A friend recently said to me that the Iraqi mentality is to only respect the leader and to be outside the spotlight is to be outside full stop.
This, according to my friend, means that having a credible opposition is never a feasible scenario. Any self-respecting politician in Iraq will do their utmost to avoid being shifted from the spotlight, and going into opposition, especially from the position of leadership, is unthinkable.
I countered by saying that actually there may be no need for an opposition now in Iraq and that having a majority or consensus government is the best thing for Iraq given the circumstances.
However, this discussion raised an important point, namely that of being the ‘leader’ or to say it frankly, to hold the office of Prime Minister. What is it that makes this issue at the centre of the negotiations for forming the next government? Aside from the obvious issues of power, patronage and protecting party interests, Iraq may indeed have a problem of ‘al-sanamiyyah’ (literally idolatry) or the cult of personality. Whoever is in power, is very much inclined to do their utmost to stay there, because of the general attitude of the people which promotes the ‘yes-men’ culture around the PM and also because to move away from the prime ministerial position is to be ignored and much less revered.
Recent political developments in Iraq make more sense if we take into account this cult of personalities rather than only looking at the maneuvering of parties. The Shiite religious parties are saying they will only go into coalition with the ruling Da’wa Party and its State of Law coalition if it dispenses with incumbent Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki. But that diction assumes that the party is independent of al-Maliki, who is its head, though he is surrounded by a small, powerful and secretive ruling committee, as well. Moreover, it assumes that in today’s Iraq a party and its leader could flourish when out of power, whereas in fact the levers of the state are crucial for acquiring resources and patronage, especially in a party that has a limited and fickle constituency. Since al-Maliki’s appointment as PM, the party has entrenched itself in the state apparatus and institutions, empowering itself politically and financially, far greater than its legal and constitutional mandate allows it to. Undoubtedly, a change in PM means a change in staff, ministers and the strength of the ruling party, in this case, al-Da’wa al-Islamiyyah or Islamic Mission Party.
For al-Da’wa, this is a situation which threatens to seriously weaken it, bringing it to a similar fate that the Shiite, clerically-led Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq faced, coming down several rungs in the ladder and having far lesser influence and weight than it used to. This is because the al-Da’wa party does not have significant membership or cadres on the ground. Someone might say that this applies to most of the other parties as well, but the issue with al-Da’wa is that it does not identify particularly with any one constituent or community. The Kurdish parties have their party constituencies in the northern provinces tied to the Barzani and Talabani families, ISCI plays to the Shi’ite communities of the South and many of the clergy (who influence many thousands), the Sadrists derive their strength from the impoverished followers of the late Muhammad Sadiq al-Sadr, and the Iraqiya list draws its votes from the Sunni community of Iraq (former interim prime minister Iyad Allawi’s own faction picked up much less votes than the Sunni parties in his coalition). The Da’wa do not identify clearly with a religious, ethnic or other constituent community.
The election results show that 22.3% of the total votes for the State of Law coalition were collected by al-Maliki, and only those in Baghdad could vote directly for him. That is to say nearly a quarter of the votes that the governing group gained were won by the PM. It would be fair to say that his position as PM was a major vote-getter, reinforcing the earlier point about the benefits of incumbency. To say this more clearly, a major reason the election results were good for al-Da’wa is because the head of the party is the Prime Minister.
This brings us to the dilemma they currently face. On Sunday 1st August, the Sadrists announced that they will cut off negotiations with the State of Law Coalition (of which the Da’wa is the central party) because of their insistence on nominating al-Maliki as PM. Though they announced it as a decision by the political committee, it was actually an order from Muqtada al-Sadr. Ahmed al-Chalabi reflected the general thinking of the Shiite fundamentalist Iraqi National Alliance (which groups ISCI, the Sadrists and others) in backing this move, yet dangling the carrot for al-Da’wa by saying the National Alliance is still alive. That is, it is alive if al-Da’wa will jettison al-Maliki.
What the Sadrists have done is to force SOL, in truth al-Da’wa, to choose between two scenarios. One is to nominate a new figure for PM (Haidar al-Ebadi would be the most acceptable) and keep hold of the position of PM and all the benefits that this brings at the cost of upsetting al-Maliki and possibly fracturing the party again and also showing their limitations, as well as confirming the Sadrists (in reality Muqtada al-Sadr) as kingmakers, which reaffirms the precedent of 2006 and may come back to haunt them in the future. The Da’wa has already split several times, most recently when former prime minister Ibrahim Jaafari formed his own branch of the party and was excommunicated by al-Maliki.
The second scenario is for al-Da’wa to insist on al-Maliki’s candidacy and seeing the other parties propose a new PM (probably not the secular-leaning ex-Baathist Allawi) and force the Da’wa to accept some ministries but see themselves lose the privileges of the PM position. This means that their political influence will diminish and the future ability to pick up large numbers of votes decrease. Ever since ISCI lost the poll for PM in 2006, their power has been eroding. Once al-Maliki goes from being the PM to an MP, he will no longer attract the same spotlight, bringing us back to the discussion at the beginning of this article.
If the Iraqi people can move away from the yes-men culture and the idolization of political strongmen, its democracy will be much more robust and also allow politicians to save face, maybe even to lead to idea of sitting in the opposition benches being credible. As it stands, the ability for parties to engage in corruption and to abuse the state institutions and the fear of the no-spotlight effect breeds a jungle-like environment in which only the most ruthless wins and survives. The cut-throat state of Iraqi politics, while still more democratic and sophisticated than everyone else in the region, only leads to the worsening condition of the country and the discontent of its people.
This article originally appeared on Juan Cole’s blog Informed Comment.