Iraqi PM, Nouri al-Maliki, appears to be using the mechanisms of democracy to expand his hold on power there. Observers fear that the new Iraqi leadership is a ‘democtator-ship’ and worry about the future of Iraqi democracy .
“Uniting to overcome echoes of the dictator’s drumbeat”: That was the poetic title of a petition recently presented to Iraq’s current prime minister, Nouri al-Maliki, and published in local media. The petition was organized by a group of Iraqi writers and intellectuals, and included the prominent Kurdish poet and activist Sherko Bekas.
“We are very concerned that Nouri al-Maliki and his government are becoming increasingly intolerant of any opposition opinions. We are also concerned about methods the government is using to suppress opposition opinions which are not legal in a state that claims respect for the rule of law,” the group wrote in an accompanying letter.
The petition was a reaction to the apparent government crackdown on protestors who were demonstrating peacefully in Baghdad’s Tahrir Square on June 10. The mostly young demonstrators were continuing in a series of protests, expressing dissatisfaction about the performance of al-Maliki’s government. They reported being beaten, stabbed and sexually molested by pro-government groups while security service personnel simply stood by and, according to protest organizers reporting to international group Human Rights Watch, even assisted the pro-government side.
The petition says that “the echoes of the dictator’s drumbeats” – an oblique reference to previous Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein – are no longer confined to the government’s back rooms but are now being heard more openly around Iraq, as well as in the semi-autonomous region of Iraqi Kurdistan, which is generally considered a more politically relaxed and democratic part of the country.
The argument generally made by al-Maliki’s opponents is that the prime minister is seeking to monopolize political power in Iraq and that he is trying to “swallow” the state whole. They say that since the federal elections in March 2010 al-Maliki has been fiddling with various laws and institutions in order to ensure his ongoing control of Iraqi politics.
It started with a decision made by Iraq’s Federal Court – the highest court in the land, similar to the US’ Supreme Court – shortly after national elections. In elections, al-Maliki’s main opposition, the mainly Sunni Muslim bloc led by former prime minister Iyad Allawi, actually managed to get two more seats than al-Maliki’s mainly Shiite Muslim party – 91 out of the 325 seat parliament, while al-Maliki only had 89 seats.
However the court ruled on which kind of group would be eligible to form a government and eventually judged that the largest political bloc, formed by the time that parliament sat again, would be the one eligible to nominate a prime minister. By teaming up with another Shiite Muslim political group headed by controversial Shiite cleric, Muqtada al-Sadr, which had another 70 seats al-Maliki, was able to form the largest bloc and he became prime minister.
Another ruling made by the Federal Court earlier this year was equally contentious. In a re-interpretation of another article in the Iraqi Constitution the court judged that a number of institutions which are ostensibly independent – such as the Independent High Electoral Commission, the Commission on Integrity, which is charged with rooting out corruption at all levels of Iraqi government and the Central Bank of Iraq – should be controlled by the government’s executive. Al-Maliki’s opponents say this is another attempt by the prime minister to monopolize power.
Even more worryingly, in the middle of 2010, Iraq’s Federal Court also ruled that members of the country’s Parliament could no longer propose new legislation – only al-Maliki’s cabinet or the Iraqi president could propose new laws, which would then be passed to Parliament to vote on.
Observers say it’s difficult to explain why the country’s highest court is making decisions that so clearly favour the political leadership’s ambitions for power. The long-time judges tend to be well respected and even opposition politicians do not accuse them of corruption. One theory has it that the judges are influenced by history and institutional habit; most of them worked under Saddam Hussein and some suggest that they are simply used to bowing to the wishes of the country’s leader and, behind the scenes, do not consider themselves an independent judicial body capable of ruling against the government. Theorists say this is evidenced by the fact that the Federal Court made similar decisions under the previous Iraqi executive led by what are now opposition parties.
And even if al-Maliki’s detractors are able to overlook those decisions made by the Federal Court, it is almost impossible to ignore the fact that the prime minister currently holds responsibility for Iraq’s most important security-related ministries and organizations. Currently no heads have been appointed to head the ministries of defence, national security and the interior. In the interim, all of these are under the control of the Iraqi executive.
Many politicians on the Iraqiya List, the political bloc led by Iyad Allawi and main opposition, have expressed fears about this, with some suggesting that the delay in making these new appointments is deliberate. Some politicians from within al-Maliki’s own ruling coalition, the National Iraqi Alliance, have also expressed similar concerns.
And recently the power struggle at the Ministry of Interior seems to have become more serious. At the end of June, MP Adnan al-Asadi, a member of al-Maliki’s party and former deputy interior minister, resigned his parliamentary duties so he could return to the ministerial post. Al-Maliki had previously nominated al-Asadi for minister of the interior but the nomination had been vetoed; al-Asadi was known as the “iron man” of the ministry when it was headed by another al-Maliki loyalist, Jawad al-Boulani.
In an off-the-record conversation, an official at the ministry told NIQASH that as soon as he resumed work at the ministry al-Asadi gave the order to either dismiss or transfer around 1,600 officials, including those in senior jobs. Al-Asadi claimed this was because there were too many people working unnecessarily inside the ministry. However the official told NIQASH that the real reason was because “there are doubts regarding their loyalty to al-Maliki and his party”.
Currently the Iraqi prime minister is also the politician responsible for the country’s intelligence service. The former head of the department, Mohammed al-Shahwani, a Sunni Muslim appointed to the post by the interim US administrator in 2004, seems to have been pushed to resign by al-Maliki due to conflict about Iranian activities in Iraq. He was replaced by Zuhair al-Gharbawi, who was close to al-Maliki.
Recently Al-Maliki also appointed his national security advisor, Faleh al-Fayad, who is also close to him, as interim Minister of State for National Security. The Iraqi prime minister’s office is also in charge of the controversial Counter-Terrorism Service (CTS), which remains unaffiliated with any ministry and which reports directly to him and is funded by his office.
Now observers fear that when the promise to trim the number of ministries in Iraq is eventually kept, that various departments of defence and security will lose chiefs from other parties and instead, combine under heads nominated by al-Maliki.
Al-Maliki’s political party, the Dawa party, has also become a more dominant force inside the federal and state bureaucracy. It controls various ministries and other areas of government. Members of the Dawa party occupy hundreds of senior management positions in key state departments and, after winning at provincial elections in 2009, the Dawa party controls nine out of 18 provincial governments.
The relationship between the party members and al-Maliki is not always smooth though. Al-Maliki joined the party in 1970 and in 2007 and 2009, he was easily elected general-secretary of the party. Currently the party’s internal bylaws prohibit anyone from holding that post for more than two terms but some observers suspect that al-Maliki, who has made it clear he doesn’t like that bylaw, may exert pressure on his party to change those rules.
The other interesting phenomenon occurring within the Dawa party is that, as the party grows more powerful, it attracts more supporters. This is similar to what happened with Saddam Hussein’s Baath party. In his 1993 book, The Den of Defeat: My Experience in the Iraqi Baath Party, Hani al-Fakiki writes about the Baath party’s early days, saying that the political party became more and more popular as it become more powerful.
An anonymous source in al-Maliki’s office agreed that Dawa party officials saw increased power as the path to more popularity. If the Dawa party managed to do the same thing as the Baath party did, he suggested, then modern Iraqi history might repeat itself.
However there’s a line they apparently cannot cross. Should the Dawa party begin to look too much like the former dictatorship then this might begin to work against it, Diyaa al-Shakarji, a former member of the party, explained. “To rule in this manner would see the masses begin to hate, and finally reject, the party,” he said, explaining that Iraq’s recent history would make any dictator unpopular. “It would create hostility and would turn the people into enemies of the Dawa party.”
Al-Shakarji believed that there were tensions within the party, between the party members and al-Maliki’s faithful. “There are common interests between the two players,” he said. “Al-Maliki is powerless without the party and the party has no option but to support al-Maliki, and his growing control over the state and party.”
Other analysts note that in their quest for domination, Al-Maliki and the Dawa party must also contend with the other Shiite Muslim parties in Iraq, with whom they are allied in the political coalition that runs the country. United in a desire to remain in control, the various parties cooperate inside the National Iraqi Alliance but they also have their differences and analysts point out that, with the various rivalries and conflicts, it would be impossible for one or other party to take complete control.
So did the Dawa party really want to take the nation back to bad old days of dictatorship? “Yes,” al-Shakarji argued. “The Dawa party wants to control the state. And they may be able to do so for a period of time. Al-Maliki has totalitarian tendencies and he can easily move towards dictatorship, simply by emptying the mechanisms of democracy of meaning and then using them for his own ends.”
“I don’t think it would be a dictatorship in the traditional sense though,” he concluded. “It’s a new form of dictatorship – I’d call it a democtator-ship.”