Rebuilding Iraq’s government could be a risky proposition

Something pretty fascinating is happening in Iraq, where in spite of the ongoing war with ISIS that must be consuming most people’s thoughts, thousands of people in the Shiʿa south have been turning out for a couple of weeks now to protest the general awfulness of their government. A recent (and completely off the charts) heat wave has made it abundantly clear that the Iraqi government as currently assembled is incapable of providing even basic emergency services to its citizens, which raises questions as to why such a government should exist in the first place. The government’s inability to assemble an effective military has been apparent for a while now, but this showed that their dysfunction is on another, more basic, level entirely.

By the end of last week, the protesters were being heard at the highest levels in Baghdad, largely because they’d won themselves a major patron: Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, the single most respected and powerful Shiʿa religious leader in Iraq. Sistani let it be known that something needs to be done about corruption in the Iraqi government, and Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi leaped into action. He’s now gotten the support of his cabinet behind a reform package that will, among other things, abolish Iraq’s three-headed monster of a Vice Presidency as well as its three Deputy Prime Minister positions, and abolish sectarian quotas for ministerial positions. Among the tangible benefits of this plan would be that it would finally get Nouri al-Maliki out of Iraqi politics altogether, at least officially, instead of letting him hang around in the weak-but-prestigious vice-presidency he’s occupied since being removed as PM last September.

At this point you may be wondering why Iraq, or any country, would need three vice presidents and three deputy PMs, and the reason is pure sectarianism. Iraq’s government is set up along the lines of the one created for the similarly fragmented nation of Lebanon in the 1989 Taif Agreement, which was the basis for ending that country’s 1975-1990 civil war. The Taif Agreement called for power to be shared among Lebanon’s factions via dividing the main offices of state among them: the president was to be a Maronite Christian, the prime minister was to be a Sunni Muslim, and the speaker of parliament was to be a Shiʿa Muslim. Iraq’s system gives the presidency to a Kurd, the premiership to a Shiʿa Arab, and the speakership to a Sunni Arab.

But for some reason that wasn’t enough of a distribution of power for the Iraqis, and so all of these second-tier offices were created: two vice presidencies for the Shiʿa and one for the Sunni Arabs, one deputy PM post for each of the three main groups. There’s no reason for all of them to exist, and the fact of their existence necessarily just creates bloated, inefficient government while multiplying the potential for graft and patronage. So getting rid of them all seems like a natural step for a government looking to streamline itself and cut back on corruption. It could really reduce gridlock and the potential for inter-sectarian strife, allowing the central government to act more decisively than it has been able to do in the past.

But the downside here is potentially huge. Iraq, as you may have noticed, already has itself a bit of a sectarian problem, largely rooted in the fact that the Sunni Arab community feels disrespected, powerless, and left out of national governance. And that’s before you take away that community’s guaranteed vice-presidency and deputy PM spot. Take those away and you’re substantially reducing Sunni Arab prominence in the government from a level that seems to be already too low for Sunnis’ comfort. Get rid of those quotas for top government jobs, another step that would theoretically improve government effectiveness, and now you’re opening the door to excluding Sunnis (and Kurds, for that matter) from the government altogether, while potentially empowering that government at the expense of sectarian interests. This could actually make Iraq’s number one problem worse, not better, actually increasing the level of sectarian hostility toward Baghdad.

Now, it’s unlikely that your average Iraqi Sunni Arab is angry at Baghdad over the lack of prestige sinecures for a select few absurdly wealthy and powerful Sunni Arabs. If Iraq’s government starts working better overall, for everybody, then Sunnis probably won’t really care about their lost vice presidency. But that’s a major “if.” Also, there’s some short-term/long-term calculus at play here; Abadi needed to respond to Sistani’s call for reform right now, lest he lose even his own Shiʿa constituency, and he will only really need to worry about making Sunnis feel happier with his government if/when his army manages to take back the Sunni Arab parts of Iraq from ISIS. But in the long-run, these changes could be a good thing for Iraqis if the government can avoid slipping back into sectarianism, but otherwise they could actually wind up making things worse.

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