On October 10, Iraqis voted in a high-stakes early election, almost two years after major protests broke out against the government. In October 2019, many young Iraqis living in Baghdad and in the southern provinces took to the streets to protest the federal government. The protesters, mainly from the Shia-Arab community, raised their dissatisfaction with their country’s political system based on an informal power-sharing mechanism (Muhasasa in Arabic), and demanded an end to corruption and nepotism. The post-2003 governments, formed from the three major communities of Shia Arabs, Sunni Arabs, and Kurds, failed to bring functioning governance and prosperity to the country. With the winners of the election (Sadr Movement 73 seats, Taqaddum 37 seats, the State of Law 34 seats, the Kurdistan Democratic Party 33 seats) now moving to negotiate the formation of a new cabinet, the idea that a technocratic government can help solve the country’s lingering problems has resurfaced, as was the case after every election and during the major political crises in the post-2003 era.

Technocracy, or the rule of experts, has a widespread popular appeal in Iraq. Opinion polls show that an overwhelming majority of Iraqis think that experts rather than politicians should govern the country. Politicians themselves also stress the need for a technocratic government to rule without ethno-sectarian considerations. The lingering challenges haunting Iraq in the post-2003 era include record levels of corruption, unemployment, insecurity, and inadequate public services. However, Baghdad’s successive governments have failed to address such issues despite oil wealth and international aid. The ineffectiveness of the governing political parties have led to high levels of distrust in the post-Baath political system. Technocracy emerges as an alternative form of governance against this gloomy backdrop. Apart from the shortcomings of technocracy itself, this paper argues however that several structural constraints make its chances of success quite low.

Technocracy’s appeal

Several chronic problems have marked post-2003 Iraqi politics, which has led to a high dissatisfaction among Iraqi society with their newly founded governance system. Corruption, unemployment, lack of security, and inadequate public services are among the issues that have created disillusionment and led to successive waves of protests. These interrelated problems created a gap between the ruling class and ordinary citizens. They also push many young Iraqis to seek alternative governance systems to solve these issues.

The Iraqi people do not have much trust in their country’s public institutions. According to World Values Survey Wave 7 data, except for religious organizations, the armed forces, and the police, Iraqis have rather low confidence in institutions such as the government, political parties, and the parliament. The record-low level turnout (41 per cent) in the October 10 elections is another manifestation of Iraqis’ loss of hope in the existing political system and actors. They view the ruling class as corrupt and incapable of solving the country’s pressing issues. The alternative to the current system, however, is less clear.

The appeal of a technocratic government is not limited to ordinary people either, as many politicians from various factions have advocated for it as well. For example, Haider al-Abadi’s call for technocracy in 2016 was also supported by Muqtada al-Sadr. After the 2018 parliamentary elections, the idea to form a government of experts to address the nation’s pressing issues was again prevalent, while many analysts pointed out that the cabinet members resumes would not make much of a difference. Currently, there are two proposals for the nature of the next government: a consensus government or a national majority government promoted by Sadr. In the case of a consensus government, the most likely option, government members would respond first to their leaders, then to the PM.

Is technocracy the answer?

Proponents of technocracy in Iraq, such as al-Sadr, argue that a technocratic government not under the control of the existing political factions could implement reforms to solve Iraq’s problems. This claim is based on the assumption that the current government’s problem is a lack of expertise. However, there is no good reason to presume that experts would be any less corrupt than non-expert politicians.

While expertise is not a remedy for corruption and instability, technocracy will not solve Iraq’s problem as they are multifaceted issues with no automatic and clear solutions. Reforms to address the current challenges would require trade-offs and create winners as well as losers. Those who would lose their current privileges from the reforms are the same politicians who are expected to form a technocratic government to implement those reforms. Unless they have no other choice, those in positions of power would not easily give up their seats.

Besides, there are several structural constraints that would prevent even an ideal technocratic government from solving Iraq’s lingering problems. One such impediment is the external involvement of the United States (US) and Iran, and other regional powers. The aftermath of the 2003 invasion made Iraq a battleground for US-Iranian competition for influence. While the US keeps its military presence in the country, Iran’s influence is more indirect. Both states protect their interests in Iraq through alliances with and aid to certain factions within the political class. Therefore, Iraqi governments have been under the control of these two conflicting powers and have had to tread carefully to not antagonize either. This, in turn, limits the Iraqi federal government’s ability to maneuver. Even an ideal technocracy would not be able to pass reforms that would contradict either state’s interests. When asked about his position, the current Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi replied “I am on a rope between two tall buildings. I am not required to walk on the rope, but to ride a bike on the rope. I dance on a daily basis with snakes…”.

Internally, the Iraqi political system is a bad implementation of consociationalism. The muhasasa or communal quota system is power-sharing model between different ethnic and sectarian groups in the country, the largest of which are Shia Arabs, Sunni Arabs, and Kurds. Other communities also have representation at all levels of government proportional to their population. Political parties propose their candidates for the cabinet and high-level bureaucratic positions after long negotiations and the PM has no power to reject the suggested appointments. While this power-sharing mechanism in theory ensures the inclusion and representation of all identities in society, in practice it is a different story. The elites of each community share the nation’s wealth at the expense of their constituencies. It also makes government formation extremely difficult while limiting consensus cabinets’ ability to implement any substantial change. Besides, political parties do not nominate powerful figures within their ranks for the cabinet, leaving the real political power outside the government.

Finally, communal groups are not monolithic and are represented by rival political parties competing for power and resources. Given that these political factions’ consent is critical for any policy implementation, reforms that might undermine their status cannot gain support. For instance, when Muhammad Tawfiq Allawi attempted to form a cabinet independent of political parties, he failed.

On the other hand, a majority government with the power to make substantial reforms is not possible in Iraq as it would risk excluding other communities and undermining the delicate balance established in the post-2003 era, leading to communal grievances. In other words, the  naming of the PM and cabinet must be based on a consensus among the political parties that represent ethnic and denominational communities to prevent exclusion in a country that has already suffered major internal conflicts over the last two decades.

In conclusion, technocracy is no panacea for Iraq’s dysfunctional system. While Iraqis frustrated by their dysfunctional government may find the idea of experts deciding for the good of the nation appealing, the same structural constraints that make the current government ineffective would also prevent even an ideal technocracy from implementing serious reform. The complexity of the problems combined with the intricacies of maintaining a balance between external and internal actors’ conflicting interests render any easy preplanned solutions ineffective from the onset. Hence, the main hurdles before addressing Iraq’s political, economic, and social challenges are systemic and institutional rather than the qualifications of ministers and high-ranking bureaucrats.