Protests in Iraq, Reform Package and the Government’s Situation
The Iraqi government has been forced into announcing a reform package after the popular protests that have been going on for approximately two weeks. For the Iraqi government, the anti-ISIS fight caused many difficulties with unending political clashes and uncertainties. The protests sparked by electricity outages brought into the agenda other issues such as the government services and corruption, thereby increasing the number of protesters. People took to the streets in Baghdad first and then the protests spread to other towns mainly in the south. As a result of popular unrest, which intensified in Baghdad, Najaf, Kerbela, Hilla, Nasiriyah and Diwaniyah and even in front of Shia religious leader Ayatollah Ali Sistani’s residence, Ali Sistani called the government to “take into consideration the popular demands” and urged Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi to act “bravely.” Therefore, Abadi declared a 7-article reform package and asked the parliament to pass it. The reform package includes the following clauses:
- Abolishing the posts of vice-Presidents and deputy Prime Ministers,
- Decreasing the number of Ministries and limiting their authorities,
- Decreasing the number of security personnel for state officials,
- Abolishing the exceptional budget for state officials,
- Fighting against corruption and examining the corruption files with haste,
- Ensuring merit and justice in high level government posts and eliminating sectarian and partisan approaches in state administration.
The reform package announced by the Prime Minister’s Office on 9 August 2015 has been accepted unanimously by 295 members in the Iraqi Parliament session on 11 August 2015, for which is a first in the post-Saddam history of Iraq. It is conspicuous that all political groups took part in the voting and the absent deputies did not belong to a particular group. The unanimous voting in the parliament clearly shows the impact of the protests on politicians. They have been forced to converge on the issue, under the impact of both the protesters and the anxiety caused by the Arab Spring protests. It is apparent that politicians still vividly remember the dire straits that governments faced during the popular uprisings in the Arab Spring. It is particularly important that the Iraqi people are deeply disturbed about the corruption charges. Hassan al-Yasiri, member of Iraq Honesty Commission, announced in June that 15 former ministers, 122 high-level bureaucrat and 1668 civil servants are charged with corruption. Moreover, money amounting to 45 billion US dollars are missing from the records in the budget of 2014, while 766 million dollars of the State Treasury are completely lost.
The Abadi Government has found itself facing difficulties on two fronts, one against the ISIS and one about the popular protests. Abadi was forced to announce reforms particularly following the pressure by the Marja, who improved his influence on the government during the fight against the ISIS. Even though it is claimed that Maliki and other prominent rival politicians support the anti-Abadi protests, at in the final analysis, the situation is favorable to Abadi. After his reform announcement, people rallied to the streets cheering for Abadi. In addition, the abolishment of deputy posts for Presidency and Prime Ministry in the reform package put Abadi in a position of the sole leader wielding power at the high level, since President Fuad Masum pursues a low-profile political career. Vice President Nouri al-Maliki and Deputy Prime Minister Baha al-Araj, who had the potential to challenge Abadi, were forced to remain in the background. Since Kurds and Sunni Arabs used to hold other deputy posts, their objections are nullified for the moment. Even so, it is likely that the balance in Iraqi politics will be shattered. The political groups, which remain silent due to the popular reactions, will be poised to strike at Abadi the moment he missteps. That clearly is the case since each government formation talks after 2003 focused on the sharing of high level posts such as President, vice-President, Prime Minister, deputy Prime Minister and Parliament Speaker, all of which enable representation on the official level. Therefore, as the posts enabling representation diminishes, new political problems are likely to emerge, which will reduce different factions' feeling of attachment to Iraq.
In addition, while Abadi strengthens his hand at the level of state administration, he shares power and responsibility by abolishing ministries and transferring their power to local authorities. This is a move that might provide relief for Abadi and the Iraqi government in terms of its responsibility to the people. Even so, the transfer of power will strengthen local authorities and enhance decentralization in Iraq. Such a development is likely to limit the rule and capability of the central government. It may ironically deepen the rift in Iraq.
While the ambiguity about the effectiveness and implementation of the package continues, the current situation has clearly revealed several facts about Iraq. First, the content of the reform package implies an acceptance that the state administration in Iraq lacks merit, fosters corruption and comprises a sectarian and partisan structure. The government’s reform initiative has shown that the Iraqi people are capable of bringing about change and the Iraqi politicians are able to agree on an issue when people push their demands. In addition, the influence of the Shia Marjah on the government is proven once again. The relationship between the government and the Marjah is clearly demonstrated by Haider al Abadi’s expression of gratitude to the Marjah.
The political relief provided by the reform package is accompanied by political and moral strengthening of the government in the fight against ISIS. This fact is underscored by the visit of Abadi to the forces fighting against the ISIS in Ramadi immediately after the Parliament session that passed the reform package. Even so, Iraq is going through a critical phase of fragmentation. Over the last year, there has been limited progress in the fight against the ISIS, while the government’s inherent weakness have been hardly overcome. At this point, if the implementation of the reform package goes wrong, Iraq will be more likely to devolve into a deeper chaos.