On October 27, after over a year of political standoff, Iraq formed a new government. The government was assembled based on the Muhasasa ethno-sectarian quota system. Iraq’s political parties negotiated over who would be at the helm of the most important ministries. The Shia parties, for example, competed over the Oil, Finance, and Interior ministries among others, while the Sunni parties bargained among themselves over who would take the Defense and Planning ministries. The Kurds, meanwhile, continue to grapple with who will win the last two ministries remaining in the Cabinet. The allocation of the ministries, according to one political analyst, was basically an auction for the political parties to bargain and compensate. The result is a government with 21 ministries – 12 held by the Shias, six held by the Sunnis, two held by the Kurds, and one held by another minority party.
The Muhasasa system was an idea developed in the early 1990s by exiled Iraqi opposition political figures to divide political positions based on an estimated census of Shias, Kurds, and Sunnis to secure representation for these groups in Iraq’s government. The plans served as a roadmap after the U.S.-led invasion in 2003 for the Iraqi Governing Council, which consisted of the seven major Iraqi political parties that took part in the initial agreement in 1992. The subsequently approved Iraqi Constitution prohibits sectarianism and does not allude to the distribution of political positions based on sect or ethnicity; however, the Muhasasa system division of ministries became a tacit agreement among the political players. The positions of the presidency, speaker of the parliament, and prime minister “were split up among the three major communities, with the position of president reserved for the Kurds, the position of prime minister (the most powerful in Iraq) for the Shia, and the position of speaker of the parliament for the Sunnis.”
Iraq’s ministries and the bureaucracy are divided along the same lines, according to this quota system. While implemented to ensure a division of ministries that reflects the implicitly recognized political and demographic power of the major ethno-sectarian groups of Iraq – and ensure basic political harmony – the system, as implemented, inevitably facilitates corruption, as a ministry that is allocated to a particular political party is treated as a private domain to be exploited for the benefit of the party not the country. The corruption process is simple in that regard. Businesspeople close to the political party holding the ministry receive the contracts, inflate costs, and eventually split the profits with the political party. One of the most salient examples of the costs of this corruption is the Health Ministry. It has been dominated by supporters of Shia cleric Muqtada al-Sadr for a number of years. The health system deteriorated as a consequence because of the corruption that all political parties tacitly agree upon and are involved in, and despite the open corruption and deteriorating services, other political figures turn a blind eye because they are equally corrupt in other ministries. This “sectarianized corruption” has included positions ranging from ambassadors to military commanders and deputy ministers. These positions, known as the “special grades,” are divided based on the seats parties win in parliamentary elections. Political parties have appointed loyal party members, for example as ambassadors, without regard to experience and despite failing to meet legal requirements. These 5,000 or so positions are often coveted even more so than the role of minister because they have longer tenure. The loyal party members who gain such positions within the bureaucracy, particularly decision-making positions, ensure the “resources flow from ministries and state institutions to their patrons. They also serve as chokepoints, blocking contracts if they do not benefit the parties concerned.”
The Muhasasa system creates a dependence of the electorate on the political parties as they control the balance of rewards and punishments within the government. Iraq has a bloated public sector and a very fragile private sector, which gives the political parties clout. As the government employs 40% of the work force, employees, whether filling senior positions or more routine jobs, have to have political backing to maintain their jobs within the bureaucracy.
Benefits for loyal party members extend beyond regular employment. Some members are given salaries without working. A former finance minister stated in 2021 that 300,000 employees in the public sector are “ghost workers.” Party loyalty is also linked to pensions. Some politicians estimate that there are more than 400 retired women, for example, with high military ranks who never served in the military. Iraq’s political system, in essence, is constituted of multiple centers of power that constantly compete for partisan benefits by taking advantage of their control of political offices. The governing body, with the prime minister at the helm, is in paralysis as the ministries heed the dictates of the political parties in control rather than decrees issued from the top of the government or mere ministerial regulations.
The quota system aimed to create an inclusive government comprised of Iraqis from all backgrounds. However, it has become a system marked by inefficiencies that facilitate patronage and corruption. The lack of ability of the government to provide services and meet basic needs has led to the erosion of trust in Iraqi officials and decision makers and to cynicism about government service and efficiency. In a recent poll, 85% of Iraqis surveyed expressed low trust in state actors.
The Muhasasa system is one of the main obstacles to reforming Iraq today. The arrangement allows for the domination and entrenchment of the political parties that seek their parochial interests over pursuing public benefits. Additionally, this political arrangement weakens Iraqi national identity. Though there have been attempts at reforming the political system, these efforts have been stifled, as the conflicting parties within the government are unified in their goal of maintaining the status quo. The new Iraqi government represents a continuation of this tradition, meaning there is little hope for meaningful political change. While the political and economic costs of such a system are exceedingly high, it has offered a crude but thus far relatively reliable formula for preventing a descent into ethno-sectarian civil strife. Critics of this set of arrangements will need to bolster their critique with a persuasive vision of a new Iraq and feasible reforms that can move the system in its direction, while not putting at risk the minimal internal security guardrails the current system has offered Iraqi society.