There are priorities that pave the way for general reform and they must begin with what Abadi could not accomplish.
The beginning of the term of the Iraqi Prime Minister-designate Adel Abdul-Mahdi was media- and internet-based. Abdul-Mahdi advertised on the internet for candidates to fill cabinet positions. He said he received more than 50,000 applications.
This interesting experiment mixes political science fiction with the recognition of an impasse — the dominance of parties in the political process and the government. The parties claim to have renounced imposing a prime minister from within their ranks. Rumour has it, however, that Abdul-Mahdi was forced on the parties after being blessed by Iran, consented by the United States and approved by the religious establishment.
What matters to the parties is not the recourse to internet advertising to recruit ministers but recapturing their domination of the political process through lists of ministers they presented to Abdul-Mahdi, even though they had formally declared that they would not interfere in his choices.
The parties have accepted limited losses of their power in favour of satisfying Abdul-Mahdi’s wish to recruit a limited number of competent people from outside the restricted party circle. They know Abdul-Mahdi is not a stranger to the house of Shia Islam. On the contrary, he is right in the middle of it.
What is most likely to happen is that the same system of power sharing between the two dominant Shia coalitions — al-Islah and al-Bina — will be renewed, perhaps with a smaller number of ministers but more effectively.
These two blocs will have the final say in nominating Sunni ministers, just as they nominated and elected a Sunni candidate for speaker of the parliament. The Kurds will retain their usual quota through the Kurdistan Democratic Union.
What has changed then and what happened to the slogans of abandoning sectarian quotas?
What has changed is a move to a soft form of the quota system. Leaders of the political parties do not want to admit their failure. In return for flexibility with the new prime minister, they would not tolerate a raid on the main pockets of corruption in the system and the country.
Oh, they are willing to allow Abdul-Mahdi to make speeches about reform, to seek guidance from the religious establishment and consult with Muqtada al-Sadr. They’ve seen this happen before with Haider al-Abadi. The important thing is not to affect the villainous political system.
Shaking the foundations of the political system is what the party leaders feared the most when voters boycotted their rigged elections or when people in Basra, Baghdad and other Iraqi governorates protested their hegemony, their incompetence and their corruption. So they loosened their grip on power just enough to give the impression they are all for reform and democracy.
Party leaders have given Abdul-Mahdi lots of room for flexibility. Among themselves, however, they joke that this will have no bearing on their status and influence.
The Shia party leaders are not bothered by the personal relationship between the prime minister-designate and President Barham Salih. The latter is proving to be much more active and dynamic than his predecessor, Fuad Masum. However, the Shia parties know that the country’s constitution was crafted maliciously to render the office of president mainly symbolic and practically toothless.
What the Iraqis want to hear are not beautiful hollow speeches about Iraqi unity or, worse, words defending Iraq’s sincere loyalty to Iran, the same Iran that has ruined Iraq and plundered its wealth. They’re not interested in cosmetic changes either. What the Iraqis want to see is a serious confrontation with the corrupt governmental apparatus that has been ruining the country for 15 years.
Don’t Abdul-Mahdi and the party leaders know the ministries have been turned into dumps for incompetent people placed there by the parties? While some say Abdul-Mahdi has reassuring personal qualities, will he be able to use the slightest breach in the soft quota system? Perhaps instead he will be co-opted by it. Can he bring about a radical political and administrative revolution capable of uprooting the disease in the system?
I’m afraid that, in the case of Abdul-Mahdi, cleaning one’s hands with disinfectants will not protect one from the thousands of viruses that pollute the environment.
There are priorities that pave the way for general reform and they must begin with what Abadi could not accomplish. The heads of the tentacular rings of corruption and embezzlement must be revealed and brought to justice.
The legal breaches through which the corrupt parties have access to the government and its mechanisms must be sealed. One such breach is allowing the so-called economic committees of political parties to have access to various ministries. Abdul-Mahdi knows very well that there are choice ministries that the political parties will fight for under the guise of election loot.
Iraqi party leaders are lobbying for their candidates and agents in the new government. They have not forgotten to name a couple of Sunni leaders, who they have co-opted. However, the whole lot of them has been trained in the arts of corruption and money looting.
Perhaps the practical translation of Abdul-Mahdi’s internet sting operation is that he could have the ministers in his cabinet open their departments to competent citizens when conducting recruitment and appointment operations.
Maybe he could even ban using cronyism and party connections.
These are the preliminary measures to prevent the aggravation of the disease if there is a desire to lay the foundations for true reforms in Iraq. However, if Abdul-Mahdi falls victim to the soft quota system and tries to hide that with internet tricks, then Iraq is in for another term of Abadi’s failed policies.