The Challenge of Governance and Reform in Iraq and the KRI
Summary Report & Session Video
- Jeanine Hennis-Plasschaert, Special Representative of the Secretary General, UN
- Qubad Talabani, Deputy Prime Minister, Kurdistan Regional Government
- Talar Mumtaz Noore, Media & Civil Society (Moderator)
This session at MERI Forum 2022 convened to discuss the challenge of governance and reform in both Iraq and the Kurdistan Region (KRI). Talar Mumtaz Noore, panel moderator, prompted the discussion by stating that reform has always been an unaccomplished pending issue, and invited both speakers to candidly offer their perspectives on the root causes of this ongoing issue, while offering solutions (click here for video of the session in full).
Qubad Talabani, Deputy Prime Minister of the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG), stating that governance has not become the top priority or the main topic of discussion in Iraq and the KRG. Instead, the main focus has been politics, while communities are competing over political positions. These have taken precedence over establishing policies that would help governance, thus resulting in “the chaos we have now.” He added that political parties are also in need of reform. Talabani highlighted the importance, yet absence, of a conducive environment that would encourage reform and good governance, and create a space for the government to function. He stated that even in the absence of such an environment, with the existence of political unity, political will, clarity of vision and teamwork, governments can overcome obstacles. The Deputy Prime Minister supported this by referring to the multitude of challenges the previous Cabinet faced and overcame in the years of 2014-2017 during the war with ISIS, budget cuts and drop in oil prices, to name a few. “We were able to bypass some of the political rivalries, protect the government from the political infighting […] because we were unified in the government, because we put government first, we survived.”
Jeanine Hennis-Plasschaert, Special Representative of the UN Secretary General (SRSG) in Iraq, affirmed that the main challenge in Iraq is pervasive, structural and systemic corruption. She reaffirmed that “in the absence of tackling corruption, any attempt to push through serious reform will not succeed. This is really the cause of Iraqi dysfunctionality. […] Corruption is not an individualized issue, it is a systemic issue ingrained deep into how Iraq functions as a state, and it hinders the development of Iraq because it distracts state resources that are meant for national development and now are diverted to private and partisan interests.” The SRSG explained that the argument around corruption needs to shift from blaming individual actors to acknowledging it as a systemic flaw, which would then allow policy makers to focus on tackling corruption through systemic reform.
On the topic of external challenges, such as the attacks on Iraqi sovereignty, Hennis-Plasschaert specified that domestic strength is needed in order to face these challenges. “In the absence of domestic strength, you kind of invite others to use your territory for different power competitions.” She further expressed that Iraq’s expectations of the international community are sometimes exceedingly high, explaining that the international partners are able to aid with humanitarian and developmental programs, as well as organize dialogue with political parties and other interest groups, and support Kurdish and Iraqi authorities, but they can’t “run the country.” She spoke realistically that she can’t prevent Turkey and Iran’s attacks on the KRI, but can speak with the two neighbors and call on Iraqi and Kurdish authorities to unite.
Furthering on the topic of international support over the last 17 years, Qubad Talabani stated “the first few years was just throwing billions of dollars at infrastructure projects and trying to fix electricity, trying to fix water, and a lot of that was wasted because the system wasn’t there to absorb it.” He emphasized that his office has seen great benefit from working with many international partners, bringing in specialized consultancy, and creating an environment that can benefit from their expertise. The Deputy Prime Minister regrated that Iraq and the KRI are missing such an enabling environment, saying that “if there isn’t the authorizing environment as a whole within the political system, then no international support will ever make an impact, because it’ll just get blocked.” Talabani stated that one of the major challenges to reform is that many policies get blocked due to personal problems and vendettas that actors have with each other.
Qubad Talabani expressed his support of Iraq’s new Prime Minister, Mohammed Shia Al-Sudani, and stated that the KRG should approach future discussions with Baghdad methodically, logically, and not emotionally, with a unified Kurdish voice in order to achieve win-win outcome. “I need the prime minister […] to say ‘I’m the Prime Minister of Iraq, I can’t have four provinces of my country in turmoil, or upset, or neglected.’ Just how he must care about Basrah, he has to care about Sulaymaniyah. That comes from a vision and it comes from him feeling that the Kurdistan Regional Government is not working to undermine him.” He called on the international community to “facilitate, not impose, a dialogue to help unlock a sensitivity, address the insecurity that we have, because ultimately what’s ruling this country is fear and insecurity.”
The UN-SRSG Hennis-Plasschaert shifted focus onto the lack of implementation that exists in Iraq and the KRI, using the 2005 Iraqi Constitution as an example, stating that “general principles were enshrined in the constitution and it was decided to leave the supporting legislation for a later stage, but 17 years later we’re still waiting.” She criticized the government for utilizing ‘beautiful words’ instead of implementing policies. The prevalence of false promises and lack of action has resulted in people losing faith in the ruling class to solve their problems, and hence the low voter turnout in the previous year. She asserted that a problem in Iraq is that people expect systemic change from a singular person, stating “we look upon him to make the world a better place, it’s not going to happen. You need institutionalized mechanisms that are separate from persons,” and stressed the importance of managing public expectations. Her recommendation for the new Iraqi government was to prioritize public service delivery in order to build people’s trust in the government’s ability to take action, and reiterated that systemic corruption is the primary issue to tackle, as it diverts state resources from the population to partisan interests. Hennis-Plasschaert referred to the great lack of mutual trust between Erbil and Baghdad, and stated that the problems between both capitals should be addressed by implementing a predictable and institutionalized mechanism and to host regular dialogues, stressing the necessity of dialogue between all actors of any ideology and belief system.