x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 26 July 2017

Everyone has a stake in Iraq's new cabinet

The result of breaking Iraq's political stalemate isn't a cabinet prepared to govern effectively, but a basket of plum jobs meant to keep everybody happy, or at least at the negotiating table.

Iraq's politicians have perfected the art of slicing a pie into as many pieces as possible. After nine months of bickering and backroom deals, Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki has cobbled together an unwieldy cabinet of 45 members and cornered security portfolios for his allies. It's been a remarkably deft political manoeuvre and, possibly, a step toward a more stable Iraq.

The result isn't a cabinet prepared to govern effectively, but a basket of plum jobs meant to keep everybody happy, or at least at the negotiating table. And in Iraq, reconciling the various Shiite, Sunni and Kurdish blocs is no mean feat.

Sectarian divisions have often drawn the battle lines since Saddam Hussein was toppled in 2003. The politicking around this year's election took a similar complexion, but this need not be Iraq's defining political reality. Iraq's national identity has taken a beating in recent years, but the myriad of tribal and parochial allegiances are still strong.

"There was a deafening chorus about 'Sunnis, Shiites, Kurds, and Christians' by confused diplomats," writes the Iraq analyst Reidar Visser. "'Inclusive power-sharing government' is just a carve-up whereby some hundred politicians get the jobs they want at the expense of the governance of Iraq and its people."

That multiplicity might hobble urgent legislative efforts, as Visser believes. Certainly, there are critical decisions to be made on the country's oil laws, the status of Kirkuk and constitutional reform. The underlying weaknesses is likely to persist into the next election. At the same time, railroading through laws that create fundamental change will not be a solution.

If everybody has a piece of the pie, they have a stake in a whole Iraq. The new oil minister, Abdul Karim Elaibi, promises continuity for crucial energy contracts. Even more importantly, key portfolios including finance, communications and industry are held by the opposition Iraqiyya, whose technocrats may quietly make more of a difference than the rest of the cabinet put together.

The spoiler still could be Mr al Maliki. Holding the reins of the security apparatus, he is responsible for stemming the continuing violence, particularly the rash of attacks on the Christian minority. He has an extraordinary opportunity to mould a more stable Iraq.

Regardless, Iraq's political culture was never going to change overnight, as the Americans once mistakenly believed. An acrimonious stint of horse-trading has yielded a clumsy, imperfect government. That sounds remarkably similar to democracy.