Campaigning for Iraq’s first national elections since US forces left the country in December 2011 is well under way, with posters covering the walls of the country’s decaying buildings and political advertisements dominating the airwaves.
But a lack of transparency and perceptions of widespread corruption have undermined faith in the democratic process just as the country faces a growing insurgency spurred on by al-Qaeda-affiliated terrorists. Experts warn that Iraqi politics remain highly vulnerable to unseen, undeclared money both inside the country – flowing along patronage networks – and from regional powers eager to maintain their influence.
Alia Nsaif, a lawmaker and member of parliament’s integrity committee, the anti-corruption watchdog, warned this month that money was already finding its way into the parties’ campaigns from abroad and from “the governmental corruption prevalent in this country”.
Iraq’s parties need money to launch and run their own television channels, buy campaigning materials, fund religious celebrations and organise conferences and workshops – all as a way of mobilising voters as the April 30 elections approach. After eight years in power, Nouri al-Maliki, prime minister, is seeking a third term but this is far from a certainty, with voters tired of poor public services and renewed levels of violence as the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, or ISIL, feeds off the conflict in Syria with extra recruits and weapons.
Last year the electoral commission approved rules that for the first time set ceilings of $85,000 per candidate for campaigning, barred donations from abroad, required auditing of party campaign bank accounts and forbade the use of cash for big-ticket election spending.
None of these regulations have the force of law, however, and although they stipulate possible fines for transgressions and even the invalidation of votes, few people believe the commission’s monitors will have the authority to enforce the rules or the political muscle to take on the most powerful parties.
A potentially more important draft law that would regulate political parties is tied up in parliament. “In the absence of [this] law, no one will be able to know the source of financing for big or small parties,” said Ahmed Abbadi, a Baghdad-based legal expert and political analyst.
“A law forcing parties to disclose sources of funding is the only way to . . . really find out how much is being spent, from which funds, if a party is exceeding its spending limits and [if so], where this extra money is [going].” But, he added, the biggest parties were refusing to allow a vote on the proposed law because it would “expose their funding sources, most of which are coming from abroad”.
For 11 years now the existing political parties have dug their roots deeply into the state. They control ministries [and] various state organisations and they pull a lot of money out of the state
- Zaid al-Ali, former UN adviser in Baghdad
In the meantime, about the only curb on corruption during the campaign with any force comes from the clergy, with Shia religious leaders in particular calling on politicians to keep their hands clean.
The allegations that the various blocs are supported by foreign cash is further poisoning already strained sectarian relations. Many accuse Iran, for example, of backing the country’s Shia parties, such as Ammar Hakim’s Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq; on the other hand, Sunni and secular parties such as al-Wataniya, led by former prime minister Iyad Allawi, are widely believed to receive funds from Saudi Arabia.
“All political blocs in Iraq get funds from outside Iraq, especially the Shia religious blocs in parliament,” said Abbas Anbori, an adviser to one of the chamber’s deputy speakers. “Most of them are funded by Iran. They do not deny it and everybody in Iraq knows [it, while] the Saudis fund and subsidise many activities of the various Sunni blocs.”
Political insiders also claim that parties are siphoning off cash from well-connected businesses they helped to establish. This, they claim, involves ministries under the control of certain parties demanding backhanders for the award of state contracts.
For instance, two years ago Iraqis were disgusted but not surprised after a leading politician, Salah Mutlaq, went on television to accuse a political party of paying the government millions of dollars provided by two businessmen “to facilitate deals with the defence ministry”.
Without the patronage of a major party, however, it is well-nigh impossible to break into politics.
Candidates who lack the support of a major party face stiff challenges to break into the political world. With the exception of a reformist party in the semi-autonomous Kurdish region, Goran, which won eight parliamentary seats in the 2010 elections as a result of frustration over corruption and entrenched interests, very few independent candidates or movements have made it into office.
“If you are not part of that system, if you are an outsider, a reformer, how can you possibly compete?” said Mr Ali. “In order to really be able to make a difference to the status quo, you have to build a national alliance. And a national alliance requires a lot of cash, staff, advisers, advertisements. That’s because you’re competing against well-oiled machines.
“So the competition in this election is only between the political parties that are already controlling the state.”