From Maliki to Abadi:
The Challenge of Being Iraq’s Prime Minister Part 2 of 2
By: Harith Hasan Al-Qarawee
Abadi’s “Reforming” Agenda, and His Lack of a Constituency
Abadi’s government, like the previous governments of Iraq, is a “national unity” government. Positions are distributed between different parties based on the number of each party’s parliamentary seats. Ministers follow their party’s instructions even when it comes to micro-management issues such as appointments and contracting.
This power-sharing arrangement is usually referred to by Iraqis as Muhassessa (apportionment). Its downside is that the prime minister cannot fully control his government or make sure that it is united behind a specific agenda. Maliki dealt with this problem by creating parallel bodies and staffing them with his loyalists, and by issuing directives to appoint under-ministerial senior staff in an acting capacity. He thereby created a kind of shadow state that circumvented constitutional limitations.
Abadi has sometimes resorted to similar methods in order to give himself more leeway in making decisions, but this has infuriated other parties, who then see him as “another Maliki.” “We are not consulted, and we know about his decisions through media,” noted one Shia official.
The KRG keeps accusing Baghdad of penalizing its population by delaying stipend payments to Kurdish government employees. The region continued exporting oil from its fields and from Kirkuk, which had been subjected to the de facto control of Kurdish forces; but the resources generated from those exports are still less than what the region secures from its share of the federal budget.
Expressing disappointment with Baghdad’s attitude, KRG president Masoud Barzani threatened to organize a referendum on the independence of Kurdistan. Conversely, Baghdad accused the KRG of acting as an independent state with its own autonomous foreign, security, and economic policies.
The federal government argued that it was within its exclusive powers to export oil and to make agreements with foreign countries and companies. According to a senior Iraqi official, “if Kurdistan wants to split from Iraq, nobody will prevent it from doing so.”
Another important issue that Abadi failed to resolve was relations with Sunni Arabs. Abadi was aware that his predecessor had been repeatedly accused of pursuing exclusivist sectarian policies, and he tried to avoid such accusations. Indeed, the political agreement that established the government made it a requirement to pass new laws and measures to address sectarian tensions.
For example, the National Guards law was suggested as a mechanism whereby security apparatuses would be decentralized and local Sunni fighters motivated to secure their areas by giving them governmental guarantees and adding them to a sustainable formal payroll system.
Abadi could not get major parties to agree on a single version of this law, however. Most Shia parties, including his own SOL, were suspicious that the law would end up creating a Sunni military force that would be paid by the government but whose loyalty would lie somewhere else.
Accordingly, those parties proposed formalizing the Popular Mobilization Forces (PMFs), which were predominantly irregular Shia forces, and integrating Sunni fighters into its formations. Pressure from the Shia alliance forced Abadi to go with this option.
Initially, Maliki attempted to use his leverage within powerful groups in the PMFs, such as Badr and AAH, to weaken Abadi’s authority. Before leaving office, he issued a decree turning the PMFs into a formal body organized and funded by the state. Confronting that reality and in order not to antagonize the PMFs, Abadi instructed his ministers to deal with the PMFs as an official body under his authority as commander in chief.
Lacking a clear vision, though, on how to proceed with his reforms after having raised public expectations, Abadi again started clashing with other parties. He did not have full support even from his own coalition and therefore found it difficult to promote his brand as a reformer while having to deal with a parliament in which he had almost no constituency. This is what impelled Abadi to declare that he would form a government of technocrats to proceed with his reforms and stop parties from hindering his agenda.
This was a dangerous gamble, however, because Abadi was intent on depriving parties of their leverage in state institutions without possessing the tools to do so constitutionally. Unable to achieve his goal, Abadi paved the way for a more powerful figure, Muqtada al-Sadr, to jump in, assume the leadership of the protest movement, and demand an independent government of technocrats.
Abadi might have thought that he could make use of Sadr’s ability to organize massive protests in order to place more pressure on other parties—but this also meant that he himself would become a captive of Sadr’s ambition to dominate Shia politics.
Abadi’s gamble led to further instability, especially after the storming of the Iraqi parliament by Sadrist protesters in an attempt to force MPs to approve the technocrats’ government.
The political process seemed to be heading toward a more dangerous path, with radical tendencies growing among the public and institutions crumbling on account of political tension. In his risky attempts to create a constituency, he destabilized his government, lost the support of most parties and jeopardized his political career.
Abadi’s experience as Iraq’s prime minister teaches us an important lesson: Changing the prime minister without changing the paradigm of and formula for governance in Iraq has not yielded significant results.
The ethno-sectarian paradigm now prevailing in Iraq will keep limiting the prime minister’s room for maneuver, while depriving him of the leverage necessary to initiate major reforms. The prime minister’s political effectiveness depends on his ability to create a consensus around his policies, or else to impose his own options if a consensus cannot be achieved.
This is why both Maliki and Abadi sought ways to build autonomous political constituencies. Maliki did this by exploiting sectarianism and patronage to consolidate his support base within his Shia community, which in the end further polarized Iraqi politics and made it difficult to bridge the gap between communities.
The circle of blame that characterized Maliki’s terms has been repeated: The prime minister blames parties for focusing on their narrow interests and thereby placing hurdles in his way; the parties, in turn, criticize him for attempting to pursue a unilateral and exclusivist policy—or, alternatively, for being uncertain about what he wants.
In the words of a senior Shia politician, “Abadi does not know exactly what he wants... in the morning we agree with him on something, just to hear that he changed his mind in the evening.”
Complicating things further for Abadi is that the organizing doctrine behind the Iraqi polity today is one based on communal representation: Politicians are largely seen as representatives of their communities rather than as constituting a broader national base. They are expected to remain loyal to their sub-national constituencies, which extends to adopting uncompromising and unrealistic positions with respect to relations with other communities.
The prime minister is constrained both by the need to secure the support of his own community and by the inflexibility shown by leaders of other communities.
Abadi was not as lucky as Maliki, who ruled Iraq at a time when oil prices (which account for 95 percent of the governmental budget) reached unprecedented heights.
Oil prices started to fall dramatically a few months after Abadi’s inauguration as prime minister, and the resulting shrinking resources placed unprecedented pressure on him. In a political culture whose alliances are largely shaped by patronage, Abadi found it difficult to expand his political and popular base.
Maliki effectively employed patronage to attract allies and neutralize some of his opponents; Abadi seemed to lack both the skills and the resources to act similarly.
Moreover, besides needing to decrease unnecessary expenditures, the government had to deal with a wave of popular protests that began during the summer of 2015.
Reacting to these challenges, Abadi tried to reposition himself as a reformer. He announced three reform packages, including one that abolished the positions of his deputies and vice-presidents.
Abadi may have thought that he could exploit the pressure coming from the increasingly discontented public to build a support base and force other parties to give him more freedom.
Initially, he did manage to gain some concessions from the parties: Stunned by the unexpected wave of protests, the parliament gave him full support to implement his reforms, on condition that those reforms did not violate the constitution.
He became the most powerful and popular Shia politician, but the price was losing credibility among Sunnis and Kurds, while alarming his Shia rivals. Abadi tried to create a constituency by trying to be a reformer.
The April 30 protesters focused their criticism on muhassessa: power-sharing agreements that made state institutions resemble the fiefdoms of powerful parties. Abadi hoped that the pressure from the street might ease the parties’ grip over ministries and governmental bodies, which in turn could help him pursue his agenda more smoothly.
Lacking a parliamentary bloc that supported him, however, Abadi relied on that pressure, and on extra-constitutional forces, such as the Shia religious authority and Sadr’s movement, to compel parties to accept reforms that limited their powers.
This put him in the awkward position of needing the support of the very forces that he sought to undermine. The outcome was contradictory policies, and choices that lacked clarity and decisiveness.
What Abadi wanted was to be a more effective prime minister, but the means of achieving this became as problematic as those adopted by his predecessor.
As the country faces the difficult economic challenge resulting from the decline in oil prices, along with a fierce and costly war against ISIS, Abadi’s indecisiveness and lack of leverage could cost him his office, or at least keep him as an ineffectual leader waiting to be replaced after the next election.
In the end, the prime minister has managed neither to assert his image as a reformer, nor to keep the support of major political groups, which he needs to facilitate his effective performance.
Additionally, the storming of Parliament by Sadrist protesters left Abadi in the awkward position of not deciding where to stand. In the increasingly polarized Iraqi political climate, Abadi, indecisive and lacking the tools to implement solutions to Iraq’s problems, might be the next victim of the country’s dysfunctional system
Dr. Harith Hasan Al-Qarawee is a Junior Research Fellow at the Crown Center where he is working on a book titled “Shiism and State in Iraq: Authority, Identity and Politics.”
The opinions and findings expressed in this Brief belong to the author exclusively and do not reflect those of the Crown Center or Brandeis University