Wednesday, November 11, 2015

A Review Of Iraq Premier Abadi’s Reform Program, Interview With Reidar Visser

Starting in August 2015 Iraq’s Prime Minister Haider Abadi began announcing a series of reforms to meet the demands of the street, which was full of demonstrators. He gained the support of Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani that gave him added standing to move forward with his program. Now he finds himself attacked on all sides by his political opponents that are rejecting any change and the protesters and other parties who don’t think the premier has gone far enough. To help explain PM Abadi’s position is Norwegian Iraq analyst and historian Reidar Visser who runs the blog Iraq and Gulf Analysis and is the author and co-author of Basra, the Failed Gulf State: Separatism and Nationalism in Southern Iraq, An Iraq of Its Regions: Cornerstones of a Federal Democracy? and A Responsible End?: The United States and The Iraqi Transition, 2005-2010. He can be followed on Twitter @reidarvisser.

1. PM Abadi began announcing a series of reforms in August 2015. Can you give a brief rundown of what he proposed and their status?

The most immediate measures were the downsizing of cabinet through abolishing some ministries and merging others, as well as sacking some key posts deemed unnecessary such as deputy PMs and deputy VPs. The degree of implementation varies. Ministers affected by the cabinet downsizing certainly no longer come to cabinet meetings, and the mergers of ministries are reportedly underway. Conversely, there are competing claims about the VPs, with some sources saying they still receive their salaries, and they visibly continue to occupy their offices. This in itself needn't be an anomaly as long as a complaint about the constitutionality of their sacking is pending before the federal supreme court; however once a ruling has been published it will be a key test of the actual implementation of reforms.

The reform package also included a host of other, less publicized, items, ranging from the sacking of more than 100 director-generals and deputy ministers deemed superfluous (this has been implemented) to more aspirational projects such as increasing the anti-corruption effort inside the Iraqi government (there has for example been a small increase in high-profile corruption prosecutions subsequent to the announcement of the reforms).

2. One major criticism of Abadi’s changes was that he was acting unconstitutionally and usurping the powers of the parliament. What is the legal status of the premier’s program?

The discussion of the legality of the reforms comprises many misunderstandings especially regarding the role of the parliament. A key point here is that the Iraqi parliament on 11 August gave its approval to the entire reform programme of Abadi, including merging ministries and sacking VPs. These were specific reforms specifically approved, rather than a carte blanche that was given and that can subsequently be withdrawn. One of the few specific extension's of the PM's authority in the package actually came in the shape of a right to withdraw confidence from local governors. In other words, parliament has itself approved of many things it later regretted, and it is highly jejune of it to retroactively publish declarations of the kind it issued on 2 November to the effect that it "supports reform as long as they are inside the constitution". Some reforms evidently weren't constitutional, but parliament was itself involved in overriding the constitution in this respect.

As for the substantial matters, it does seem clear that the sacking of the VPs, but not the deputy PMs and the merger of ministries, though all ministers should have been sacked individually was at variance with the constitution, which stipulates the existence of at least one such VP. The attempt by cabinet to retroactively clean things up legally by swiftly introducing a law project to abrogate the existing law on the VPs really served as an admission of illegality rather than a step to establish legality. The new law has yet to make any progress in parliament.

On a more general note, there is also the problem of parliament trying to pass such massive measures in the shape of a single "decision" in parliament (qarar) in August  without there being a complete legislative projects with the usual two readings before a vote. The legal status of such a decision is unclear, and it may for example potentially be reversed as easily with another "decision", whether on the cabinet's initiative or otherwise.

Ironically, perhaps, the one aspect of reform that seems to have been most fateful for Abadi is one that was arguably on firmer legal ground than many of the other reforms: The changes to the public servant salary scale. This was carried out by cabinet as a change to rates fixed in a law from 2008, and could perhaps be portrayed as falling within the authority of the executive in a time of dramatically falling oil prices.  While roundly criticized in almost every corner of Iraq, rather than being illegal, this step seemed to be a tactical failure vis-a-vis public opinion.

3. Grand Ayatollah Ali Al-Sistani was one of Abadi’s early backers giving him added impetus to move forward. Abadi recently went to Najaf however and Sistani would not meet with him. The protests that started during the summer are on going as well, and some have begun attacking Abadi too. Why have these supporters seemingly soured on the prime minister?

Two specific items were mentioned in the Friday sermon in late October that was most critical of the cabinet and by implication the PM. One concerned the salary scale reduction; the other referred to the funds and equipment of the popular mobilization units. With respect to the latter, the message from Najaf actually dovetailed with what pro-Iranian voices in PMU circles such as Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis had said just a week earlier. On issues like these, the clergy is likely to move with the popular mood. Where it can still provide some backing for Abadi, and at the same time pose a contrast to pro-Iranian circles in the PMUs is on issues regarding corruption, nepotism and the use of political appointees. 

4. Abadi is said to be trying to form a new coalition to support him based upon Moqtada al-Sadr, Ammar Hakim and the Union of National Forces. What are the premier’s chances of creating this new grouping and will it be enough to give him a new majority in parliament?

It is fairly clear that there are deep rifts inside the Dawa and the State of Law coalition on reforms, with a substantial if not overwhelming majority siding with former PM Maliki. Hence the need for Abadi to look elsewhere. The deference with which he treated Muqtada al-Sadr in reports of their latest meeting was unprecedented and could indicate he is beginning to feel the need to rebuild his political base. Whether this can succeed vis-a-vis the reform project remains to be seen. It likely would entail concessions in the shape of further political appointments, which is exactly what Abadi has been empowered by the clergy to fight against. 

5. Finally, there are increasing reports that Abadi’s opponents not only want to stop his reforms, but replace him. Nouri al-Maliki is part of this camp and would gladly return to office, but might that be a deterrent to move against the premier given all of Maliki’s history, and what chance would another candidate such as Hadi Ameri or another Badr politician have?

I don't see Ameri emerging as a PM candidate simply because he is too much of a militia man in terms of background and political style. He would even need to brush up his spoken Arabic to fit into that role. The many photos of him serving on the Iranian side during the war with Iraq in the 1980s would also work against his candidacy.

On the last point, it doesn't seem Maliki and his closest Dawa supporters are particularly aware about how all his baggage can be a problem, though this is probably more keenly felt among Iraqi politicians more broadly. 

However, I would say what seems to be the case is that many politicians are fearing their own privileges through the muhasasa system being at stake. They may probably push ahead with any challenge to Abadi, including Maliki, if they feel their own individual fortunes are sufficiently under threat.

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