Iraq elections: Marred by corruption?

Iraq’s kleptocratic system is unlikely to change with the upcoming elections.

Iraq is to hold general elections on April 30 [AFP/Getty Images]

It is election season in Iraq and along with the deepening sectarian entrenchment and heightened violence that usually accompanies Iraqi elections, many are asking what is at stake and how, if at all possible, the elections might bring about the changes Iraq’s political scene so desperately needs.

The polls are scheduled for April 30, but there remains considerable uncertainty as to whether successful elections can even be held in some areas – given the renewed and reinvigorated insurgencies in various parts of the country – particularly in Anbar, Diyala and Ninewa.

In any case, voting day is merely the beginning of a messy and opaque process that, last time in 2010, took over 35 weeks to yield a “national-unity government” – a euphemism for a government that includes every political actor capable of muscling their way into an oversized cabinet with little regard for governance, internal sovereignty or political stability. The sorry by-line of the 2010 elections was that no significant Iraqi political actor was willing to occupy the vital role of a democratic opposition.

There are a number of ills that are often mentioned when explaining the self-evident shortcomings of post-2003 Iraqi politics: the occupation, sectarianism, corruption, historic grievances, the wanting calibre of Iraq’s political classes, external interference and so forth. All of these and many more may be valid but they are underlined and perpetuated by the structural flaws of the post-2003 political order. Yet ironically, and as long as the system remains well greased with funds, these flaws are what give the new Iraq its resilience and its ability to resist change.

This is why talk of revolution in the case of Iraq is so vacuous: Power is so diffused and the political system is so opaque that short of eliminating every single post-2003 institution and political actor, there can be no overthrow of the order since it has no defining embodiment – no Saddam, Gaddafi, Assad, or Mubarak for optimistic revolutionaries to channel their hatred towards. In other words, despite his best efforts and despite his critics’ assertions to the contrary, Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki has yet to become the 21st century version of the 20th century Arab rayyis. Indeed it seems more than likely that, with or without Maliki, the post-2003 system will be perpetuating itself.

A rentier political marketplace

So what is the “nature” of Iraqi politics? It can safely be described as a kleptocracy or a rentier political marketplace. As described in Alex de Waal’s insightful analyses of politics in the Sudans, Somalia and other African contexts, a “rentier political marketplace” is a political-economic system structured around the dynamics of bargaining over rents and resources.

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There is no easier way of illustrating the applicability of this to post-2003 Iraq than in the inevitable post-poll political horse-trading that will inevitably follow April 30. Moreover, the dynamics of the rentier political marketplace so define the Iraqi political order that they are the cornerstone – the raison d’etre – of the resulting “national-unity” government and “power sharing”.   

In the 1960s, political scientist Stanislav Andreski coined the term “kleptocracy” in reference to Nigeria. As Andreski saw it, a kleptocracy is a state whose functions and institutions are determined not by laws and regulations but by the mechanisms of supply and demand. Crucially, and as de Waal points out, far more important than the self-evident fact that politicians and functionaries in such a system are likely to steal, is the fact that public positions are up for barter and sale.

As a result, corruption and patronage become the very essence of kleptocratic systems, thereby reducing the very concept of “public office” to the amount of resources a position bestows upon its holder to be disposed of as the officeholder sees fit. If the citizen is lucky then the politician or public official in question may use these resources in a manner befitting his/her job title. But, by definition, a kleptocracy does not mandate such benign behaviour. Needless to say, these dynamics limit the transformative potential of Iraq’s electoral process.

Ordered chaos

While the odds were always heavily stacked against the new Iraq’s potential for successful political development, the country’s current state of affairs should not be viewed as the preordained consequence of 2003 – much less of 2010.

The squandering of the progress and hope of 2009/2010 could have been avoided but for the calibre and lack of vision of Iraq’s political classes. After all, it is their kleptocratic tendencies and short-sightedness that have devalued “reconciliation” and “power sharing” in much the same way that the electoral process has been stripped of meaning and function.

Rather than instruments of state-building and democratic transformation, “reconciliation”, “power sharing” and the electoral process have become little more than mechanisms through which political elites gain access to and divide rents and resources. Their priority is not state building, good governance or political reform; system-maintenance rather than system-reform is the priority, hence for all the bloodshed and turbulence, Iraq can be described as being in a state of stable instability or ordered chaos.

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A majority government might have a chance of initiating change but alas the elections will almost certainly yield some form of “national-unity” government that essentially works against itself and ends up cannibalising the state. Change in Iraq is not impossible; it is just unlikely to happen anytime soon.

In his book, The Origins of Political Order, Francis Fukuyama discusses the reversal of patrimonialism and the birth of a professional civil service in late 17th century England. He argues that underlining the process were four key ingredients, none of which are even remotely available in Iraq or arguably, in the broader Arab world: 1) an external environment that puts fiscal pressure on governments to improve performance; 2) a political leadership that leads the reform effort or at the very least does not block it; 3) reform champions within the government and civil services who have the political support needed for success; 4) strong political pressure from below in the form of taxpayers’ demands.

With rents and a parasitic, self-interested political elite standing in the way of Fukuyama’s ingredients, change in Iraq will have to come from elsewhere. Despite the electoral process, it is unlikely for Iraq’s political classes to seriously change course unless one of three things occur.

Firstly, a generational change in leadership needs to occur. Even then, there is no guarantee that today’s political culture will not perpetuate itself into the next generation. Secondly, reform might become necessary in the unlikely event that the state is faced with an existential security threat. Until then a chaotic Anbar, Diyala or Ninewa and close to 1,000 violent deaths per month is something the political system can tolerate.

Finally, reform (or collapse) will become inescapable if the price of oil takes a significant drop. The Iraqi state today is a costly if inefficient business that will not be able to sustain itself nor to placate the citizenry with subpar services and superfluous employment were it to suffer a serious drop in revenue. Such a scenario would inevitably entail added hardship to ordinary Iraqis. Some might argue that that is the price of progress but then again that is what many argued in justifying the war of 2003.

Fanar Haddad is Research Fellow at the Middle East Institute, National University of Singapore. He is author of Sectarianism in Iraq: Antagonistic Visions of Unity.

Follow him on Twitter: @fanarhaddad