Baghdad, Iraq – Passing through the Iraqi capital’s traffic jams in Andalus square, tucked away behind an ordinary building blocked by spike strips, lies the office of the country’s Communist Party.
The group has recently come under the spotlight after – in an unlikely move – it joined the Sairoon alliance of Shia leader Muqtada al-Sadr competing in Iraq’s recent parliamentary elections.
Beating expectations, the coalition came out on top in the May 12 vote, winning 54 out of 328 seats.
With Iraq entering a potentially long period of negotiations over the formation of a new government, Al Jazeera spoke to Raed Fahmi, the Communist Party’s secretary and a former minister for science and technology.
The interview below has been slightly edited for clarity and brevity.
Al Jazeera: What does the Communist Party stand for and what are its goals?
Raed Fahmi: Our party, the oldest in Iraq, was established in 1934. It stands for the rights of working people; for the country’s independence; for its development; and of course, in the current situation, we are calling for a change to the civil state – we’re calling for a citizens’ state based on justice and equal opportunities.
We believe that over the past 12 years, the political process was based on an ethnic and sectarian system. I think this so-called “quota system” is responsible for the crisis the country is now facing. It created the grounds for corruption and lack of development.
Change should begin by reforming state institutions to achieve social justice and real socioeconomic development.
Al Jazeera: You are on the far left of the political spectrum and your partners are from the far right. How did you come together?
Fahmi: We analysed the possible changes in terms of balance of power and the opportunities that we hope to advance.
Firstly, we had to get rid of occupation and regain and enhance our sovereignty. We have now ended up with a capitalist system.
We are calling for social justice, a social security system in terms of creating jobs and enhancing the productive base of the economy.
Since 2003, we are fully dependent on oil. Agriculture, industry, manufacturing have all regressed, accounting for not more than 1.25 percent of GDP. Our strategy is to reactivate agriculture, manufacturing and other productive activity, and at the same time provide protection to the people.
In terms of social advancement, we want to strengthen labour laws and fiscal policies. Iraq should not be a consumer-only market for the production activities of neighbouring countries.
Al Jazeera: So, your vision for Iraq is to become more of a social or welfare state. Yet, you are only a junior partner in this alliance. How effective do you think your message is going to be with you majority partner?
Fahmi: If we are talking about the Sadrists, they also have social content in their manifesto. It’s probably not completely formulated, but they are for social justice. We have a lot of common ground because their base is the poor and marginalised people.
We are in a country that’s in deep crisis at this particular juncture; all indicators are bad, not only in terms of terrorism and security. There is high unemployment; marginalised people; poor social public services; very bad infrastructure.
All these big challenges constitute a platform under which you can build a very wide-ranging coalition for the national interest.
Al Jazeera: Assuming you come to power with your partners, what will your agenda be? What do you want to achieve in the first 60-90 days?
Fahmi: There are things achievable in the short term, as an orientation to start major reforms. Certain laws have been passed without implementation for eight years – this should be a priority.
Of course, the old files of corruption should be activated. We should give priority to legislation concerning social security.
As far as the government is concerned, the first challenge is to form a government which is based not on an ethnic and sectarian affiliation. We should have a government committed to oversee the reform and social development programmes.
The government should put forward its programme in a very precise way with strict timelines. It will be the government’s responsibility to take the country in the right direction.
We need to use a concrete action plan with clear and well-defined priorities regarding public services and education.
The same goes for healthcare. The health system suffers from rampant corruption and this should be revised. Of course, we should probably revisit all the fees and taxes for certain services, and we ought to also consider the real estate sector too.
Not all of this is achievable in our four years but it will be a step in the right direction.
Al Jazeera: In terms of its structure, the Communist Party is seen as secretive. There is also a certain pushback against communists. Some Iraqis see you as atheists, does this pose an obstacle to you?
Fahmi: We are a transparent organisation. All our bodies are elected and our latest congress was held publicly in Baghdad. So there’s nothing secretive. Whenever there is a meeting or congress, we publish our documents. In this regard, we are very open and very transparent – our publications are on the website.
Secondly, we have a good image among the population – we should distinguish between voting and image, not everyone who appreciate us actually votes for us.
As far as other issues are concerned, we have our philosophy but in the last 84 years we never did anything to offend others’ convictions or beliefs – whether those of Muslims or any other religious group and this can be documented.
Regarding atheism, these were just rumours. Reasonable, religious people recognise this. Muqtada al-Sadr is actually a religious man and he is from a well-known religious family. He accepted to deal with communists, he didn’t find any reason not to do this. He said publicly that he is working with communists because we have common objectives concerning nationwide reforms, concerning people and change.
The country faces big challenges and we can address these challenges together with parties from different backgrounds and ideologies who share the concerns and interest as the people of Iraq.
Al Jazeera: What is Sairoon’s vision for Iraq’s relationship with other countries? You and al-Sadr were against the US invasion and outside influence. Two areas defining the current political climate in Iraq are its relations with Iran and the US. How do you think you can effect progress in light of these circumstances?
Fahmi: We are saying we are for bilateral relations with all countries but based on respect of Iraq’s sovereignty and non-intervention in our internal affairs. It is possible to have friendly relations with all our neighbours on the basis of mutual respect.
We are saying we can keep balanced relations and we can have trade and other commercial relations with all countries but we don’t accept military bases in our country.
When we were fighting Daesh [ISIL, also known as ISIS], there was international support for the mission. There is no such need any more.
Fahmi: The only presence that exists is that of advisers, who are here for a few particular functions. But permanent military bases are not acceptable, and as far as I know, the Iraqi government didn’t allow permanent military bases.
We must try to deal with issues clearly; our interest must not risk Iraq’s interests. If we can build an Iraq on the basis of our own independence and sovereignty, I think this Iraq will be respected by others, whether it be the Americans, Iranians or any other country. And this is what we are working to achieve.
We have to work with the Iraqi people – so far they have been divided and all other external forces found it easy to intervene because they found receptive ears.
What we are saying is that we should reinforce Iraqi unity.
Al Jazeera: What about Iranian influence? You said that you want to build your identity, but on the ground, you have very strong ideological bonds and cross-border affiliations which can’t be washed away easily?
Fahmi: Hashd al-Shaaba (Shia militias) are Iraqis. Yes, they are close to Iran but we are saying and insisting that all forces should belong to Iraq’s interest first.
And this should apply to all forces and I think when we are talking about building the state, building armed forces, loyalty to Iraq’s interest – this should apply to everybody.
As far as I know all, other political forces including Hashd accept these principles. Iraqis will decide who controls Iraq – no one from outside.