Adeed Dawisha discussed Iraq’s political institutions and highlighted how their dysfunction appears to be hindering the transition to democracy. He cited actions by the prime minister, cabinet, political parties, and parliament to explain why Iraq could see the return of authoritarianism if democracy is perceived as ineffectual by its citizens.

On February 15, the Middle East Program hosted a discussion with Dawisha, a Public Policy Scholar at the Woodrow Wilson Center and a Distinguished Professor of Political Science at Miami University in Ohio. Haleh Esfandiari, director of the Wilson Center’s Middle East Program, moderated the discussion.

Dawisha began with a disclaimer that democratic transitions cannot be effectively judged so soon after they begin since it takes three to four electoral cycles before it becomes apparent if the transition is working. He offered background into the current Iraqi political landscape following the March 2010 parliamentary elections, when the Al Iraqiya coalition won the largest number of parliamentary seats, two seats ahead of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s State of Law coalition. Maliki would not accept these results, and, in the ensuing months, he used his power as prime minister and his influence on the judiciary to seek a legal solution and form a coalition with a Shiite faction to ultimately gain a parliamentary majority. Since early 2011, Maliki has been gaining increasingly authoritarian proclivities, which Dawisha proclaimed is a danger to the democratic process.

Another problem lies within the cabinet of 45 members that Maliki formed in order to give everyone a stake in the government. Such a representative cabinet, however, is prone to internal divisions. Since 2003, the fractious cabinet has been rendered “non-functional,” instead resembling fiefdoms. Dawisha noted how ministers do the bidding of their leaders rather than addressing the problems of the Iraqi population, which suffers from high unemployment and broken social institutions. The fragmented nature of the cabinet makes it easier for Maliki to take charge, to make autonomous decisions, and to deflect requests to reform the cabinet decision-making process.

Political parties are yet another dysfunctional institution in the Iraqi government. In mature democracies, political parties are meant to represent the varying political interests and orientations of citizens. In Iraq, however, political parties are perceived as serving their own interests and are held together by a personality cult rather than by any ideological or political cohesion. Dawisha pointed out that this perception can change if Iraqi political parties started behaving like those in mature democracies, identify platforms that define a political identity, and are subject to party rules, and so on.

Dawisha claimed Parliament is just as weak as the other institutions, suffering from deadlocks and inefficiency. He noted that parliament can occasionally accomplish something of significance, yet such acts are few and far between. Parliament is further hindered by the tug of war between authorities in central Baghdad and other regions, as several Iraqi provinces demand autonomous status. Dawisha explained this federalism is centered in ethno-sectarianism that could undermine Iraq’s cohesion.

Dawisha summarized that the critical problem in Iraq is that of weak institutions effectively obstructing democracy. He claimed that putting someone into office democratically was one thing, but getting them to remain democratic was another thing entirely. After the euphoria surrounding the 2010 elections, Dawisha said that people are starting to equate the failure of their institutions with the failure of democracy itself. He noted that Iraqis may start to look for someone or something that can provide what they need if democracy cannot.

By Joanna Abdallah, Middle East Program