The Iraqi government’s response to the Arab Spring-inspired “Day of Rage” protests in 2011 reflects the fine line the country often crosses between taking necessary steps to preserve security in a developing democracy, and authoritarianism. Understood as a rebuttal of the government’s inability to deliver services and curb corruption, the protests were quickly quelled, resulting in the deaths of at least twenty demonstrators. This forceful reaction was certainly meant at least in part to prevent anti-government forces from gaining momentum. However, when the government announced that protests were stopped due to fear of al-Qaeda, bomb threats and “Saddamist elements”, these claims were not illusory. There is still relentless violence in Iraq that consistently emerges from “very opaque” and “nebulous” origins. Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, in responding to the protests, violated the civil liberties of the demonstrators—but that does not entirely negate his argument of protecting order and security in a fragile democracy.
Governmental actions such as these may preclude Iraq from being considered a robust democracy. However, democracy, as with any form of government, comes in gradations. Despite troubling authoritarian developments, the current government in Iraq can still be characterized as meeting the baseline requirements of democracy given the unstable context within which it is forced to work. After introducing working definitions of democracy and authoritarianism, the paper will explore some of the worrying authoritarian trends in Iraq as well as how the country’s context nurtures such tendencies. These arguments will lead to the conclusion that Iraq remains a democracy and a discussion on whether this fragile democracy might succumb to authoritarian trends.
The Definition of Democracy and Authoritarianism
Democracy and authoritarianism are not mutually exclusive but lie on a spectrum. Most developing democracies display characteristics from both systems of government; Iraq similarly contains aspects of both democracy and authoritarianism. For the basis of this paper, the minimum definition of democracy will rely on four indicators generally present in modern democracies: the holding of “open, free and fair” elections that choose executives and legislatives; virtually universal adult suffrage; political rights and civil liberties that are “broadly protected”; and elected representatives who are given “real authority to govern.” In any government these pillars are not universally upheld but in democracies “violations are not broad or systematic enough to seriously impede democratic challenges to incumbent governments.” Even if violations are relatively frequent in some countries viewed as “developing democracies”, these characteristics all must be present to some degree for a country to be considered democratic.
If a democracy requires consistent protection of these four indicators, an authoritarian state will preserve the opposite balance. As with democracies, there is a continuum of authoritarian governments. The parallel to a developing democracy is a “competitive authoritarian regime” in which “violations of these criteria are both frequent enough and serious enough to create an uneven playing field between government and opposition.” Elections may be free of massive fraud but state resources are abused, electoral results are often manipulated and government critics face harassment. The line between such a “competitive authoritarian regime” and a minimal developing democracy is often ambiguous. This paper will explore on which side of this divide the Iraqi government falls.
The prospect for implementing a durable democracy in Iraq after the US invasion in 2003 was always meager. When considering its chances of remaining a democracy, “Iraq is doubly cursed, given its ethnic and religious fractionalization” and “the process by which democracy was imposed”, that is, through an external invasion. There are a number of worrying trends in the country that suggest that this curse is coming to fruition. Perhaps the most concerning of the authoritarian trends is Maliki’s gradual consolidation of power. During his tenure, “Maliki [has] gained complete control over Iraq’s security forces, subverting his formal chain of command.” By purging those officials who do not support him and replacing them with loyalists, he has taken a similar hold over the country’s weak judiciary and intelligence corps. He maintains control over the elite Iraq Special Operations Forces and effectively employs them as his personal militia. These “power grabs” have been accompanied by arrests of political rivals “under the pretext of thwarting coup plots” and attempts to assert his power over independent agencies including the Central Bank and Committee of Integrity. In 2010 the judiciary announced that only the Cabinet, not the Parliament, could propose new legislation. As the cabinet is occupied by weak Maliki proxies, this decision essentially gave Maliki exclusive power over propositioning legislation. Domestic as well as international observers have understood these actions as Maliki “amassing dictatorial power” to become the country’s next strongman.
Recent actions towards the electoral institutions of the state have been among the most controversial actions taken by Maliki. An attempt to change the composition of the Electoral Commission, moving from nine to fifteen members, followed the arrest of Faraj al-Haidari, the head of Iraq’s election commission. Such moves caused observers to claim that, “the prospect for fair elections has been thrown into question.” Maliki has capitalized on his influence with the agency to prevent multiple regions fearful of his increasing power from voting on referendums seeking further autonomy. Any democracy relies on elections as necessary, if not sufficient, channels through which citizens can project their voice. The prospect of Maliki manipulating elections presages Iraq becoming an authoritarian state.
A number of other actions taken by the Maliki government have been critiqued as unnecessarily threatening civil liberties. A series of new bills “unreasonably hinder freedom of expression, assembly and association.” Among this legislation, passed under the auspices of fighting terrorism and maintaining stability, are an Internet Bill that could be used to censor articles on “just about anything”, a Parties Bill preventing the media from endorsing political parties through any medium and an Assembly Bill requiring official authorization at least five days before a demonstration. Human Rights Watch released an alarming report on the state of civil liberties in Iraq, stating that, “Iraq is quickly slipping back into authoritarianism as its security forces abuse protesters, harass journalists, and torture detainees.” It reports secret detention facilities where detainees are “tortured with impunity.” Governmental action in Iraq, particularly regarding Maliki’s control over the government and the restriction of civil liberties, suggests that the country is regressing from the development of democratic governance.
A Complicated Context
Actions taken by Maliki must, however, be understood through the lens of facing a collapsing state whilst wielding negligible power. When Maliki took office in 2006, he faced a “lack of political power that constrained his ability to govern.” The Iraqi Constitution created a central government like that of the US Articles of Confederation—a government entirely incapable of running a country. Iraq is in a state of disrepair that will be nearly impossible to fix without a strong executive; “creating a functional, accountable government requires” a competent leader to pursue power consolidation. The political paralysis between rival parties also rendered governance impossible. It is true that Maliki surrounded himself by “temporary” puppet ministers who have not been accepted by the parliament. However, before he did so his rival political parties “divided up both the ministerial positions and the resources that came with them. Lacking political leverage, Maliki was unable to command or direct his cabinet.” Facing a cabinet “akin to an American one in which Karl Rove would work aside Al Sharpton” Maliki maneuvered around constitutional requirements. Maliki faces bitterly divided political rivals in Baghdad incapable of compromising on pressing issues. Working from a remarkably weak executive seat with a Cabinet populated by his rivals’ politically motivated appointees, rather than his own politically motivated ones, significantly hindered the prospect of successful governance.
This stringent partisanship has precluded a lasting compromise on the question of federalism, another factor hindering competent governance in Iraq. This prevents not only effective relations between Baghdad and the provinces but also the ability for the central government to function. Maliki has thus stressed the necessity of a stronger government in Baghdad. Speaking of federalism’s capacity to “handicap governance”, he announced,
In the beginning, consensus was necessary for us. In this last period, we all embraced consensus and everyone took part together…But if this continues, it will become a problem, a flaw, a catastrophe. The alternative is democracy, and that means majority rule…From now on I call for an end to that degree of consensus.
While this quote reflects a troubling understanding of “democracy” as strictly majority rule, it also reveals the unsustainability of Iraq’s governmental status quo. The severity of this stalemate is embodied by the passage of legislation. Parliament rarely votes on bills until they are watered down to the point where they are “meaningless and/or contradictive” or “political leaders have ruminated on them for so long that consensus is achieved through sheer exhaustion.” An emphasis on consensus creates gridlocks in the most established of democracies. It has contributed to an inability of the Iraqi government to function.
Iraq’s recent history also fuels paranoia towards political rivals. This is a state overshadowed by a legacy of dictatorship, sectarianism, civil war, invasions and insurgencies. Thousands of people are killed annually; bomb attacks are frequent. Mistrust permeates its politicians, for good reason. The federalism Kurds desire is partially to, “hedge against the rise of the next dictatorship.” In 2006 and 2007, Iraq was “awash with conspiracies to unseat” Maliki. Much of this ubiquitous distrust is fostered by “Iraq’s old ways of conspiratorial politics” in which the path to political survival is “keeping [my enemies] weak and keeping myself strong.” Maliki’s opponents take advantage of the pervasive fear of a resurgent Saddam Hussein to cast Maliki as a dictator without “offering much of an alternative.” A lack of trust between political actors fosters ineffective governance in a government already torn asunder by decentralization and sectarianism.
None of this is to say that Maliki deserves the benefit of the doubt. His attempts to consolidate power have been blatantly oppressive to political rivals, exemplified when he sent tanks to the houses of high-ranking Sunni politicians as US troops withdrew in 2011 and by the in absentia guilty verdict of former Vice President Tariq al-Hashemi following a murder charge. The question to consider when viewing the authoritarian trends through the framework of the fragile Iraqi context is not whether a degree of power consolidation is required—it is. The question is whether the difference between necessary consolidation and that which Maliki has pursued has been large enough to render Iraq authoritarian.
A Barebones Democracy
The answer to this inquiry is no: despite disquieting authoritarian trends, Iraq remains a democracy. Unfortunately, creating a democracy in such a fractured country is a “messy and often unedifying” process that has left the country vulnerable to “internal chaos and exploitation by regional powers.” Senator John McCain, analyzing the partisan struggles in Iraq, concluded that, since the fight for power was occurring through politics and not war, “Democracy has come to Iraq.” However, returning to the four indicators that determine whether a government is democratic, Iraq faces a predicament. It has thus far held free and fair elections and generally guaranteed universal adult suffrage. Yet the last two indicators—protection of political and civil liberties and affording politicians “real authority to govern”—have been cast as at odds with each other. Executive power consolidation aimed at allowing effective governance has often come at the expense of civil liberties and the power of members of parliament, obscuring the ability to gauge whether such steps secure the government or simply make it increasingly authoritarian.
This understandable concern with Iraq’s problems can occasionally lack perspective. Fewer than ten years after Saddam Hussein was overthrown and with the memories of a brutal civil war still raw, “the evolution of Iraq’s political system has been…remarkable.” Iraq’s civil society is relatively strong, with thousands of citizens’ organizations arising over the past few years. Women are increasing their participation in politics and civil society. Iraq has an ambitious Constitution “of substantial historic significance” that supports democratic principles, including checks and balances and human rights. It was written by an elected Parliament and ratified in a popular referendum. Given the deterioration Iraqi politics has faced in recent years, these facts may appear insignificant. But they are not. That less than a decade ago the bitter rivals of Iraq united to support strong democratic principles allows for international checking of Maliki and an empowering factor for the electorate.
Remaining grounded in this historic perspective, the relatively successful holding of elections serves as a sign of democracy in Iraq. As discussed above, Maliki’s increasing influence over the electoral commission has cast doubt on whether future elections will be fair. However, this is an as-yet unconfirmed fear; the facts so far have been that fair elections have been held and those elected are holding office. The 2010 elections in Iraq were heralded internationally as successful polls that united Iraqis through “defiance in the face of violence.” Although both incumbent Maliki, the leader of the State of Law coalition, and Ayad Allawi, head of the opposition Iraqiya bloc, alleged vote fraud—with Maliki demanding a recount and declaring “‘No way we will accept the results’”—the election was lauded as “reflecting the will of the voters” by UN election monitors. The opposition won a plurality of 91 seats to Maliki’s 89 and the results were honored. These elections saw a hard-fought campaign brought to the polls in a relatively orderly process to receive the ultimate decision of the Iraqi people.
There were two major controversies surrounding the election. Over five hundred candidates were barred from competing by the Justice and Accountability Commission, criticized for its “alleged partiality”, using de-Ba’athification laws written after the overthrow of Saddam. Included in this purge were two prominent Sunni politicians, Saleh al-Mutlaq and Dhafir al-Ani. Additionally, the failure of any bloc to attain an electoral majority led to an eight-month process of government formation that left the “country in political paralysis.” The process was tarnished by alleged interference by Iran and the US, both advocating the continuation of Maliki’s premiership. Eventually Maliki retained his post, forming a majority coalition with Shiite and Kurdish parties. This result was not unforeseen, as many thought that despite Allawi’s electoral success he would “have great difficulty finding allies to form a government.” The controversy arose as Maliki failed to allow Iraqiya to first attempt to form a government. The Constitution states that the coalition garnering the most seats has the first right to form a government, but the judiciary in 2010 interpreted the text as allowing a coalition formed post-election to be the first to propose a government. The political maneuvering led to the election “taking on a distinctly murky tone.” Much of Maliki’s success has been attained this way: exploiting the fragmentation of his opposition, he works at the edge of what is constitutionally acceptable and “skillfully maneuver[s] through Iraq’s shifting alliances.” The Constitution was bent, not broken, and the numerous battling political concerns prevented this from being a blatantly undemocratic move. Maliki, a Shia in a highly partisan political game, is usually able to convince a majority of politicians to side with him through democratic channels. This election, albeit with its controversial outcome, shows that Iraq today can still be considered a weak democracy.
Beyond free elections, democracies require true democratic competition, ensured through the safeguarding of civil liberties and the power of elected representatives to truly rule. However, in Iraq, the two can appear to clash. Maliki believes that the people want a strong executive who can successfully guide the country, a goal that requires both power consolidation and the maintenance of order and security. Indeed, a former Iraqi government spokesman, Laith Kubba, noted that the feedback Maliki receives as he attempts to strengthen the power of the central government is promising since, “a lot of Iraqis want a strong state. They want to build state institutions. They want security.” Maliki is considered by many Iraqis as “a brave nationalist willing to move against sectarian extremists” and an NDI poll from 2011 measured his popularity at 53%. Downplaying Maliki’s power grabs, Kubba admits that, “I think maybe he took advantage, like any other politician, of pushing the envelope there.” Increasing Maliki’s ability to govern has come at the expense of the parliament’s powers, but Maliki has argued that this is necessary and desirable in the politically polarized state. The weak, decentralized government would have trouble creating a flawless system with the cleanest of premiers. Maliki is not that. But his arguments that his people want an executive with actual powers who can develop the country are credible. His power consolidation can be understood as a messy and personally advantageous attempt to fulfill the democratic indicator of ensuring elected representatives have true power.
Regrettably, this consolidation has brought with it erosion in the protection of civil liberties and political rivals’ freedom. However, the troubling bills that have recently limited civil liberties do not disqualify Iraq from being a democracy. The bills were in fact accompanied by “provisions supporting the rule of law and statements of general support for various basic freedoms.” The primary concern with these bills is the precedent they set and the way they may be wielded. This fear is justified. However, optimistic scholars believe such qualms are “over-blown” and a more nuanced approach will “reinforce confidence in the viability” of Iraqi democracy. These actions have given the government an unsettling ability to curtail civil liberties but do not make Iraq authoritarian.
Additionally, civil liberties can be violated in a democracy as long as these violations do not “seriously impede” democratic contests. Observing the political maneuvering ahead of the upcoming elections shows that democratic challenges are still the channel Maliki’s rivals employ to fight him. In November 2012, Maliki’s opponents took to the parliament to impose a two-term limit on prime ministers. Maliki’s majority bloc opposed the move, even though in 2011 Maliki pledged not to run for a third term. Maliki’s actions in 2014 regarding a third term is one of many reasons that the 2013 provincial and 2014 general elections will be remarkably important, if not deterministic, harbingers of democracy in Iraq. As of this moment, though, political blocs are “jockeying for position” before the 2013 provincial elections to set them up for a strong 2014 appearance. Such quintessentially democratic actions reveal that democracy is still breathing in Iraq. By the elections of 2019, or even these in 2014, this might not be true, but the static image says “not yet.” While Iraq’s period as a democracy may be dishearteningly fleeting, it has not yet departed.
Will the line be crossed?
Iraq is not currently an authoritarian state. Yet Former Vice President Mutlaq has stated that it is “going towards a dictatorship” and Allawi believes it is “slipping back into the clutches of a dangerous new one-man rule.” The Guardian says Maliki is not yet Saddam but “the charge sheet is growing”; scholars speak of a “great trepidation” of Iraq’s governmental path. But, “Iraq is not yet lost.” This statement captures the dynamic situation of the Iraqi government: it remains a democracy but the trends are discouraging. In the summer of 2012, as Maliki’s rivals considered a vote of no confidence in the premier, an attempt that did not gain the requisite votes, the political crisis was “still running within the framework of the democratic game.” Sunnis and other opposition groups currently feel that the “best opportunity to defend their interest is through the political process.” However, this confidence that democratic government will help Iraq is “losing legitimacy.” The fear is that a line will be crossed and this fragile democracy will be lost.
The sense of pessimism, however, need not cede to fatalism. Sectarianism, while often leading to political impasse, also has “a constructive purpose: having factions zealously check each other’s power” promotes democratic exchange. Maliki faces resilient political rivals acutely aware of and averse to his trend towards authoritarianism. Additionally, the significant powers given to the different regions, particularly Kurdistan, ensures that power is decentralized and makes a true dictatorship difficult to implement. A number of other indicators in the country—including per capita income, literacy and urbanization—align with those of countries where significant process has been in made in developing democracy. Democracy is always a difficult system of government to implement and Iraq represents a case more challenging than the average. However, if stalwartly pushed in Iraq, despite troubling authoritarian trends, democracy still might survive.
This essay was awarded a 2013 Acheson Prize Honorable Mention.
Allison Hugi (’13) is a Global Affairs and Political Science major in Morse College.
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