eventually, amid considerable political pressure, Mustafa al-Kadimi was chosen on May 7, 2020 to be Iraq’s seventh post-2003 prime minister.

By reviewing how Iraqi governments were formed in the post-2003 era, it is clear that it was not, in line with the constitution, a direct and smooth outcome of electoral results. Rather, it was the result of a consensus between influential (but unelected) political and religious leaders, in addition to key external actors (especially the two with sway over internal Iraqi politics: the U.S. and Iran). Although the constitution indicates that “the peaceful transfer of power would take place through democratic means” (Article 6), most of the governments formed post-2003 have been marred by constitutional problems. This is not surprising given that Iraq has gone through a difficult transitional period during which the security and political situation has not stabilized much. But the continuing uncertainty and the lack of clarity in the formation of governments and choice of their heads will not help the stability of the political system.

  1. Were the governments stable? Did party alliances remain solid? Did the alliances that formed the government stand with it or try to topple it?

Most of the five governments that assumed power after the adoption of the constitution in 2005 experienced instability that reflected the weakness of the alliances they formed in the House of Representatives. In April 2007, six ministers affiliated with the Sadrist movement resigned from al-Maliki’s first government, reflecting the divisions within the United Iraqi Alliance that formed the government. In August 2007, the Iraqiya List announced the withdrawal of its five ministers from the al-Maliki government, after the withdrawal of the ministers of the Tawafuq bloc (five ministerial portfolios) and the Sadrist bloc (six seats). (8)

In addition, several ministers withdrew unilaterally for various reasons. The minister of state for women’s affairs withdrew in February 2009 in protest at the lack of funding and powers. The minister of commerce was forced to resign in May 2009 after being questioned in parliament on suspicions of corruption. The minister of electricity resigned in June 2010 after protests over the deterioration of the electricity supply in Basra. The minister of communications resigned in al-Maliki’s second government in August 2012 to protest interference with his powers. The resignation of the minister of finance in March 2013 came during a flurry of protests in Ramadi and other cities in western Iraq, followed by the resignations of the ministers of industry, agriculture, and education that April. Around the same time the foreign and trade ministers (both from the Kurdish bloc) were also granted compulsory leave due to their absence from government sessions and their ministries.

In al-Abadi’s government, the ministers of finance and defense were sacked after being questioned by the House of Representatives in 2016. The ministers of oil, higher education, and the interior were also sacked, while those of transport, reconstruction, housing, and financial resources were dismissed. A group of ministers was sacked in 2016 after merging or canceling their ministries (women’s rights, tourism and antiquities, environment, municipalities, human rights, state affairs for the provinces) and the three deputy prime ministers were dismissed after their posts were canceled. A deputy prime minister submitted his resignation after a judicial investigation was opened into allegations of corruption attributed to him in August 2015. Al-Abadi also withdrew the hand of the minister of electricity before the end of his government in 2018 over an investigation into potential corruption. A few days after gaining the confidence of the House of Representatives, the minister of education resigned in Abdul-Mahdi’s government at the end of December 2018, on charges linking one of her family members to ISIS. In September 2019, the minister of health in the same government resigned due to political pressure and blackmail. Finally, the minister of health in al-Kadhimi’s government resigned in May 2021, after a hospital fire accident killed dozens of victims. There is a list for questioning a group of ministers and possibly pursuing their dismissal currently awaiting procedures in the House of Representatives, although the presumed life of the current government is not long after setting a date for the elections in October 2021. Although most of the individual resignations did not seriously affect the stability of governments, one can refer to a group of serious attempts to topple governments, including:

The five leaders’ meeting, held in Erbil in May 2012, which included the leader of the Sadrist movement Muqtada al-Sadr, President Jalal Talabani, Speaker of Parliament Osama al-Nujaifi, and head of the Iraqi List Iyad Allawi, in addition to Kurdistan Regional Government head Masoud Barzani. The meeting concluded by sending a message to the National Alliance (which formed the government) with a clear threat to topple al-Maliki’s second government. Then, the Sadrist ministers boycotted their participation in the government.
The parliamentary sit-in that took place in April 2016, which included about 170 MPs, calling for the resignation of the three presidencies, can be considered a serious threat to al-Abadi's government and a reflection of political chaos that the parliamentary and party alliances could not control. It set a precedent for cooperation between MPs from various blocs, apart from the declared orientations of their leaders.
About a year after the formation of Abdul-Mahdi’s government, the coalition that formed it disintegrated, following the popular protests that erupted in October 2019. These left hundreds of dead and wounded and ended with the overthrow of Abdul-Mahdi’s government two months later, after receiving signals from the religious authority in Najaf calling for early elections.
In June 2020, less than a month after the formation of the al-Kadhimi government, former Prime Minister al-Maliki revealed a "conspiracy" aimed at overthrowing it. (9) This was not reflected in the actual positions of the political blocs in the House of Representatives, despite the hints from some members from time to time that they might try to bring down the government.

It can thus be concluded that the fragility of the alliances that formed the last five governments was reflected in these governments’ instability and inability to take decisive decisions.

  1. Are there major differences between the electoral and government party programs? What are the positions of the parties that are compatible to form governments on the main contentious issues (distribution of wealth, the relationship between the center and the regions, foreign relations, economic and service files) before and after the elections?

Despite the seemingly large differences between the competing parties in their positions on the issues, especially during election campaigns, these differences seem to disappear temporarily during the period of government formation and the distribution of ministerial seats and higher executive positions. Then, once the government is formed, these differences suddenly re-emerge, especially when they relate to the distribution of dividends and power and competition over them. It is not easy for researchers to find big differences between the Islamic Dawa Party (and all its splinter groups) and the Supreme Islamic Council (formerly for the Islamic Revolution) and between the Sadrist Movement (the Liberals, Sairoon, the Sadrist Bloc) and the Wisdom Movement (Iraqis), the Virtue Party, and the rest of the Shiite Islamic parties. On issues related to the distribution of wealth or the relationship between the center and the regions, the leftist and nationalist parties have not differed from the Islamic parties when it comes to selecting their coalition partners, regardless of the significant differences in their agendas. In the 2018 election, the Communist Party resorted to an alliance with a religious party that has an armed wing for electoral purposes, despite the great contradiction in their means and methods. In the Kurdish arena, things have played out in a similar fashion, with parties coming together and splitting not on the basis of shared goals, but to secure representation during the process of government formation. In the western provinces, as elsewhere, parties and electoral groupings compete under local and national slogans, but these slogans disappear when governments are formed, turning into a personal or family competition for positions and shares of their sectarian component in government and state institutions. All of the active political parties, despite their electoral slogans and proposed government programs, ultimately coincide as parties with sectarian and ethnic labels as Shiite, Sunni, and Kurdish parties. Governments are formed based on which and how many ministries parties receive, not the agenda. Once the government is formed, however, disagreements over the agenda begin to emerge, and after a few weeks or months most of the parties in government typically turn into opposition parties in parliament.

Every year, these parties agree to pass the budget law after bargaining that has nothing to do with government programs, economic priorities, or the parties’ theoretical vision for the distribution of wealth. Instead, the focus is on obtaining benefits, either personally or for their inner circles, patronage networks, or constituencies. The same claims are repeated to change and distort the law — so much so that the government sometimes even challenges the law in the Federal Court after it is approved by the House of Representatives. And in more than one case, the House of Representatives failed to approve a budget during an entire year (as in 2014 and 2020).

Carrying out a detailed review of how the party alliances formed all the post-2003 governments and how they cooperate, they usually seem to focus on personal or factional interests, not their announced programs. Therefore, it is no surprise that these parties fail to implement their governmental programs and electoral promises.

  1. Have the allied parties succeeded in cooperating to confront the main challenges facing the new political system and unifying their positions by supporting the government in legislating laws and enacting regulations?

The current political system inherited a large and complex legal and legislative framework from the previous regime, much of which has remained in effect until now, despite the contradictions between some of its articles and the principles of the constitution. According to one legal researcher (10), there are more than 25,000 laws, decisions, and executive orders with the force of law issued before 2003. While the constitution indicated in 72 places that its articles should be regulated by laws, only 49 laws were enacted by the House of Representatives during its previous and current sessions. The House of Representatives passed nearly 40 laws a year during its previous sessions. However, since September 2018, this rate has fallen sharply to no more than 16 laws a year, reflecting the difficulty of achieving political consensus to implement the legislation needed by various state institutions. Given the sheer number of parties in the House of Representatives, the process of issuing a law is subject to a complex process of bargaining and disruption of the legislature, which sometimes approaches paralysis. Every party tries to shape legislation, so laws can change so much from the initial draft submitted that the government frequently ends up challenging them in the Federal Court, only for the laws to be reformulated and the same cycle of delays to begin all over again.

Many of the big problems in Iraq have arisen or been exacerbated because of the absence of legislation or the ambiguity or contradictions in its interpretation. Session after session draft laws that could address major issues like the distribution of wealth and the regulation of the relationship between the center and the regions continue to sit in the drawers of parliament. Instead of being implemented, laws governing key areas like hydrocarbons, the Federal Council, the Federal Court, social security, and dozens of others, simply gather dust.

Throughout all the post-2003 administrations, the nature of the quota distribution for ministries led to a structural weakness that affected the way the regulations and executive decisions were issued by the Council of Ministers. According to the constitution, the Council of Ministers exercises the power to “plan and implement the state’s general policy, general plans, and supervise the work of ministries and agencies not associated with a ministry. It proposes draft laws, in addition to issuing regulations, instructions and decisions to implement laws” (Article 80). The distribution of ministries to parties usually coincides with and is driven by the post-election process of government formation, not their programs and preferences. In order to form a government, the prime minister is often compelled to grant parties ministerial portfolios regardless of their compatibility with his plans, and sometimes even regardless of their competence to handle the portfolios. Most post-2003 prime ministers have complained on numerous occasions about the performance and behavior of some of their ministers. Ministries are semi-independent fiefdoms of the party that nominated the minister, even if the minister is an independent figure. The weakness of governments is often attributed to the fact that they are made up of representatives of conflicting political and parliamentary parties, rather than being coherent members of one government cabinet. Governmental contention and mismatching has not only weakened the ability of governments to make strong decisions, but also affected the manner in which they were implemented. An internal study conducted five years ago by the prime minister’s office showed that 68 decisions issued by the Council of Ministers were cancelled in a period of less than two years, due to poor study of the issue or political pressures on the council.

Overlapping decision-making authority and power conflicts between different ministries or government agencies have frequently given rise to crises, such as those between Ministry of Finance and other ministries, between the ministries of Oil and Electricity, and between security ministries and various other agencies. The Council of Ministers, in accordance with its constitutional duties, prepares the draft general budget, final accounts, and development plans. The Ministry of Finance usually tries to convince (or impose) the general guidelines of the planned spending for the next year before the end of October of each year, to be voted on in the Council of Ministers. Then it is sent to the House of Representatives for approval before the end of the year. In many years, due to the weakening of party consensus and the fragmentation of the political scene, the process of approving the budget is delayed for several months, or its drafts (proposed by the government) are significantly changed within the House of Representatives, in a way that contradicts the government’s spending directions and obligations, or it may not be issued for that year at all, which confuses the economic and financial situation, and affects security and social stability.

Party systems have not succeeded in establishing institutional formulas for cooperation between coalitions on either the governmental or parliamentary levels.

  1. Have the party systems succeeded in including different segments of society?

Political parties usually assume the task of representing society politically in the various state institutions. The parties’ success can be measured not only by their ability to gain the confidence of society during the elections, but also by their ability to assimilate diverse segments of society directly through their affiliation with the party, their participation in its activities, or the extent to which they reflect citizens’ priorities in their political, electoral, and governmental programs.

Iraq’s parliamentary elections after 2003 saw relatively high participation despite the difficult security conditions at the time, with turnout of 79.6% in the December 2005 elections. This fell to 62.4% in the March 2010 elections, declined further to 60% in 2014, and reached 44% in 2018. Recent data suggests voter turnout for the next elections, scheduled for October, may be even lower, with several parties and activists calling for a boycott. (11) By analyzing the participation and the results of the last elections, we find that the percentage of the voters for all winning candidates (most of whom are party candidates) amounted to just 34.67% of the total votes. About two-thirds of the vote was divided among non-winning candidates (including most non-partisan candidates).

Although some political parties and movements use means of mass mobilization to bring their supporters together for demonstrations and festivals, the numbers that most of them are able to mobilize do not seem to be growing over time, in contrast to the crowds that have attended the anti-party and anti-government protests.

According to Article 11 of the political parties’ law, the names of at least 2,000 members must be submitted for a party to be allowed to register. However, the parties’ official websites, the relevant government departments, and the House of Representatives do not usually indicate how many registered members a party has, meaning it is not easy to verify the actual numbers. Although Article 6 of the political parties’ law referred to the adoption of democratic mechanisms to select party leadership, most of the major parties did not see any real changes at the top. The party conferences were festive occasions for media and propaganda purposes, rather than real conferences aimed at accountability, evaluation and assessment, and the inclusion of new generations of society within their ranks.

With the lifting of the restrictions under the previous regime on travel, organization, and access to outside ideas and experiences, Iraq witnessed a deep societal movement that raised questions about the value systems that used to be considered constants. The inability of the political system to lead or manage the transformation of Iraqi society from a repressed and suppressed one to an open or free society led to discord and contradictions, and this was reflected in society’s confidence in the ruling political class.

While the October 2019 protests featured slogans denouncing the ruling parties, surveys assessing the confidence of citizens and youth, especially in the parties, have made it clear that large segments of society have little confidence in the party system. (12) This confirms the parties’ limited ability to broaden their appeal, considering that youth between 15 and 29 years old represent 27.4% of the overall population. (13)

Although the political parties law allows a 25-year-old citizen to form a party (Article 9/Second), the recent elections law prevented young people from running for parliament until they are 29 (Article 8), which reduces the chances of integrating youth into the political system. A recent study indicated that the majority of the protesting demonstrators were between 15 and 25 years old. (14)

According to a study conducted by the National Democratic Institute (NDI) in May 2020, young people have a presence in the membership of the parties, but “the current occupants of leadership positions are keen to adhere to their seats with full force.” Even in cases where it is possible to replace those in high and powerful positions, these positions “always remain under the control of the same old men who have been running the party for decades.” (15)

Constitutionally, there is a 25% quota for female representation in parliament (Article 49/Second). The political parties law also encouraged women’s representation within party bodies (Article 11/First), albeit without a specific quota. However, in reality women do not have a prominent position in the leadership of Iraqi parties. Of the 99 electoral coalitions that won all of the previous five electoral cycles, women did not lead any of the major winning ones. The same NDI study indicated that the number of women in the ranks of some parties had increased from 10% to about half of the members, but their presence in leadership positions remained low or non-existent in many parties, which do not seek to reproduce the parliamentary quota for women within their own structures.

Although many Iraqi parties describe themselves as “nationalists,” their ability to integrate various components and segments of society is extremely weak. There are very few people at the leadership level representing ethnic and religious minorities from outside the parties’ geographical sphere of influence.

Among the answers to the previous five questions, and despite its relative success in facing many of the difficult challenges confronting the political system, such as fighting terrorist groups, the Iraqi party system has failed to manage the three key transformations: the shift from a dictatorial political system to a democratic and pluralistic one, the transformation from a central state to a federal one and from a controlled economy to a free market one, and the transformation from an oppressed society to a productive one that is reconciled with itself and is able to integrate its components.

Why did Iraqi parties fail to achieve their slogans? An analysis

Parties are usually created to fulfill a function that contemporary states and societies need. The importance of the party system is greater in democratic political systems, in which power is transferred peacefully. The success of any party depends on its ability to present a strategic project to administer the state either individually or in alliance with other parties that share part of its project. However, what has happened in Iraq is that the ideological parties that had opposed the previous regime abandoned their decades-old goals as spelled out in their own literature. These historical parties coexisted in partnership with new parties formed after the regime change, abandoning their goals of seeking an Islamic state (for Islamic parties), or a socialist state (for leftist parties), or unifying Iraq with the broader Arab nation (for Arab nationalist parties). The Kurdish nationalist parties and their leaders became strongly involved in the new regime, postponing (but not giving up) their dream of an independent Kurdish state, as they focused on consolidating their authority over the semi-autonomous region from the early 1990s on. The leaders of both the old and new parties were accused of corruption and exploitation of state institutions, and eventually, they transformed from political parties into an oligarchy. (16)

Reviewing the nature of the main Iraqi political parties, we find the following features:

On the intellectual level, the reference, intellectual framework, ultimate goals, and areas of interest of many parties are not limited to Iraq. Non-Iraqi dimension appears in the slogans and goals of many parties, including Shi’a and Sunni Islamists and Arab, Kurdish, and Turkmen nationalists, among others, as they are transnational. The irony here is that within Iraq itself the parties do not even cross sect, class, or regional divides.

The geography of the spread of Iraqi parties, their affiliations, and their leaders are concentrated in specific areas of the country. By reviewing the distribution of the winning parties in the post-2005 elections, we find that the main Kurdish parties have a monopoly on electoral representation for the Kurdistan region, the Shiite parties monopolize representation in the central and southern governorates, while Sunni parties account for most of the electoral representation in the western provinces, with a few exceptions. No Iraqi party has ever won representatives in all Iraqi provinces during any of the five electoral rounds that took place after the constitution was approved. No more than four parties or alliances won the vote of 10% or more of the electorate in any previous election cycle. In the 2005 elections there were only three coalitions that received votes representing 10% or more of the electorate, while in 2010 there were four, in 2014 there was only one, and in 2018 there were three. However, even in these coalitions, the parties represented were mainly in their sectarian-ethnic areas with very few exceptions.

Iraqi parties are conspicuous for the lack of change among their leadership ranks; most of the top leaders in the key political parties or movements have not changed as a result of internal elections, except in rare cases. The head of each party represents a sort of shorthand for the party itself — a prominent sign that they often abbreviate. Some parties unambiguously hold the names of families, regions, sects, or ethnicities. The absence of governance and institutionalization in their structures helps explain the weakness of party accountability or evaluation of leadership — and has resulted in a rise in accusations about corruption. Although Article 33 of the political parties law has limited the sources of party funding to internal subscriptions, donations, and investments, it stipulated that all party resources be published in its newspaper and declared before the Federal Board of Supreme Audit in its annual report, which is supposed to be submitted to the House of Representatives, the Council of Ministers, and the Department of Parties. The law also prevented accepting any external financing (Article 37/Second). In addition, it barred parties from exploiting their influence in state institutions and companies (Article 37/First), practicing any political activities in government departments and public institutions, or exploiting them for partisan or political gains (Article 24/Fifth). This also holds true for other security institutions, the judiciary, and independent bodies (Article 25/Fifth).

Unfortunately, the reports of the Federal Board of Supreme Audit on the parties are not publicly available. Yet, the files of the Integrity Commission, the confessions of MPs, and the accusations that politicians have repeatedly levelled against their opponents all suggest parties and their leaders have penetrated key areas of state institutions, benefiting from their resources in the form of contracts, appointments, and money laundering operations through illegal methods. (17( (18)

The absence of a national project to modernize and build up the state has also given many parties a reason to justify their own involvement and role in corruption, opposing the state’s modern framework and defending their actions on various grounds. Among the challenges that the constitution writers tried to lay down precise lines for is the relationship of religion and its institutions to the state. However, most political parties were trying to benefit from religious cover directly or indirectly, to the extent that some political parties are just direct fronts for specific clerics or representatives of specific religious groups. This intermingling between the religious and the political made it even more difficult to evaluate and fix political errors, as it created an additional reason for the clash between these parties to intersect their referential orientations. It also gave rise to the phenomenon of political and party leaders resorting to the clergy to resolve political disputes in the absence of appropriate party institutions to do so.

Although the clan and tribe have a traditional role in Iraqi society, their importance and influence in the political arena have fluctuated since the establishment of the modern Iraqi state a century ago. An increase in their presence in state institutions and their influence have typically been an indication of the weakness of the state and political parties. (19) After 2003, the clans had a slight presence, which increased gradually, especially after the establishment of the Councils of Tribal Support and Tribal Awakenings during the state’s confrontations with militias and terrorist groups after 2007. However, what is striking is the increase in the presence of tribal figures in the structures of parties that use slogans about strengthening the state and the rule of law. The fact that some parties leaders or members have to resort to the authority of the tribe when managing disputes between politicians is another indicator of the weakness of state institutions and parties. (20)

Most of the parties that had armed wings to oppose the former regime announced that they had disbanded them after 2003 and switched over to civilian activities. In any case, when the state was threatened and some of its institutions collapsed, such as after the fall of Mosul and other cities in the summer of 2014 to ISIS, it provided a reason for some of these older parties, as well as some new ones formed after 2003 that had military arms, to carry out military activities openly and explicitly. According to Article 32 of the political parties law, any party engaging in activities of a military or paramilitary nature, or using violence in the exercise of its political activities, should be dissolved. The law also prohibits parties from owning, possessing, or storing weapons, firearms, or explosive materials.

A recurring scene in the capital, Baghdad, and many other Iraqi cities in recent years has been the parade of the military wings of political parties with weapons and their participation in battles and clashes outside the formal chain of command and control of official security institutions — a clear case of discord between state and non-state actors. Conflicts over influence and rent-sharing have also played into cycles of de-escalation and escalation of rivalries and disputes that follow tactical alliances between parties and their armed wings.

By reviewing all of the features discussed above, the answers to the questions we started with will be clear. The fragmented party system is far from being able to continuously reach comprehensive national goals that respond to the great challenges and problems facing the Iraqi political system.

What are the solutions and alternatives?

Criticism of the party experience in post-2003 Iraq does not in any way mean support for abolishing the party system. Despite the problems with the Iraqi political system, regressing to an authoritarian or dictatorial regime is not an option. The alternative to a pluralistic system would be the restoration of a cycle of violence, killing, destruction, and the wasting of resources. Some try to present the idea that ​​an authoritarian ruler or a military coup could fix the problems with the current political system, but that, too, is not an option.

Democratic systems need parties. Therefore, Iraqis have no choice but to reform the current party system to be able to manage the process of transformation toward a stable political system, a state with effective institutions, and a productive society that is reconciled with itself and with the world.

Since the beginning of the political process, many approaches have been proposed to reform the political system. Some of these focused on amending the constitution. Others called for changing laws or even the nature of the system itself from a parliamentary one into a more presidential system. Others still have suggested a change in the nature of alliances that lead the government, to a “political majority” or “national majority.” The relationship between the center and the periphery — Iraq’s regions and governorates — has also been called into question. Some of these approaches were theoretical and elitist, and did not receive a public response, while others tried to impose their vision through violence or armed protests, or by holding a referendum for part of the country for the purpose of secession. None of them address the core of the problem, however.

The solution is to change the rules of the game peacefully

By having national parties that are few in number, large in representation, inclusive, institutional, transparent, and well-governed, the programs and points of contention between them will be clear and they can be easily distinguished from one another. Coalitions and consensuses will arise according to their closeness to each other’s programs and agendas. Using democratic means, the large parties should be able to select specific candidates to hold higher executive positions internally. Positions would not be a matter of chance or part of a secret deal by unelected individuals or external entities that do not represent voters’ opinions. What is happening now deceives and misleads citizens, and it only results in a repeated cycle of failure. The political system, in its current form, cannot produce homogeneous, strong, and efficient governments capable of implementing the bold reform programs urgently required.

Looking at the experience of other countries that faced largely similar problems, they resolved them by revising the political system and changing the laws to respond to the challenges they faced. In quite a few cases the constitution was amended or substantial changes were made. An electoral barrier or threshold was often used to reduce the fragmentation of parties or dispersal of votes. In Iraq, multiple electoral systems have been tried to calculate votes or allocate seats, but ultimately they did not produce effective, stable federal representative councils, provincial councils, or local or federal governments that are coordinated and efficient.

In the absence of realistic and clear alternatives to the current political system, political and popular forces should focus on the possibility of reforming the political system instead of seeking to destroy it. One of the most important tools for reforming the political system is reforming the party system, to create a foundation for a government that is effective, coherent, more representative of societal reality, and able to manage the three transformations in all their dimensions: the shift from a component state to a state of citizenship, and from a state of tyranny to a state of freedom, and from unbalanced to a more equitable distribution of wealth, and from a sectarian and ethnically divided society to one proud of its diversity.

Policy recommendations

To fix the problems laid out above, escape the current state of failure (a diagnosis on which most analysts who follow Iraqi affairs closely agree), and prevent the country from sliding into a spiral of violence and counter-violence, this paper proposes a serious political dialogue be initiated between the various stakeholders and suggests popular and societal pressure to amend the party system, and law enforcement, according to the following steps:

Step one: Amend the Political Parties Law.

In order to address the problem of the absence of comprehensive national representation among the parties, the paper proposes to amend Article 11/First/A by adding the phrase "2,000 members from each one of the governorates" instead of the phrase "2,000 members from different governorates." This would help to make the parties inclusive of all citizens, regardless of religion, sect, nationality, and ethnicity, as stipulated in Article 5/First of the same current law. In addition, local parties (which have no representation in all governorates) should be prohibited from participating in federal elections.
Article 6 also needs to be amended by adding the details of democratic mechanisms for the election of party leaders, to ensure and encourage societal integration (especially of women, youth, and minorities) and enable them to assume leadership positions in a democratic way, as well as to limit the terms that political leaders can remain in power.
A fourth paragraph needs to be added to Article 39 that obliges the Federal Board of Supreme Audit to publish final reports on the financial conditions of the parties, which will be sent to parliament, ministers, and the party department, and made available to all.
The Department of Political Parties and Organizations Affairs of the Independent High Electoral Commission, formed under Article 17, should also be required to publish all of its reports evaluating the parties in terms of their finances and compliance with the law.

Step two: Strictly enforce and implement the political parties law to address major problems in the current political system.

To disarm the military arms of the parties and disengage the link between arms and politics, Articles (8/Third), (9/Fifth), (10/Third), (25/Fourth), (32/First /C, D, E), (47), and (52) address this issue.
To prevent the interference of partisan institutions in the state’s public departments, the judiciary, independent bodies, and state media, Articles (9/Fifth), (10/Third), (23/Second), (24/Fifth), (25/Fourth) and (28/Second/B) and (51) need to be implemented.
To ensure democratic mechanisms in the selection of party leaders, Articles (6) should be applied, and for the transparency of decisions, Article (26/First/C and Second).
To prevent the influence of political money and corruption, Articles (28/Second/B, C) and (33, 36/Second) and Articles 37, 38, 39, 40, 41, 49 should be applied.
To encourage the transparency of resources and expenditures, the annual report of the accounts for each party should be published before and after its audit by the Federal Board of Supreme Audit, in accordance with Article 39/Third, and the application of Article 26/First/D, E.
Activating Article (32/First) related to dissolving parties that violate the law. Also, encouraging the establishment of lawsuits against it by citizens (Article 32/First/2), civil society organizations, the public prosecution, and the Integrity Commission to impose community and judicial oversight on parties and the departments concerned with following up on the behavior of these parties, such as the Parties Department (Article 17/Third), to ensure their institutionalization and transparency, as well as preventing its intrusion on the state and its institutions (Article 17/Second /C, D, E).

Step three: Hold a public referendum.

For the purpose of reforming the political system and enabling it to produce effective governments and similarly efficient comprehensive institutions, the paper proposes conducting a referendum, concurrent with the general elections, for constitutional amendments that allow changing the methods of electing local administrations and provincial governors to be via public direct vote, changing the function of local councils (provincial and district councils) to be related to approving local budgets, monitoring the performance of governments, and preventing the recent interference between these councils and the executive authority, while allowing local and national parties to participate in local elections. The constitutional amendments also include approval of the details of the formation of the Federation Council to be the highest legislative chamber within the legislative authority.

Step four: Resort to the judiciary to dissolve the current parties and form new ones in accordance with the amended parties law.

In September 2015, the president ratified the Political Parties Law No. 39. According to Article 58 thereof, the existing political parties should have adapted their legal situations in accordance with the law within a period not exceeding a year from the date of its enforcement. Conversely, the party is considered dissolved. Following a quick review of the parties’ financial, organizational, and legal conditions; the relationship between some of these parties and their armed wings; the lack of disclosure of their financial resources and sources; and their other violations of the law, the judiciary can decide the legal status of most of these parties that did not adapt their previous conditions or were established in a way that violates the law.

The reform of the party system will lead to a fundamental political reform that breaks the political system’s vicious circle and facilitates the process of institutional reform of Iraqi state structures by instead creating a virtuous circle that leads to more comprehensive reform. This will be the subject of our next research paper.

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