Monday, December 14, 2009

Hopeless in Baghdad

Iraq’s so-called secular coalitions contesting January polls are nothing but inconsistent & rag-tag groups of sectarian and confessional political entities that have run out of ideas, says Saurabh Kumar Shahi

International affairs become a tricky business when you try to see a country with a perspective that you have drawn from a separate nation with completely different guiding principles. For example, an Indian scribe can never understand why Iraq, a country whose population can be compared with just a couple of Indian metropolises, has a total of 296 registered political parties.

And mind you, almost none of them are redundant and all of them are contesting at least one seat each. And there are very few countries where the number of political parties in the fray exceeds the number of seats (275) being contested for. But then, how many countries are on the verge of Balkanization to the extent of Iraq? And that explains the quagmire of the upcoming Iraqi elections. “Iraq exhibits an extent of political division generally found in first time multi-party polls, nevertheless hardly ever seen subsequently. Even the figure of broad-based coalitions — minimum six, as of today — suggests profound fragmentation,” says Marina Ottaway, an Iraq expert with Carnegie Centre, while speaking to TSI.

So, why this fragmentation? Does it reflect the aspirations and thought of common Iraqis? Unfortunately, yes. There are numerous aspects that explain the systematic division of the Iraqi political fabric. But nothing is more serious than the legacy of the struggle against Saddam Hussein. Explains Amr Hamzawy, a Cairo-based expert, while talking to TSI, “A large part and section of Saddam’s resistance was planned along confessional lines. Political exiles in several countries came up with their own groups that used to attract flesh and blood as well as finances from different organisations and countries. The present political system is a mere manifestation of the same.” Fair enough. But that only explains that things have changed for worse. When Baghdad fell in 2003, none of these rag-tag groups could take the credit of having “liberated” the country. Consequently, the subsequent elections in 2005 threw a profoundly fractured parliament, aggravating the quandary.

So what have western backed indigenous institutions come up with to deal with it in the up-coming elections? They have opted for an electoral system that not only reflects a lack of imagination but is also playing to the gallery. The “Proportional Representation” that they have come up with, is expected to further disseminate the division. They have failed to devise a mechanism to reduce the number of coalitions and parties. Worse, this will also fuel intra-party struggle on sectarian and regional lines and further implode several coalitions. Clearly, the institutions have shown sheer lack of knowledge in dealing with the task they were entrusted with.

Many western analysts still maintain that all is not wrong with the country and assert that the present elections are being fought on a “non-sectarian” base, or at least a diminished sectarian base than the previous polls. It gives a false impression that sectarianism and confessionalism is on wane in Iraq. It is far from it.

The truth is as complex as the political scene. If you leave aside Kurds, other pre-poll coalitions are indeed rainbow alliances that draws from a set of political entities, intelligentsia and ethnicity. But it is hogwash at the best. All the parties that form these coalitions have drawn strength from a particular group or sect or ethnicity. And it is something that is predominant, not a one off. “If you really want a confessionalism-free democracy, the process should reach the very roots. A non-sectarian coalition made up of confessional political entity is just a laughing stock,” explains Amr. And if that was not enough, in each of these alliances the biggest coalition partner holds a sway, which automatically means that the confession it represents will have a larger say in the affairs and agenda of the coalition.

Thus, Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s Rule of Law Coalition is dominated by Dawa, a significant Shia group, and some of the largely insignificant Sunni and Kurdish factions. Similarly, the Iraqi National Alliance, which comprises major Shia factions is also luring groups from other sects but remains essentially a Shia alliance. Therefore, on the face of it, an alliance that binds major Shia, Sunni and Kurdish parties, is non-existent. The only possible exception is the secular Iraqi National Movement (INM). The coalition boasts of a rainbow of well known intellectuals and lawmakers from both the Shia and the Sunni sections, including Iraqi Front for National Dialogue chief Saleh al-Mutlaq, former Prime Minister Iyad Allawi, Vice President Tareq al-Hashemi and speaker Mahmoud al-Mashhadani. However, it can merely be termed as an “alliance of convenience”. There is no set of principles that all of them agree upon. Whether or not will it survive the post-poll tensions is anybody’s guess.

And as if it was not enough, last week, Vice President Tareq al-Hashemi vetoed the proposal asking for more representation for 2 to 3 million expatriate Iraqis—mostly Sunnis—who fled following Saddam’s fall. He, along with Kurdish groups and President Jalal Talabani, called for Article One of the election law to be amended to allow 15 per cent of the seats to be reserved as “national seats”.

Although Iraq’s top judicial body has termed the veto illegal, a further delay in January’s elections seems unavoidable as lawmakers were still arguing the nuances of the law and decision.

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Source :
IIPM Editorial, 2009

An IIPM and Professor Arindam Chaudhuri (Renowned Management Guru and Economist) Initiative

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