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Parliamentary oversight is key to political reform in Iraq

Hope for reform in Iraq could be restored by ensuring its parliament is able to hold the government and ruling elites to account.

Almost 20 years after the US-led invasion and subsequent attempts to democratize Iraq, the country is facing a parliamentary and political crisis. After failing to form a government, the winners of the October 2021 elections, the Sadrists, decided to completely abandon their parliamentary seats.

This crisis has brought to the forefront the issue of parliament’s role and effectiveness within Iraq’s political system. On paper, it has two main functions: to legislate and to ensure accountability by monitoring the work of government through control mechanisms established by Iraq’s constitution. But many question its effectiveness to function as a legislative branch and, critically, its ability to hold to government to account.

Parliament’s authority is undermined by the country’s ruling elite through the quota-based muhasasa system. This system was introduced after the US-led invasion in 2003 to achieve proportional government representation for Iraq’s ethno-sectarian groups but is now considered by many to be the cause of several of the country’s problems, including today’s political stalemate.

Parliamentary oversight and the scale of government corruption

Iraq suffers from a clear lack of political accountability. Political interference has reduced parliamentary oversight and individual MPs are unable to tackle the scale of corruption infiltrating government institutions. Statistics from federal supervisory institutions highlight parliament’s inability to achieve accountability.

Despite the proliferation of corruption, during the last three parliamentary terms (2010-21), parliament questioned 14 officials but was only able to pass no-confidence votes against three of them. In the 2014-18 parliamentary term, parliament conducted 10 questionings, resulting in two politically motivated no-confidence votes against the minister of defence, Khaled Al-Obaidi, and the minister of finance, Hoshyar Zebari. In 2017, parliament succeeded in dismissing Safaa al-Din Rabie, the executive director of the Media and Communications Commission, after questioning him in absentia. The 2018-21 parliamentary term saw only one questioning, resulting in a no-confidence vote against Ali Al-Khwildy, the executive director of the Communication and Media Commission.

These numbers fall short of the level of oversight the Iraqi parliament must achieve, especially when compared to the scale of state corruption and the government resources that have been wasted, taking a significant toll on the provision of public services. Parliamentary questionings have also been used for political blackmail and to make political gains. Several of the proposed motions for questionings were not carried out, either because the speaker of the house was not convinced to pass them or owing to the withdrawal of MPs who had first signed the questioning motions.

The different functions of parliament 

With efforts to form a new government at a deadlock, certain conventions have dominated the political system and reduced the role of parliament to functions such as carrying out a confidence vote in the government at the beginning of each term and passing the annual federal public budget, at the expense of many of its constitutional functions.

These two functions are already overwhelmed by complexity and political polarization because of muhasasa, and other issues have emerged to further complicate the situation. The most important is the two-thirds majority needed to elect the president. However, the process of forming a government, which follows the election of the president, remains the utmost priority for all parties fighting for power. Experience has shown that executive power, not the legislature, is the key actor in the Iraqi system.

When Muqtada al-Sadr, the leader of the Sadrist bloc, decided to abandon 73 seats in parliament due to the impasse in the government formation process, this was a clear example that the main objective for Iraq’s political parties is getting a share of government power, not fulfilling the oversight and legislative functions of parliament.

The muhasasa system still dominates

The formation of a government is linked to the formation of what is known as the largest bloc in parliament – a term subject to multiple interpretations and opinions. However, each government formation is the result of a laborious process during which all parliamentary seat winners – Shiites, Sunnis and Kurds – agree to form a consensus government in which everyone participates. This is a muhasasa government, where benefits are shared among election winners, and ministries are allocated in line with a points-based system determined by the number of seats a party has in parliament.  The practice of muhasasa also extends to the allocation of parliamentary committees, which in turn have oversight powers over ministries, independent bodies and non-government entities.

While disagreements during the government formation process could be overcome by agreements on gains sharing, this would only work in the short term. Coalitions formed during the government formation process tend to be weak and fall apart easily, as they are built solely for the purpose of forming a government and gaining influence, with no strategic agreement or ideological convergence.

A new democratic model can help restore hope

Almost 20 years after the regime change, Iraq is still struggling with its transition to democracy. The division and fragmentation within the Iraqi parliament negatively affect its oversight function. For instance, a no-confidence vote against a minister requires 50 per cent plus one vote, hardly possible to achieve for independent MPs or for newer parties that entered parliament after the recent protest movement. What is more, whoever is forming government must first secure two-thirds of parliamentary votes to elect the president, followed by 50 per cent plus one vote to form a government.

This system further complicates the possibility of parliament carrying out any real oversight function. At least two-thirds of MPs are linked to the ruling elite who benefit from muhasasa, and therefore unlikely to scrutinize and challenge the system.

In light of the above, new independent MPs and other pro-reform MPs must find a way to work within the parliamentary bureaucracy to ensure an effective parliamentary oversight role. To succeed, they need support, not in capacity but in connecting with each other – the reformists across Iraq are few and far between. Achieving parliamentary oversight can help establish a new model and redirect the focus of parliament’s work, bringing new hope to the possibility of reforming the system from within.

There are three possible ways of achieving this. A first option is by addressing the issue of the speaker’s power to determine the vote through manual counting, a phenomenon known as ‘approved‘, after a phrase used by the speaker to pass motions. MPs must demand transparency in voting processes by adopting an electronic system, sharing the names of MPs who vote or abstain, and making such information available to the media, civil society and the public on the website of the Iraqi parliament.

A second option is by forming a coalition of 25 MPs who each agree to take on the responsibility of collecting information on the work of a specific ministry, looking at things such as bidding, appointments and investments. This can be followed by questioning government ministers, governors and other officials who are found to be underperforming or suspected of corruption.

A third possible route is by connecting and mobilizing media and civil society to push for parliament to prevent MPs who sign a motion for questioning from withdrawing their signature. This could help tackle the issue of blackmail in such cases.

Implementing any such solutions requires a coalition that brings together independent and pro-reform MPs from parties such as Imtidad, Ishraqat Kanoun, New Generation, with MPs from other pro-reform parties, as well as mobilizing media and civil society to campaign for these changes. This will help create a new democratic model and establish a culture that promotes parliamentary oversight, while building public support for reform.

Iraq’s political system suffers from complex and interrelated problems. Attempts at reform must be incremental and should involve stakeholders such as pro-reform MPs, civil society and media to help bring about democratic transition. Democracy promotion must build on prior successes to show MPs it is possible to achieve breakthroughs – even in the complex political environment of the Iraqi parliament – to help restore hope that reform is possible.

This article is part of a series from Chatham House that provides in-depth insights into the inner-workings of Iraq’s government and evaluate what recent developments – both public and behind the scenes – reveal about prospects for a more a stable, accountable, and prosperous Iraqi state.