In response to a new wave of demonstrations Iraq’s Prime Minister Haider Abadi promised to cut government waste while ending the ethnosectarian quota system that determines how positions are dolled out to the ruling parties. In August, the premier reduced the number of ministers, but at the same time maintained the ethnosectarian breakdown that existed beforehand. This points to the limits Abadi is facing as he tries to appease the protest movement.
On August 17, 2015 Premier Abadi announced that he was cutting the number of ministers in the government to reduce costs. Four ministries were being eliminated, and another four were being merged together. The Ministries of Human Rights, Women’s Affairs, Provincial and Parliamentary Affairs were all being done away with while Science was becoming part of Higher Education, Environment part of Health, Municipalities into Housing, and Tourism into Culture. That reduced the cabinet from 30 positions down to 23. When Abadi first came into office in September 2014 he said he wanted to make the government smaller as it had vastly expanded under Maliki to meet the demands of the ruling parties. For example, when Maliki was sworn in for his second term in 2010 he had 30 ministers, but within a few months that had ballooned to 40. Abadi’s willingness to make more cuts therefore was in line with what he’d talked about from the beginning. This move was made in response to the growing protest movement in Iraq, which began in July initially over electricity shortages, but then quickly expanded to include calls to end corruption and government excess.
While Abadi addressed one of the demonstrators’ demands with this move, he ignored another. Abadi and the protesters have both called for ending the ethnosectarian quota system, which was institutionalized within the Iraqi government after the 2003 overthrow of Saddam Hussein. The system is meant to appease the ruling parties, and leads to positions being given out not based upon competence, but party affiliation. Abadi maintained those quotas even as he reduced his cabinet. Before there were 30 ministers with the Shiites holding 53% of them, the Sunnis 23%, and the Kurds 16% with the rest held by smaller parties. After the cuts the Shiite lists had 52% of the cabinet, the Sunnis 21%, and the Kurds 17%. While the Iraqi ruling class has all come out in support of the protests, behind the scenes they are unwilling to make any real structural reforms, which would threaten their power. The parties were willing to give up a few ministries, especially because they were all rather small. Women’s Affairs for example had a budget of roughly $120 per month, and only three offices according to a Kurdish lawmaker. At the same time, they were not going to make any real institutional changes that would upset the balance between them.
Abadi’s Government Before Cuts
Shiite Parties – 16 Ministries = 53% of cabinet
Sunni Parties – 7 Ministries = 23% of cabinet
Kurdish Parties – 5 Ministries = 16% of cabinet
Others – 2 Ministries = 6% of cabinet
Abadi’s Government After Cuts
Shiite Parties – 12 Ministries = 52% of cabinet
Sunni Parties – 5 Ministries = 21% of cabinet
Kurdish Parties – 4 Ministries = 17% of cabinet
Others – 1 Ministry = 4% of cabinet
Abadi faces severe challenges in his reform effort. If he doesn’t continue to make moves the protests could grow angrier and undermine his rule. His opponents are already attempting to exploit the demonstrations against him. At the same time, if he moves too fast or attempts too much he could garner the ire of all the ruling parties. Abadi is therefore in the unenviable position of being between a rock and a hard place. He has to balance a number of political and social players, which are all pulling and pushing in different directions if he wants to survive this period.
Buratha News, “Demonstrations stopped in northern Basra to protest against poor electricity services,” 7/17/15
Office of Prime Minister Dr. Haider Al-Abadi, “Prime Minister Orders Decrease in the COM Members,” 8/16/15
Shafaq News, “Abadi announces reducing the number of ministers by cancelling four ministries and merging others,” 8/17/15
- “What did al-Maliki said about Abadi’s measures?” 8/9/15
Sotaliraq, “Hundreds protested in central Nasiriyah against corruption and attacked government officials and deputies,” 8/2/15