Iraq’s power-sharing system was designed to reduce ethno-sectarian tensions. But it has encouraged corruption by enabling political parties, and their loyalists from all sects and ethnicities, to capture key state institutions.
The ethos of national unity
The political parties that have dominated Iraq since 2003 were not created in the aftermath of regime change. Nor was the system that would shape post-Saddam governance. The framework of what would become Iraq’s new political system emerged much earlier, from a series of meetings held throughout the 1990s among members of the Iraqi opposition – primarily consisting of a mix of exiled parties: the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP), the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), the Iraqi National Congress (INC), Iraqi National Accord (INA) and the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI).
Following these meetings, the parties agreed on a new political system defined by identity-based power-sharing – or informal consociationalism – which would become known in wider popular discourse as muhasasa taifiya. The opposition leaders used this concept to argue that governance after Saddam would be more representative of Iraq as a whole if it was based on the ethnic and religious identities that the Baath Party had repressed.
The key moment when this disparate group of formerly exiled political parties came together to enact this concept and form an elite pact to run Iraq was in July 2003. Based on advice from the UN secretary-general’s special representative in Iraq, Sérgio Vieira de Mello, they formed the Iraqi Governing Council (IGC). The IGC was organized by the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA), the US-led occupation authority. At this point, the focus of those seeking power was at the elite level. The formerly exiled political parties dominated the process of selecting the IGC’s 25 members. The parties demanded from the CPA, and were granted, the right to veto any of the appointments to the IGC. Members of the formerly exiled political parties ended up taking 18 of the positions on the IGC.
In their negotiations with the CPA, the parties also demanded the right to pick the cabinet ministers for the first post-Baath government. In September 2003, the announcement of the new 25-member cabinet indicated that the parties at the core of the new elite pact had successfully secured control over the institutions and resources of the Iraqi state. As the ministers subsequently chosen by the IGC took up their new roles, the parties gained authority over the budgets and payrolls of the corresponding ministries.
Ideologically, this competition for control of the state by a group of formerly exiled politicians, empowered by the US force of arms, was justified through the claim that they represented the different ethnic and religious groups that made up Iraqi society.
Ideologically, this competition for control of the state by a group of formerly exiled politicians, empowered by the US force of arms, was justified through the claim that they represented the different ethnic and religious groups that made up Iraqi society. Two of the major parties, the KDP and the PUK, claimed to be the national representatives of Iraq’s Kurdish minority. Another two parties, SCIRI and the Islamic Dawa Party, argued that they represented the Shia majority of Iraq, while the Iraq Islamic Party claimed to represent the Sunni section of society. The parties used the muhasasa taifiya and the ethos of national unity to legitimize the division of state resources among themselves.
The first national election in January 2005 was contested by large electoral coalitions of parties claiming to represent different ethno-sectarian communities. The United Iraqi Alliance (UIA), which brought together the Shia Islamist parties, gained a plurality of the votes, winning 48.2 per cent, while the Kurdistan Alliance (KA) won 25 per cent. In spite of their coalition’s clear victory in that election, senior UIA figures Abdul Aziz Hakim, Ibrahim al-Jaafari and Nouri al-Maliki were all committed to ‘an inclusive solution’. This, they said, would build ‘harmony among all segments of the Iraqi people’.
Fuad Maasum, the chief negotiator for the KA, set out how this inclusive solution would be reached: through extended negotiations until a bargain could be brokered on all aspects of government formation. Only when this general agreement had been achieved would the newly elected national assembly convene to give its formal blessing to what had been negotiated behind closed doors by political party bosses. This type of extended negotiation between the dominant political parties has shaped the formation of governments after every national election since 2005.
Once the dominant parties had established their elite pact, the next step was to ‘sectarianize’ the three most important offices of state. This involved dividing the roles of prime minister, president and parliamentary speaker between the dominant parties. In the name of Shia Arab majoritarianism, the UIA claimed the premiership, thought to have the greatest coordinating power within the government. The KA took the presidency. The position of speaker of parliament was allocated to political parties claiming to represent Iraqi Sunnis.
Of greater importance, given the resources that the state commanded, was another agreement to allocate control of government ministries to political parties. Again this process, and its domination by the leading parties, was justified by the claim that sharing control of the state in this way was simply a means to recognize and work within the existing ethno-sectarian divisions in Iraqi society. Although the principle underpinning these allocations was not questioned in 2005, the negotiations produced acrimony over which parties should get control of which ministries, given the different levels of power and different-sized budgets associated with each ministry.
This commitment to muhasasa taifiya and the ethos of national unity not only justified the elite pact’s takeover of state power – it also provided ideological coherence and unity to the parties, along with a common agreement effectively legitimizing the pursuit of resource extraction and societal domination. The mistrust, tension and competition within the ruling elite were reflected by the considerable length of time it took after each national election to reach agreement over the formation of a new government. Since 2005, the entire negotiation process – from the national vote to actual government formation – has occurred six times (see below), taking an average of 138 days to complete.
The role of elections in enforcing elite dominance
Since 2003, Iraqi lawmakers have agreed and ratified various electoral laws and reforms. They moved away from a closed-list system in 2005, to a semi-closed list in 2010, to open lists in 2014, and to a first-past-the-post constituency system in 2021 (the latter following an electoral reform law passed by the Iraqi parliament). Despite the changes in electoral laws, the essential process of government formation and its dominance by the same political parties has remained consistent, guided by an ethno-sectarian division of power in the name of national unity.
The parties that form the elite pact have built their long-term economic, political and coercive unity during successive government formation processes. As mentioned above, these negotiations have occurred after each national election: twice in 2005, then in 2010, 2014, 2018 and again in 2019–20 after Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mahdi was forced to resign. Each time, the process has highlighted the critical role of elections in reinforcing the dominance of members of the elite pact. For example, although electoral turnout in Iraq has declined since 2005 and the ‘Shia bloc’ has fractured, Shia Islamist parties have retained their ability to gain a plurality of votes and seats in successive Iraqi parliaments.
In part, such outcomes reflect the fact that national elections in Iraq, whatever rules they are run under, not only empower competing political parties but also regulate that competition. Following the second national elections of December 2005, the UIA introduced a way to institutionalize the division of government ministries after each election, reducing the wrangling involved in the process. The allocation of ministerial control was to be determined according to a points system based on the number of seats each party in the elite pact had gained in the elections. This allowed parties to take the ‘points’ accrued through winning parliamentary seats and ‘spend’ them on securing control of the three main offices of state or access to ministries with different levels of power and financial worth. For example, two parliamentary seats were worth one point after the 2018 elections. The offices of prime minister, president and speaker of parliament each cost about 15 points to obtain. Cabinet posts were divided into sovereign ministries (interior, finance, oil, foreign affairs and defence) and service ministries, with the electricity and health ministries having the largest budgets. In 2018, it cost five electoral points for a party to obtain control of a sovereign ministry, and four to obtain control of a service ministry.
The political system that the dominant parties have created is highly decentred. In 2005 each government minister, once appointed, owed loyalty not to the government, the prime minister or a cabinet minister, but to the party bosses who had selected him or her to run that ministry. And each prime minister, from Ibrahim al-Jaafari onwards, has struggled to impose any form of centralizing logic on this system. Nouri al-Maliki, the only prime minister to have served two terms (from 2006 to 2014), had the most success. However, his efforts also put the system as a whole under immense pressure by undermining the already weak coherence and independence of the senior civil service.