Is Iraq a Democracy?

Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi
Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi. Carsten Koall / Stringer / Getty Images

Democracy in Iraq bears the hallmarks of a political system born in foreign occupation and civil war. It is marked with deep divisions over the power of the executive, disputes between ethnic and religious groups, and between centralists and advocates of federalism. Yet for all its flaws, the democratic project in Iraq brought to an end more than four decades of dictatorship, and most Iraqis would probably prefer not to turn the clock back.

System of Government: Parliamentary Democracy

The Republic of Iraq is a parliamentary democracy introduced gradually after the US-led invasion in 2003 that toppled the regime of Saddam Hussein. The most powerful political office is that of prime minister, who heads the Council of Ministers. Prime minister is nominated by the strongest parliamentary party, or a coalition of parties that hold the majority of seats.

Elections to parliament are relatively free and fair, with a solid voter turn-out, though usually marked by violence (read about Al Qaeda in Iraq). The parliament also chooses the president of the republic, who has few real powers but who can act as an informal mediator between rival political groups. This is in contrast to Saddam’s regime, where all institutional power was concentrated in the hands of the president.

Regional and Sectarian Divisions

Since the formation of the modern Iraqi state in the 1920s, its political elites were drawn largely from the Sunni Arab minority.

The great historical significance of the 2003 US-led invasion is that it enabled the Shiite Arab majority to claim power for the first time, while cementing special rights for the Kurdish ethnic minority.

But foreign occupation also gave rise to a fierce Sunni insurgency which, in the following years, targeted US troops and the new Shiite-dominated government.

The most extreme elements in the Sunni insurgency deliberately targeted Shiite civilians, provoking a civil war with Shiite militias which peaked in 2006–08. Sectarian tension remains one of the main obstacles to a stable democratic government.

Here are some key features of Iraq’s political system:

  • Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG): Kurdish regions in Iraq’s north enjoy a high degree of autonomy, with their own government, parliament, and security forces. Kurdish-controlled territories are rich in oil, and division of profits from oil exports is a major stumbling block in relations between KRG and the central government in Baghdad.
  • Coalition Governments: Since the first elections in 2005, no one party managed to establish a solid enough majority to form the government on its own. As a result, Iraq is normally ruled by a coalition of parties – including Shiites, Sunnis and Kurds – resulting in plenty of infighting and political instability.
  • Provincial Authorities: Iraq is divided into 18 provinces, each with its own governor and a provincial council. Federalist calls are common in oil-rich Shiite regions in the south, which want greater proceeds from local resources, and in Sunni provinces in the north-west, which don’t trust the Shiite-dominated government in Baghdad.

    Controversy: Legacy of Authoritarianism, Shiite Domination

    These days it’s easy to forget that Iraq has its own tradition of democracy going back to the years of the Iraqi monarchy. Formed under British supervision, the monarchy was toppled in 1958 through a military coup that ushered in an era of authoritarian government. But the old democracy was far from perfect, as it was tightly controlled and manipulated by a coterie of king’s advisors.

    The system of government in Iraq today is far more pluralistic and open in comparison, but stymied by mutual mistrust between rival political groups:

    • Power of the Prime Minister: The most powerful politician of the first decade of the post-Saddam era is Nuri al-Maliki, a Shiite leader who first became prime minister in 2006. Credited with overseeing the end of the civil war and reasserting state authority, Maliki was often accused – by both Sunnis and Shiites – of shadowing Iraq’s authoritarian past by monopolizing power and installing personal loyalists in the security forces. Some observers fear this pattern of rule may continue under his successors.
    • Shiite Domination: Iraq’s coalition governments include Shiites, Sunnis, and Kurds. However, the position of prime minister seems to have become reserved for the Shiites, due to their demographic advantage (est. at 60% of the population). There has yet to emerge a national, secular political force that could truly unite the country and overcome the divisions brought about by the post-2003 events.

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