July 14, 2009 Inquiry & Analysis Series No. 530

Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri Kamal Al-Maliki, Critical of Consensus Democracy, Calls for a Presidential System

July 14, 2009 | By Dr. Nimrod Raphaeli*
Iraq | Inquiry & Analysis Series No. 530


Nouri Kamal al-Maliki assumed office as prime minister of Iraq in May 2006, more than five months after the general elections for parliament had taken place. In the interim period between the general elections and Al-Maliki's swearing in as prime minister, the incumbent prime minister, Ibrahim Al-Ja'fari, who was keen to stay in office, was the subject of strong opposition, particularly by the Kurds and the Sunnis. Both men, Al-Ja'fari and Al-Maliki, are members of the Islamic Da'wa Party (the Islamic Call Party), one of the four key political groups that comprised the primarily Shi'a coalition which had run in the elections under the banner of United Iraqi Alliance (UIA). The United States, which exercised considerable if invisible influence on the Iraqi political scene, also favored Al-Maliki because of his "reputation as someone who is independent of Iran." [1] Al-Maliki was essentially a compromise candidate who was viewed as less dominant than his predecessor and hence more agreeable to the competing political forces within the UIA and to the Sunnis, but mostly to the Kurds.

Al-Maliki Expands Political Base

Gradually, Al-Maliki has built his own political base. In the provincial elections which took place in January, 2009, he ran on a platform called dewlap al-Qanon [the state of law] and won handsomely. A study by the United States Institute of Peace confirmed that al-Maliki has emerged as "the dominant political force in Iraqi politics" and has become the" 'point of reference:' all Iraqi political factions and leaders can be understood by their stance toward him…" [2] This rising political dominance may have provided the impetus to his criticism of what he terms al-dimoqratiyah al-tawafuqiyah (consensus democracy) and his call for a radical change from a parliamentary government into a presidential system.

Al-Maliki's Views of the Democracy in Iraq

It is perhaps ironic that Nouri Al-Maliki chose the U.S.-funded satellite television channel Al-Hurra on which to denounce the current political system based on consensus democracy which has catapulted him to the top. Al-Maliki said that a consensus was necessary in the early stages of transition to democracy after the fall of the Saddam region, but that if the rule by consensus should persist, it will turn into a disaster. He said "Democracy means the rule by the majority and the idea of consensus democracy is not compatible with [true] democracy and, in fact, contradicts it." [3] He called for limiting the force of agreements that guarantee certain positions to the Kurds (the presidency of the republic), to the Sunnis (the presidency of parliament), [4] and, of course, to the Shia (the premiership). It is a system of power sharing commonly referred to in Iraq as has-hasah which, when taken to extremes, has meant that every single position in government, from the president of the republic to the office messenger, is distributed along the power-sharing principle according to a numerical formula based on a census taken decades ago. [5] This formula for distributing government positions could drastically change if the preparations for census to be conducted next year proceed on schedule.

Al-Maliki said that after the next round of national elections he "will call to put an end to the consensus." His critics quickly claimed that a strict majority rule means a rule by the Shi'a.

The Nature of Consensus Democracy

Consensus democracy is rooted in a political culture that denies a religious, ethnic, or sectarian majority from imposing its will on the minority. Lebanon is a prime example of a consensus democracy. It rests on four operational principles: first, government by a broad coalition representing political leaders from many segments of the society; second, the application of the veto power to prevent non-consensus decisions; third, proportional representation in the civil service, diplomatic corps and in state-owned enterprises; and fourth, a high degree of autonomy granted in the management of government agencies. [6]

Al-Maliki Reiterates Views More Forcefully

On the third anniversary of his premiership, speaking before tribal leaders in the Dulaym province in western Iraq, a heavily-populated Sunni region and a former hotbed of terrorism, al-Maliki launched a harsh attack on the principles of consensus democracy and power-sharing. He called for a return to "the law and constitution, the principle of political competitiveness, the national [unified] electoral list, and a turn away from sectarianism." He reminded the tribal leaders that consensus democracy was essential in the early stages of nation-building but argued that it had now turned into a source of corruption. Al-Maliki directed his criticism in particular against those who share in power but act as opposition. He said, "We have to choose: Either we serve the state with the sharing of responsibility, or we act as the opposition. [7]

In a subsequent meeting in Baghdad with a congressional delegation of U.S. Democrats chaired by U.S. Senator Patrick Leahy, Al-Maliki said that the government experience has proven that Iraq is "a unified democratic country" and that the provincial elections confirm that the country has moved away from sectarianism." He said that power-sharing remains a source of weakness and that "it is incumbent on us to put an end to it in the next elections." [8]

In an interview with the UAE daily Al-Khaleej, Al-Maliki vowed that there would be no return to sectarian coalitions. He added that his national program reflects the election platform for the provincial elections, and that he "would welcome a coalition provided it is national in instruments and programs and that it puts an end to sectarian power-sharing [has-hasah] based on the principle of consensus." [9]

To reassure his critics, Al-Maliki told the French daily Le Monde that the next parliamentary elections, scheduled for January 2010, would not lead to a Shi'a coalition as much as to a "National Alliance for the State of Law" - a slogan that proved attractive to many Iraqis in the provincial elections, and gained him a majority of seats on the provincial councils of many southern provinces with their overwhelming Shi'ite population. [10]

Al-Maliki's Critics

Al-Maliki's Al-Hurra TV interview generated a wave of criticism from across the political spectrum. Leading the parade of critics was Iraqi President Jalal Talabani, who rejected the prime minister's call to do away with the consensus democracy. [11] Talabani affirmed the Kurdish position that consensus democracy is the best form of government for Iraq. He said that the principle of consensus has become part of the Iraqi constitution and cannot be ignored. [12] Talabani repeated on many occasions that national consensus "is an effective means of unifying the various segments of the country. Iraq cannot be governed by a [simple] majority. The situation continues to demand a consensus." [13] The Kurdish position is quite understandable given their painful experience with strong central government in Baghdad, particularly now that they are enjoying a great measure of autonomy and economic prosperity. In a similar vein, the most senior Shi'ite cleric in Iraq, Grand Ayatollah Ali Al-Sistani, declared that Iraq must be governed not by a sectarian majority but by "a political majority representing the will of all segments of the Iraqi people expressed through the ballot boxes." [14] In particular, Al-Sistani distanced himself from another Shi'ite religious authority, Sheikh Qassim Al-Ta'i who described al-Maliki's proposal for a presidential regime as "the best step in the right direction." [15]

Saleh Al-Mutlak, head of the National Dialogue, a leading Sunni organization, while welcoming the denunciation of sectarianism, considers Al-Maliki's proposals as nothing more than "election slogans." He said that the country needs a longer period of the current system to achieve a transformation from consensus and power-sharing. [16] An MP representing the Al-Iraqiya list of former Prime Minister Ayad Allawi contends that Al-Maliki has chosen the wrong time to expound on his political views - views which will be interpreted by some of the political parties as "a framework to return a portfolio of dictatorship and totalitarianism." [17]

Reflecting the views of the Saudi regime, which supports the Iraqi Sunnis, columnist for the Saudi-owned Al-Sharq Al-Awsat, Abd Al-Rahman Al-Rashed, has argued that a presidential system similar to the one in the United States is difficult to implement in a divided country like Iraq. The introduction of such a system would be the cause of protests and an exchange of grave accusations, that could lead to the country's partition rather than unification. Al-Rashed suggests that the formula closest to Iraq is the parliamentary system in Israel, with multiple parties and the constant need to make alliances. [18]

Constitutional Barriers

Al-Maliki's preference for a presidential system would require an amendment to the constitution which establishes a parliamentary government in Iraq, meaning that the government is selected by a majority of the members of parliament and is accountable to it. A constitutional amendment is not an easy matter in Iraq under the currently constitution, which requires that any amendment must await two rounds of parliamentary elections. But an even greater obstacle is the provision in the constitution that if an amendment is opposed by two thirds of the voters in three provinces, it will be deemed rejected. This particular constitutional provision, stipulated in article 126, was meant to give assurances to the Kurds that with their three provinces they can block constitutional changes that would threaten their autonomy or fundamental interests. And it is highly unlikely under the current political tensions between the federal government in Baghdad and the Kurdish Regional Government in Erbil that creating a strong executive in Baghdad will be in the long-term interests of the Kurds. It is not just a matter of style that the Kurdish newspapers always add the adjective "federal" to any reference to Iraq's government, whether they are referring to the government in Baghdad, the president of the republic or a particular ministry of government agency.

Al-Maliki Retreats

Considering the political and constitutional constraints to changes in the structure of the political system, the prime minister's spokesman Ali Al-Dabbagh said the views expressed by Al-Maliki reflect his personal opinion and that he would not seek constitutional amendment. He said that there was a binding constitution although the prime minister prefers that a president is elected directly by the people and not by political groups. [19]


It is hard to explain the motivation behind Al-Maliki's campaign for a major change in the political system of Iraq. There is no denying the fact that the present system of power-sharing is highly inefficient and thoroughly corrupt. However, there is no guarantee that converting the office of the prime minister into a presidential office will lead to a government that functions more effectively or will bring corruption under control. Further, there is a real danger that once elected, a president he may decide to follow the path of other Middle Eastern presidents who stay in the office for life.

There is the possibility that al-Maliki is genuinely concerned that with the exit of U.S. forces from the Iraqi cities and the danger of serious violence following, there may be a need for a presidential authority to crack down on violence. Of course, the prime minister is the commander-in-chief of the armed forces and he has the authority to direct them according to the security requirements of the country.

There is the cynical interpretation, that is, that having tasted power, Al-Maliki is eager to have more of it. Given the constitutional constraints, he may have to curb his appetite for the foreseeable future. Outside critics are already accusing him of following the path of Saddam Hussein to create a new dictatorship in Iraq. For example, he has been arresting some opponents or imposing harsh conditions on his former partners in the United Iraqi Alliance. [20]

*Dr. Nimrod Raphaeli is Senior Analyst (emeritus) at MEMRI.


[1] The statement was attributed to U.S. Ambassador Zalman Khalilzad by The Washington Post, April 26, 2006.

[2] United States Institute of Peace, "Maliki’s Iraq between Two Elections," Washington, D.C., May 30, 2009, p.2.

[3] Al-Sabah, Iraq, May 14, 2009.

[4] Al-Zaman, Iraq, May May 15, 2009; Al-Quds Al-Arabi, London, May 16, 2009.

[5] Al-Zaman, May 15, 2009.

[6] Al-Sabah al-Jadid, June 15, 2009.

[7] Al-Rafidayn, May 24, 2009.

[8] Al-Sabah, May 25, 2009.

[9] Al-Khaleej, UAE, May 29, 2009.

[10] Sotiliraq (Iraqi electronic daily), June 17, 2009.

[11] Al-Zaman, Iraq, may 25, 2009.

[12] Al-Mada, May 29, 2009.

[13] Al-Sharq al-Awsat, London, May 26, 2009.

[14] Al-Mada, Iraq, May 30, 2009.

[15] Al-Sabah, Iraq, May 16, 2009.

[16] Al-Mada, Iraq, May 19, 2009.

[17] Al-Mada, Iraq, May 19, 2009.

[18] Al-Sharq Al-Awsat, may 27, 2009.

[19] Al-Mada, May 19, 2009.

[20] Two recent articles underscore this point: "Nouri Al-Maliki and the Rebuilding of Dictatorship in Iraq," by Daoud Al-Basri, Al-Siyassah, Kuwait, June 25, 2009, and "The Message of Iraqi Prime Minister to His Opponents: Cooperate With Me or Face My Fury," Anthony Shadid, Al-Sharq Al-Awsat, London, June 26, 2009.

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