A step back for democracy in Iraq

In all the wrangling about the constitution, the one group nobody is consulting is the Iraqi people.

David Chandler

Topics Politics

The US deadline for the Iraqi parliament to decide on a new constitution has been extended for a week, until 22 August. Divisions have hardened between Kurd, Shia and Sunni representatives over the distribution of oil wealth and questions of federalism and regional autonomy. The coalition has promoted the constitutional process as a step on the way to parliamentary democracy in Iraq (1), but this looks unlikely.

The negotiations are run to the international coalition’s timetable – the USA set timelines for a referendum on the constitution in mid-October 2005, and national elections in December. Iraqi people played little role in designing the process. As a result, it was bound to create friction – and looks set to further hollow out the institutions of the Iraqi state.

America’s dismantling of the Ba’athist regime left a power vacuum at the centre of Iraq. This is exemplified by the isolation of the fortified Green Zone in Baghdad, where the majority of American soldiers protect themselves and their stooges from excluded Iraqis. The destruction of the Iraqi central state – from security through to public welfare, communications and fuel supplies – inevitably strengthened the hand of regional, ethnic and religious claimants previously marginalised by Ba’athist rule.

The occupation forces have been unable to restore the central state’s links to the regions. The Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) ruled by diktat, leaving no possibility of broader public debate over the country’s future. The consultation Iraqi Governing Council was handpicked rather than elected. At regional and local levels, CPA officials attempted to marginalise the influence of sectional political parties, while co-opting technocrats and working with moderate religious and ethnic leaders. Funding for service provision and infrastructure projects came largely through provincial-level US military and CPA officials, who consulted with select local ‘representatives’.

Without any clear strategy to galvanise and take Iraqi society forward, the international administration increasingly focused on the bureaucratic tasks of appointing local councils and provincial committees (2). At every level, from the national down to the provincial to the local, the key relationships were those between international officers and their Iraqi interlocutors. Political power was dispersed through the patronage of international administrators, with budgets to award hand-picked individuals. Rather than building a state, the transitional administration in fact undermined the fabric of Iraqi institutions and connections between Iraqis.

The snap Iraqi elections at the end of January 2005 reflected the division and fragmentation of post-war Iraq, with 83 party coalitions, most of which were formed on ethnic or religious lines. It took several months of political wrangling to form the interim government, whose main task was not the development of policy decisions (CPA laws still shape national policy, with ministries overseen by external advisers) but the drafting of the constitution. The debate on the constitution was largely a sideshow, but did provide parliamentarians with a platform and some negotiating weight with the international administration. It is little surprise that rhetorical positions have hardened, with Kurd, Shia and Sunni representatives all pushing their separate claims, and seeking to gain more privileges from one-to-one negotiations with the team of the US ambassador to Iraq, Zalmay Khalilzad.

It appears that the US occupation forces are more in favour of maintaining a secular centralised Iraqi state, than Iraqi representatives, who favour decentralisation. (The exception is the minority Sunni community, which is likely to lose out in any decentralisation process.) Western media coverage takes this as a sign of the dangers of democracy in Iraq – with fears that, in the absence of international guidance, Iraq could slide into civil war or repressive theocracy (3). In fact, the problem in Iraq is the lack of democratic involvement in the political process. Even the constitutional question is driven from above. The sectarian debate is the result of political elites negotiating with international administrators, not arguing with each other, or galvanising and broadening their constituencies.

The constitutional debate reveals the isolation of the interim parliament from Iraqi society, and the lack of any political force capable of driving forward a collective vision of the future for the Iraqi people. The Iraqi state exists on paper more than in reality. It is weakened from above, by an army of occupation and a body of laws that have little to do with the population. The longer the Iraqi parliament remains a sideshow, the more difficult it will be for Iraqis to have a genuine national debate about the future. Without the engagement of the Iraqi people there can be no reconstitution of an Iraqi state.

David Chandler is senior lecturer in international relations, Centre for the Study of Democracy, University of Westminster. See his webpage here.

(1) Rice Calls Iraqi Constitutional Process ‘Democracy at Work’, US State Department, 15 August 2005

(2) See the revealing memoir of Mark Etherington, the CPA Governorate Coordinator in al-Kut, in Revolt on the Tigris: The Al-Sadr Uprising and the Governing of Iraq, London: Hurst & Co., 2005

(3) For example, Rory Carroll, ‘Iraq: Arab Champion or Cauldron of Civil War?’, Guardian, 16 August 2005

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Topics Politics


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