Iraq marks one year post-election as impasse lingers



BAGHDAD, Prashant Rao- One year after landmark polls, a political impasse in Iraq remains, with several key cabinet posts unfilled and analysts warning bad habits are setting in to the country's nascent democracy.
The March 7, 2010 election, which saw 62.4 percent of Iraqis turn out to vote despite violence, was hailed as free and fair by international observers, and was seen as a key marking point ahead of the pullout of US forces at the end of the year.



But the final results showed the two biggest parties were separated by only two seats and resulting bickering meant it took nine months before a national unity cabinet was named, and an incomplete one at that.
Most recently, Iyad Allawi, whose Sunni-backed bloc won the most seats in the election, said he would not take up the chairmanship of a statutory body to be formed as a sop for his not receiving the top job and a key part of the power-sharing deal that was eventually agreed.
The prolonged period of haggling has sparked concern such a delay could become habit -- it took months for politicians to form a government after 2005 elections -- and raised questions over whether "national unity" governments built on quotas of ethnic and confessional boundaries are the future.
"The legacy of this election and the buy-in it got is that there will likely be other free elections," said Ali al-Saffar, a London-based Iraq analyst with the Economist Intelligence Unit.
"Another less encouraging legacy is that because it's taken so long, it's set a precedent, and they (politicians) will think it's ok to do it again.
"Another yet is the issue of ethno-sectarianism -- all the deal-making is made before the prime minister is chosen, and because of the sectarian quotas that have seeped into the process, but are not constitutionally mandated, there have been massive delays in the government formation process."
Much like the last government, eventually formed in 2006, several positions have been determined based on candidates' ethnic or confessional background.
Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki, a Shiite, has three deputies -- a Sunni, a Kurd and a Shiite, representing Iraq's three biggest communities. Parliament speaker Osama al-Nujaifi, a Sunni, has Shiite and Kurd deputies.
And while President Jalal Talabani, a Kurd, has not yet appointed his deputies, they are widely expected to follow a similar pattern.
Iraq expert Reidar Visser notes, meanwhile, that a national unity cabinet also leaves little in the way of an organised political opposition, given the country's four main parties, accounting for 90 percent of parliamentary seats, are in government.
"Iraq may be on the road to democracy, but the road is still very long," said Visser, an academic and editor of the recently-published book on Iraq, "A Responsible End?".
"Unless Iraqi politicians move away from the basic idea of having all the big parties inside government, there will be no healthy opposition and not a functioning parliamentary democracy."
The negotiations to form a government took months, and saw Iraq set the dubious record of taking the longest amount of time to form a government after elections, a mark that has since been eclipsed by Belgium.
In that time, already poor public services such as electricity and clean water provision showed little improvement, forming the crux of frustrations expressed by thousands of Iraqis who have taken to the streets in nationwide protests over the past month.
"The past year is best described as a year of deadlock," said Ranj Alaaldin, an Iraq analyst with the London-based Next Century Foundation.
"The nine-months of political wrangling it took to form a government put the country in a state of paralysis and indecisiveness," he added, noting that businesses, for example, were unsure of whom they should be dealing with and whether previously-signed contracts would be honoured.
Cabinet positions in the government were largely doled out to parties on the basis of their clout within the governing coalition, and questions remain over whether Maliki can effectively discipline ministers for poor performance.
The premier last week gave his cabinet 100 days to shape up or face the sack after the biggest set of protests yet across at least 17 Iraqi cities.
"The government remains under the control of various factions," noted Ihsan al-Shammari, an Iraqi academic.
"All the government institutions are controlled by parties, and that has led to problems. The power of these factions is greater than that of the state."
Most analysts remain nevertheless cautiously upbeat about Iraq's future, pointing to the recent protests as a sign of an emerging civil society and a signal that most of the country backs peaceful protest rather than the violent opposition that has characterised Iraq in previous years.
"Everyone has bought into the idea of Iraq," said the EIU's Saffar, before adding: "If I'm upbeat about Iraq, it's in spite of the leadership and not because of it."
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Monday, March 7th 2011
Prashant Rao
           


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