The elections in Iraq that were originally planned for June 2021, were preceded by the negotiations and announcement of a new state budget for 2021. Following a year in which many frustrated Iraqis again took to the streets to demand better economic opportunities, the budget reflects an increase in the amount reserved for salaries of civil servants. On the surface, it might look as if the new budget reflects this demand large groups of protesters have.
More than that, however, the new budget reflects again an increase in the paralyzing grasp of patronage and clientelism through the political system of ‘sectarian apportionment’ – the representation of demographic constituencies in politics.
By nature, this system is unsustainable: increasingly spending more on state-provided salaries that do not require much contribution to the state’s development in return, ultimately will lead to a failing economy – especially in a country that relies almost exclusively on revenues of fossil fuels in a world that is aspiring to be less and less dependent on this energy source. Enter Covid-19.
The relationship between the Iraqi state and its citizens can be characterized as one of paid loyalty. In Iraq, instead of citizens structurally paying relevant percentages of taxes over income and consumer goods – in turn providing the government with a budget with which to provide services – the government provides citizens with a budget through distribution of government jobs. Citizens are then expected to handle most of their affairs privately. In many cases, these government jobs do not amount to much: the then freshly appointed prime-minister of the Iraqi Kurdistan region made a big PR case out of calling an absent government department manager of rather high rank asking why he wasn’t attending to his job; then going on to announce that the ‘fake, void jobs’ through which many citizens receive the basic amount of their monthly income, would be identified and nullified. While an interesting statement for the public, in fact it is the same party’s practice (as it is for virtually any sizeable political party in Iraq) to ensure a loyal electorate via government salaries.
This social contract has long been kept alive by the incredible and seemingly inexhaustible revenues of oil resources, which make up 95% (!) of the state’s budget. Extracted easily (although at great cost for the environment and local livelihoods and wellbeing) and currently still very valuable to many of the world’s nations, it allowed the system of patronage to sustain and grow, as it allowed the most powerful to line their private pockets with gold silently on the side. Still a popular opinion among many in Iraq, the state elites, Baghdad, Erbil and all bigger cities, got away with high levels of corruption and self-enrichment under the auspices of providing much needed safety and security against, everyone will admit, very real threats. The list of violent conflicts in Iraq is long, so long that not one contemporary generation grew up without knowing one or another shape of it. At the same time, some citizens themselves partake in smaller or bigger practices of corruption, if you interpret in a negative way the concept of wasta.
Three elemental principles on which contemporary Iraq is built, reinforce the system that make it possible to exist and thrive. The social contract (an income against a vote), continuing cycles of violent conflict (principles of survival), and the everyday use of wasta for personal gains (micro-corruption), create a society in which each citizen first considers their own – because no one considers everyone. And if everyone only thinks of themselves, what better party to support than the one that promises to always firstly and foremostly support you and your family? The result: an ouroboric muhasasa tai’fia system. And while neighboring Gulf states such as the Emirates, Qatar, Kuwait and Saudi-Arabia have similar welfare systems in which the calm and satisfaction of citizens is bought through well-functioning and high quality public services, Iraq is failing at this. One possible explanation is the high level of ethno-religious diversity in combination with the complex patronage system – it is simply too pricy to maintain happiness for all if competition on the electoral market is high.
If and when popular protest rose during the post-Saddam era, protest leaders would often be co-opted by the system. They and their family members were often promised well-paid government jobs and a cynical ‘seat at the table’ of discussing political transformation. Others disappeared, either in the worst way thinkable or by fleeing to another country. A protest movement without leaders will ultimately collapse when the struggles of everyday life can no longer be ignored by the people on the streets – families require food on the table, parents don’t want their children to be hurt by security forces. The government is almost always much better at playing this waiting game than the citizens.
How, one might wonder, can the political elite of Iraq continue to rob the people of the country’s revenues from the resources? Is there no vision on the future? One possibility is that the political elites are not so different from ‘’regular citizens’’ and as such have the same individualistic incentives and priorities. Reasonably thinking, the oil resources and revenues will not disappear from the world’s trading scene during the lifetime of those in power now, meaning that for the period to come the strategy of co-opting protest leaders would work out just fine.
The Covid-19 pandemic however is causing trouble. More than in years before, people are losing their livelihoods, causing more of them to join the protests. In the light of the declining oil prices, it seems impossible to co-opt all protest leaders. Predictions go as far to suggest that Iraq will face bankruptcy in a year. Many protesters have been killed or harassed, so far without the perpetrators being held accountable. The many victims of violent conflict, now claiming reparation for their losses, are running into a government without money. The country faces a grim future and a speedy collapse, if no intervention is conducted.
Note: During the past 6 months, PAX supported a desk study on the protests against the muhasasa ta’ifia system and the catalytic, contemporary role of the Covid-19 pandemic. More information and analysis can be requested with the author. The study contains personal anecdotal statement of civil-society actors and journalists around the functioning of the protest movement of October 2019 and Covid-19.
 In Arabic: muhasasa ta’ifia (محاصصة طائفية), see: https://fpc.org.uk/iraq-and-muhasasa-taifia-the-external-imposition-of-sectarian-politics/