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Why There One Day Will Be Democracy in Iraq

by Andrew Gripp, published

The results are in from Iraq’s parliamentary elections from April 2014. Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s State of Law coalition received 92 of parliament’s 328 seats. The absence of a clear majority means that over the following weeks and months, Iraq’s leading politicians will be trying to form alliances and broker deals that will produce a majoritarian coalition government.

The results have many pundits feeling pessimistic. Some observers expect that Maliki will cobble together a broad Shi’a coalition, continue the political and social domination of the Sunnis, and exacerbate sectarian tensions.

Some pundits even question whether Iraq can survive as a democracy when the country’s demography suggests that the Shi’a majority – roughly 60 percent of the population – can maintain their grip on power indefinitely. IVN contributor Michael Austin invokes James Madison’s Federalist Paper #10 in support of the conclusion that Iraq’s leadership “will cease to be a participatory government of the people and become simply a majoritarian tyranny."



However, Madison’s thinking supports the opposite conclusion. Madison believed that in a large republic, there would be such a diversity of “factions” that a stable majority could never last. Because citizens possess a variety of identities and interests (ethnic, religious, linguistic, class, ideological, etc.), no single faction can claim to represent the majority for an extended period of time, and therefore ruling majorities at some point become unrepresentative and illegitimate.

This diversity showed itself during the 2010 parliamentary election, when the list that received the greatest number of votes was not Maliki’s Shi'a State of Law coalition, but Ayad Allawi’s al-Iraqiyya list, which ran on a secular, inclusive, pan-Iraqi platform.

According to the Iraqi Constitution, the president was supposed to first invite Allawi to build a governing coalition. However, the powerful Iranian liaison Qassim Sulaimani came to 

Iraq to broker a deal between Maliki and the militant, pro-Iranian Shia cleric Muqtada al-Sadr in order to preserve Shi’a hegemony.

After months of horsetrading, the various lists and parties did assemble a grand Shi'a coalition. Maliki’s State of Law coalition would partner with the Iraqi National Alliance, which included two major factions: the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq (ISCI), led by Ammar al-Hakim, and Muqtada al-Sadr’s Sadr Movement.

However, rather than representing a monolithic bloc, this forced and fragile grand Shi’a coalition quickly disintegrated.

For the last several years, the al-Sadr and al-Hakim factions within the Shi'a political majority have been encouraging the Kurds and followers of Allawi's Iraqiyya to challenge the State of Law coalition at the provincial and national levels, and Grand Ayatollah al-Sistani, perhaps the most respected and influential Shi'a cleric in the country, has quietly called for Maliki's replacement.

The 2014 parliamentary election results confirm that the Shi’a political community is far from united.

The Al-Ahrar bloc, which received the second most seats with 34, is led by al-Asadi, who has filled in as the leader of the Sadrists since Muqtada al-Sadr’s retirement from politics. Al-Asadi opposes the corruption exhibited by the current government and affirmed that "the most important thing is to remove al-Maliki."

The recipient of the third most seats with 29 is the al-Muwatin Coalition. Though the leader of the coalition is ISCI’s Ammar al-Hakim and thus nominally led by a Shi'ite, al-Hakim, like the Sadrists, is also disillusioned by Maliki's rule.

His new bloc (called the Civilian Coalition in English) is comprised of nearly two dozen entities that represent a broad swath of religious and political thought. In the words of one analyst, this coalition marks the beginning of “a rapprochement between the moderate Islamic movement and secularists" that could serve as a precursor to a broader movement to depose Maliki.

In a pre-election interview with Al-Monitor, Ammar al-Hakim channeled James Madison and acknowledged the country’s necessary movement away from sectarian and partisan squabbling and toward a more vibrant factionalism:

The crises of a big country like Iraq cannot be reduced to one single issue or one case. Likewise, one cannot neglect the possibility that crises overlap with one another as a result of a specific approach. [...] It is certain that the lack of commitment to a common understanding of the concept of a new Iraqi state means that trends are different and sometimes intersecting. We cannot limit the problem to merely two parties — those with and those against [Maliki], or a centralized state and a decentralized state. The problem is multifaceted and has multiple parties.

Such statements indicate that Iraq – at a pace far greater than that of the U.S. – is already starting to outgrow its insular, identity-based politics and instead can organize around competing visions of the national good.

Indeed, America's long, contentious, and bloody history offers reasons for optimism regarding the possibility of democracy in Iraq.

Since its founding, the United States had its own domineering majority: northerners. Initially represented by the Federalists, the northern states manipulated the country's republican institutions toward its own selfish ends and against those of the southern minority. It established a national bank and passed protective tariffs that benefited the interests of bankers and manufacturers at the expense of southern farmers.

The Federalists also persecuted the Democratic-Republican opposition by passing the Alien and Sedition Acts. In response, Jefferson and Madison drafted the Kentucky and Virginia Resolutions, which argued that states had no obligation to obey unconstitutional federal laws. These resolutions laid the intellectual foundation for the nullification crisis and, later, outright secessionism.

It took decades of minor insurrections, political crises, and finally a Civil War before the United States overcame its own tendency toward regionalism and saw itself first as a union rather than a loose confederation of states. Not until 1902 did the country officially refer to itself in the singular ("the United States is") rather in the plural ("the United States are").

Iraq's progress toward national unification after just ten years makes America's experience seem sluggish by comparison.

While Iran’s kingmaker Qassem Sulaimani is again in Baghdad trying to piece together another Shi'a coalition, his chances at success seem slimmer than in 2010. Having alienated many Shi'a and Kurds, Maliki may have to look elsewhere if he wants to retain the premiership. For example, Qassim al-Fahdawi, an MP and former governor of the Sunni Anbar province, has expressed a willingness to work with Maliki.

These are just some of the encouraging signs that one day, perhaps soon, there will be a stable, post-sectarian democracy in Iraq.

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