Over the past 15 years, the world has watched the highs and the lows of Iraq’s journey navigating the course of democracy. This experience has led me to question the extent, to which democracy in Middle Eastern countries, affected by bloody conflict and subject to decades of authoritarian rule, would succeed. This question continued to develop until it became a broad understanding of the meaning of political reform and the ability to proceed. The competing Iraqi political narratives, each vying for success in the upcoming elections on 12th May are also representative of the political climate across the wider region.
Iraq has navigated one from one political crisis to another in recent years, with broad ramifications ranging from constitutional issues, security, sectarianism and the failing infrastructure and distribution of the country’s abundant natural resources. Therefore, any improvement to its political structure will ultimately lead to reform of the security, economic and social systems, necessary for short and long- term stability.
I expect this weekend’s elections will be different to any other because of a dramatic shift in the rationale and thinking of the Iraqi leadership. This campaign has altered the political landscape, moving from a sectarian template towards a vision prioritizing national interests. What I believe this proves, is that contrary to popular belief, the Western ideal of democracy can work in the Middle East, but it needs time to establish its roots. Great effort is required to sow the seeds, allow it to flourish and work through the obstacles along the way. The Iraqi people have paid a very heavy price over the past 15 years, but, a stable and more secure future seems to be getting ever closer.
This is an election of unparalleled importance. The world will be watching, and it is important to demonstrate that democracy can flourish in the Middle East. I want to be careful not to speak of ‘democratic dominoes’. This is of course a geopolitical view that is as simplistic as it is optimistic. It was the view that was invoked by many in the United States to justify interventions in both Vietnam in 1950 and Iraq in 2003, and it is safe to say that things did not go to plan in either instance.
However, I still believe that a successful democracy in Iraq is not just crucial for the future of the country but crucial to the future of the Middle East. Iraq is something of a microcosm of the region. Like the vast basin, which is served by the Tigris-Euphrates Rivers, what comes out of Iraqi politics tends to trickle into its neighbouring states. Recent history speaks for itself.
I found, through my involvement in the business community and also my studies into the political economy, that what is happening in Iraq represents a central issue in the Middle East, of which there are internal and external factors. Additionally, Arab and regional states cannot consider the Iraqi situation beyond their interests or their political, economic or security concerns.
Thus, from my point of view, the future and stability of Iraq is not the responsibility of the Iraqi people alone. Rather, it is the responsibility of the international community, especially the U.S., the EU and other Middle Eastern regional powers. Today, Iraq needs reliable allies and investors more than it needs interference in its internal affairs.
Ever since January 2005, when close to eight million people voted in elections for a Transitional National Assembly; the first since Saddam Hussein was removed from power, the country has struggled to find a balance between the different groups who make-up Iraqi society. If Iraq, the country where sectarian resentment has bubbled under the surface for almost half a century, can demonstrate that it is able to represent everyone fairly, then there is no country in the Middle East that cannot do that.
As I pointed out earlier, these elections are different from those in recent years, because there is a need and growing acceptance for a transition towards a more mature, stable democracy. In recent days, a new national plan seems to be leading the way in Iraq that goes beyond sectarianism that has shaped the landscape, called the “political majority project”, proposed by Nouri Al-Maliki. We don’t have long to wait before we hopefully see a new democratic Iraq, open to political reform. Below, I’d like to present a simplified explanation of the shift we see happening today.
There are two main streams that have dominated the Iraqi political arena. The first is led by the State of Law coalition headed by Nouri Al-Maliki, who does not intend to run as Prime Minister, and tends to form a government based on the principle of majority political where Shiites, Sunnis, and Kurds participate equally in choosing the Prime Minister. Many of the various political parties in the country have agreed on this proposal.
This aims to achieve balance in the fractured Iraqi political climate and ease the political pressures on the government. This is an idea supported by the majority of the Iraqi people, and it is looking increasingly likely that the “religious authority” in Najaf – an important religious centre of gravity in Iraq – will accept it.
Whereas, the second stream is led by current Prime Minister Haider Al-Abadi, dependent on the creation of a government formed by the President. This model depends on maintaining the status quo, whereby the remaining parties have no say.
This reminds me of what Izzat Shabander, the respected independent Iraqi politician, has recently said: “The upcoming Iraqi elections are not between two names nor two parties, but between two projects. The first, the political majority project, is supported by those who agree on the direction of future governance in Iraq. The second project wants to maintain the current status quo on the basis that it comes with the ability to share power, money, benefits and influence and it is this thinking that has brought us to a state of disappointment three times.”
The fourth election in 15 years, I feel there is now a desire among the Iraqi people to change the approach in choosing a new government and finally see the change they have long been promised. Voting on secular beliefs has failed the country on every level to date. A new government, focused on national ambition, representing the will of the people and the various parties, is required if the country is to ever realise self-determination.
What distinguishes these elections is that the political majority project, on which I have been personally briefed, is promising and gives hope that there will be a new way of thinking that will change the political map in Iraq driven by an agenda focused on national priorities, regardless of political or sectarian affiliation. Most importantly, it has the support across the board.
There are several names being circulated for Prime Minister: Mohammed Shia’ Al-Sudani, Minister of Labour and Social Affairs, a young ambitious technocratic figure known for his high professionalism, Hadi al-Amiri, Head of the Fatah Alliance, who despite fierce criticism, is still very popular throughout the country because of his efforts towards defeating ISIS, Faleh Al-Fayyadh, Advisor to the National Security Council, and Izzat Shahbander, the independent politician who enjoys a wide acceptance among the three ethnic groups.
However, these nominees, suggested by State of Law coalition, will not take precedence over Nouri Al-Maliki, in the event he changes his mind and decides he does want to run for PM, and a day out from the election, this remains unclear.
I hope that these elections will be the beginning of a new phase for Iraq; a phase where stability prevails, and construction, reconstruction, investment and development can begin. I have always believed that any Iraqi government, regardless of what party or political philosophy it represents, should provide the highest priority to human capital, through the provision of excellent educational opportunities, advanced health services, adequate living facilities and functioning infrastructure. Providing these basic rights will go a long way to realising its political and economic ambitions, which provide an opportunity for the country to re-position itself, regaining its place in world politics, commensurate with its size, former standing and history.
I am confident that on 12th May, the Iraqi people will vote with their hearts and minds for a future beneficial not only to themselves, but their country and the region as a whole.