Consociationalism and Democratic sustainability_ in Iraq

Consociationalism vs “Democratic Sustainability” in Iraq

Khalil Fadl Osman

The prism of democratic sustainability can help identify where, why, and how democratization has faltered in Iraq since the US invasion of 2003.

March 22, 2023

Twenty years after the US-led invasion that toppled the ruthlessly dictatorial Saddam Hussein regime, the record of democratization in Iraq remains a mixed bag. This blog briefly considers how Iraq fares when it comes democratic sustainability, the adaptations, self-corrections, and continuous learning/un-learning necessary for the perpetuation of processes, institutions, values, skills, and practices underpinning democratization.

In the run-up to the war, expectations of a democratic effervescence in the Middle East competed with doom-and-gloom predictions. The invaders’ claptrap about bringing democracy to Iraq and the wider Middle East region was matched by the former Iraqi opposition’s highfalutin rhetoric on democratization in a post-Saddam political order.

Touted as a cure-all for all Iraq’s ills and woes, the democratic system introduced on the back of the US-led invasion has been anything but a panacea. Its sustainability remains fragile and shaky.

Democratic sustainability is more than mere liberalization. The introduction of such trappings of political liberalism as freedom of association, freedom of speech, and universal suffrage alone does not make for sustainable democracy. Balanced economic development, social peace and cohesion, including the protection of minorities, political stability, and good governance, comprising such elements as elite accountability, transparency, rule of law, and government responsiveness to the needs of citizens and communities, are all essential ingredients of sustainable democracy. On many of these counts, the picture is not so glorious.

Media Mayhem

There had been elections aplenty in Iraq over the past two decades. The country has seen an explosion of political parties vying for power, and a profusion of civil society organizations scrambling for project funding and donor money.

Iraq has also grown into a highly, if not the most, saturated media market in the Arab world. Gone are the days of overbearing censorship and sterile press coverage that characterized Ba’ath Party era. The media in post-Saddam Iraq could be quite feisty. Media reporting and public debate are often vibrant, even febrile. In fact, patently libelous claims, statements and comments are not a rare commodity in Iraqi media reporting.

However, some government attempts to regulate speech have raised concerns that the medicine could be worse than the malady. The government’s recent move to proscribe so-called “low quality content” and prosecute its creators is a case in point. The absence of a precise legal definition of “low quality content” leaves interpretation to the discretion, if not the whims and caprices, of government officials. Moreover, Iraqi journalists continue to be targeted by armed elements or corrupt officials and entrepreneurs seeking to silence unfavorable reporting.

Subsistence and Dignity

By all accounts, living conditions have improved for many Iraqis. But many others have not shared equally in this newfound prosperity. For example, under-five child mortality has taken a dive from 42.7 2002 to 25.4 in 2020. The prevalence of undernourishment in the total population has dropped from 17.9% in 2004-2006 to 15.9% in 2019-2021. But the overall number of undernourished people rose from 4.8 million to 6.4 million during the same period, due to population growth. By the same token, the depth of food deficit, which measures the number of calories needed to meet the dietary needs of a malnourished person, has peaked from 155.457 kilocalories in March 2003 to 214.486 in February 2010 and then fell to 185 in February 2017. On the other hand, per capita GDP stood at USD 4,775.38 in 2021, up from USD 809.85 in 2003. But wealth is concentrated in the hands of corrupt officials and their cronies. Most ordinary Iraqis make ends meet on a much smaller figure.

Consociationalism and Conflict

Power-sharing, a core feature of consociationalism, has been the bane of Iraq’s post-war democratic system. Yet, sharing power among communities has failed to mitigate and defuse social conflict. It has instead reinforced social divisions, deepened identity politics, stoked communal feelings of exclusion and entitlement, nurtured communal narratives of victimization, and fueled mutual collective distrust and fears.

In post-invasion Iraq, voting is anything but a universal exercise in citizenship. Voters rarely vote for a platform that embodies a vision of national interests and public goods. They rather largely vote along communal lines and to stake a communal claim to power resources. In such a scheme of things, political discourse has come to be infused with the noxious idioms of communal rights and collective entitlements.

Ultimately, power-sharing has turned government administration into a snake pit, where political leaders and elites incessantly fight over the spoils of office at the expense of the overall interests of the nation. Little wonder that such a system has been inured to lurching from one political crisis to another and decision-making has frequently been afflicted with paralysis.

Of all the pitfalls of consociationalism in Iraq, perhaps nothing beats the colossal corruption that has been ravaging the country since 2003. Corruption is an indelible blemish on Iraq’s record in the post-war period. Privileging loyalty over competence and accountability, power-sharing has fostered clientelism, nepotism, patronage, and government mismanagement of the first order. By establishing communal rights to power resources, holding corrupt officials to account has become increasingly difficult. This has undermined public confidence in state institutions, leading to progressive erosion of state legitimacy.

The US-led invasion toppled a dictator and overthrew a dictatorship, but the prospects of democratic sustainability in Iraq remain as hazy as a desert mirage. The route to improving Iraq’s good government is though the civic values and practices, citizen engagement, institutional arrangements, transparent processes, social justice orientations, people-centered policymaking that comprise democratic sustainability.

Khalil Fadl Osman is Senior Research Fellow at the Center for Conflict and Humanitarian Studies, Doha.