International Reports

The Transformation Process in Iraq

An Option for a Government of National Unity?

The parliamentary elections of December 2005, the first held after the adoption of the country’s new constitution, took Iraq a long step forward towards democracy. The substantial turnout in general, and particularly the wider participation of the Sunni population, certainly constitute key elements of success. What needs to be done now is to consolidate these achievements. The spread of violence in the country shows that this will not be easy to do, and that there is no alternative to a ‘government of national unity’ on which all relevant groups of the population are represented. Ethnic fragmentation in the society of Iraq forbids implementing the classical principle of majority rule that is traditional in democratic systems. This is yet another reason why only a government of national unity can guarantee the integration of all groups and the settlement of political conflicts without violence. In view of the widely diverging interests of the country’s groups and the years of discrimination of the Shiite majority by the Sunni minority, it is clear that patience will be required in negotiating crucial decisions. On the other hand, it will be necessary, particularly during the build-up of the new Iraqi state, to secure the effectiveness of political decision-making as soon as possible. There are two questions that must be asked in this context: First, can a government of national unity be formed in the first place, despite all current obstacles? Second, can the process of forming a government be optimized and stabilized for the future? The election was contested by 307 political groups and more than 7,000 candidates. 19 alliances were formed by almost 100 parties. The Shiite camp was dominated by the United Iraqi Alliance (UIA), while the Iraqi Consensus Front and the Iraqi Front for National Dialogue predominated on the Sunni side. The Kurdish camp was led by the Kurdistan Alliance and the Kurdistan Islamic Union, while the Iraqi National List and the Iraqi National Congress predominated among the secular and/or trans-denominational alliances. At 41.19 percent of the vote, the UIA emerged victorious, although it failed to win an absolute majority. Formed by more than 20 Shiite groups, the alliance, which is close to the Shiite spiritual leader, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, is in a position to nominate the prime minister and form the government. At 21.67 percent of the vote, the Kurdistan Alliance ranks second, holding a fifth of the seats in parliament, while the three-party Iraqi Consensus Front came in third. The results show that the Iraqi electorate was motivated mainly by ethnic and/or religious aspects, clearly rejecting secular parties. However, they also reflect the powerful trend towards fragmentation in the country’s party landscape. For this reason, forming a government will be anything but easy. After all, ethnic and/or religious fault lines coincide with rifts in practical politics that embody a wealth of potential conflicts.Constitutional requirements constrain the UIA to agree on a presidial ‘troika’ with two other parties before forming a government. It appears likely that yet another agreement will be concluded dividing membership in the presidial council among Kurds, Shiites, and Sunnis. Because of the results of the election, and because of the above-mentioned constitutional provisions, Kurds and Shiites now have a variety of opportunities of making their influence felt in future government policies. However, fundamental content-related differences do exist with regard to the role of religion in the state to come, the degree of autonomy to be granted to individual groups, and the distribution of the country’s natural resources, especially oil.After the election, the UIA’s leaders at first refrained from demanding an Islamic polity. However, as the religious orientation of the alliance cannot be denied, its policy may be expected to retain its Islamic character in the long run. Belonging largely to the Sunni persuasion, the Kurds may be expected to respond to this by advocating a secular state. This indeed is the issue that might trigger an all-embracing conflict among the political forces of the country. Regional autonomy is another bone of contention. While the constitution does grant a maximum of autonomy to the individual regions, it forbids any involvement on their part in national policy-making. Claimed by the Kurds as well as by the Iraqi Turkmenians and the Sunnis, the oil town of Kirkuk holds a position of eminent importance in this context. The fact that the Sunnis left the table during the negotiations about the constitution, leaving Shiites and Kurds to adopt it on their own, shows how disruptive the situation really is. Yet another hotbed of conflict is the question of how the country’s natural resources should be shared out, including water resources and, most importantly, oil deposits. While the constitution stipulates that resources should be shared out ‘fairly' as the demographic situation in the country dictates, no distribution matrix has as yet been defined, and the problem will be anything but easy to solve. Despite the difficulties described above, the formation of a government of national unity appears feasible at the moment because the constitution offers political players various inducements to cooperate, and because the UIA’s key motivation to collaborate with the Kurdish and Sunni camps is to gain political power. Moreover, representatives from all camps are probably well aware that ethnically-motivated violence in the country may be ended only by involving all relevant groups. How, then, can the process of government formation be optimized and stabilized in the future? One way would be for the constitution to stipulate minority votes in all fundamental political decisions. Another way would be to codify a composition of the government that reflects ethnic proportions. Additional obvious alternatives include the establishment of a truly federal structure in Iraq and a purposeful development of the electoral system, which might serve to afford additional protection to minorities under the specific conditions obtaining in the country. An institutional success in forming a government of national unity would provide a positive impulse to the settlement of content-related issues. What would serve particularly well to avoid conflict would be the involvement of the Sunnis and their interests. One approach to institutionalize the work of the government would be to ensure the protection of minorities through proportional ethnic representation in the government. Already emerging in practice, this approach might establish itself as a firm tradition of voluntary power-sharing which might defuse relations among ethnic groups and make the Sunnis less inclined to think they were being disadvantaged. Respect for the interests of minorities should occupy centre stage particularly in the current phase of state-building, in which the foundations for the future Iraqi state are being laid. Now is the time when political institutions may be designed that ensure access to the highest levels of decision-making for all groups of the population. While this is certain to lead to sluggishness and inefficiency in political processes, it is probably the price that will have to be paid for a future in which violent disputes among ethnic groups no longer form part of everyday life.