The International Crisis Group (IGC) is one of the best sources on Iraq. Its reports contain some of the most in-depth analysis of the situation within that country. Joost Hiltermann is the Deputy Director for the Middle East and North Africa at the IGC, and is responsible for much of that coverage. Below is a short interview with Hiltermann about whether Iraq can solve its on going political problems.
1. The biggest issue today in Iraqi politics is the power of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki. People inside and outside the country are calling him a dictator. Do you think that he is becoming an autocrat?
With weak institutions, Iraq is unlikely to become a thriving democracy, whoever leads it. The only thing that is keeping Iraq from turning into a dictatorship is the presence of checks and balances, not in the system of government, but in the nature of politics - - at least for now. With the major parties representing ethnosectarian communities, there is huge pressure on all to establish inclusive governments, lest the country descend into civil war. The presence of your political rivals in your coalition government limits your scope of action, and this prevents the emergence of an autocrat. However, prolonged tenure allows a prime minister to accumulate power, as indeed Maliki has done. This is why it is important that the parties insist on a regular rotation of the top leadership.
2. How do you think Maliki’s history as an exile politician has shaped his worldview?
Like most of the exile politicians, Maliki’s worldview was shaped by the need to survive in a most dangerous environment, always the target of the regime’s assassins. To survive, one should trust no one. In a mirror image, Saddam also survived threats to his rule by trusting no one and using one to spy on another. As a result today, paranoia courses through the former-exile class, and power is a zero-sum game.
3. Part of the reason why Maliki has been able to grab so much power is that the parties who are against him, like the Iraqi National Movement and the Kurdish Coalition, are divided, don’t use the tools available to them like the parliament, and appear to be more interested in holding onto office. Do you think they can become a more effective opposition in the future?
I suppose these parties could pose a more effective front against a runaway prime minister if they put their minds to it, but even then, they would not easily overcome the important issues that divide them. It is hard to see, for example, how Sunni Arabs and Turkmen from disputed areas could make common cause with Kurds. Yes, they might forge a joint strategy to get rid of Maliki, but then, faced with the challenge of forming a new government, they would get stuck on the issue that matters most to them, and that has bedeviled Iraqi politics since 2003: the status of disputed territories.
4. Finally, Iraq is due for two more rounds of balloting, the 2013 provincial and 2014 parliamentary elections. Do you think anything will change with those votes, or will the status quo between Maliki and the other parties be maintained?
It is better not to make predictions in a situation as volatile as Iraq, and the presence of significant imponderables that could change everything, such as the Syria crisis or a war between the United States and Iran. Still, all things being equal, the balance between the parties is unlikely to change a great deal, as election results since January 2005 have shown. The question is whether the elections will be deemed free and fair by all major contestants, and whether Maliki will try to cling to power if the election results show he lost.