ON SATURDAY, 30 April 2016, thousands of supporters of the Iraqi religious leader, Moqtadr al-Sadr, stormed Baghdad’s “Green Zone” and forced their way into the Iraqi Parliament.
This demonstration/occupation was sparked by the wilful procrastination of Iraqi MPs tasked with passing long-overdue reforms aimed at rooting out the corruption endemic to Iraqi political life. The MPs had deliberately drawn out the legislative process in hopes of somehow preserving the system they were supposed to be eliminating.
Their patience exhausted, Moqtadr and his followers smashed their way into Baghdad’s most protected area. The Green Zone, formerly the base-of-operations for the American Occupation, and, before that, the home of Iraqi dictator, Saddam Hussein, is as potent a symbol of the Iraqi people’s oppression as the Bastille was of France’s.
As the Iraqi MPs fled in terror, al-Sadr’s followers gleefully ransacked the chamber. By the following day they were demanding the formation of a new cabinet; the resignations of the Iraqi Prime Minister, Haider al-Abadi; the President, Fuad Masum; and the Speaker of the Parliament, Salim al-Jabouri; and fresh elections.
Most New Zealanders will shake their heads in disbelief at such extreme behaviour, and thank their lucky stars that they live in a mature and restrained parliamentary democracy. The very notion of insurrection is utterly foreign to our political culture. As a people, we are more than content to play by the rules.
Thinking about the actions of the Iraqi protesters, however, I’m wondering whether this Kiwi determination to play by the rules is a blessing, or a curse. Certainly, our collective disinclination to step outside the rules offers our leaders little, if any, incentive to be cautious about the way they treat us. To the contrary, our leaders’ expectation is that we should be wary of them, not that they should be wary of us!
But what about the power of public opinion? Surely that acts as a formidable constraint on our leaders’ behaviour? A government seeking re-election would likely be more frightened of a downward trajectory in the polls than Moqtadr’s rampaging mob.
That is certainly the theory. But, today, polls and focus groups are as much about misleading and manipulating the electorate as they are about heeding its wishes. Besides, the ability to test public opinion is pretty much restricted to the rich and the powerful. How many ordinary people can afford to find out what ordinary people are thinking? And, even when they are known, there are plenty of instances where the thoughts of ordinary people are simply excluded from the political equation.
Nowhere is this process of exclusion more evident than in the negotiation and ratification of the Trans-Pacific Partnership Agreement (TPPA). The TPPA was created by national and transnational elites, for national and transnational elites. It’s likely impact on the lives of ordinary people was a matter of only passing interest.
The consternation that gripped the New Zealand elites (political, business, media) when anti-TPPA campaigners attracted tens-of-thousands of angry protesters onto the streets of Auckland showed just how unimportant public opinion was to the TPPA process. Even within the walls of the Sky City complex, well protected from the rage of the protesters outside, the elites were painfully aware that they were losing the public relations war. If the protest activity escalated to encompass all the main centres; and MFAT’s hastily organised explanatory meetings found themselves similarly besieged; then the elites’ ability to “sell” the TPPA to the New Zealand public would be thrown into serious doubt.
The ultimate threat to the ratification process would have been the anti-TPPA forces laying siege to Parliament itself. The 2004 hikoi against the Labour Government’s seabed and foreshore legislation offers an intriguing precedent. In that instance, Maori had demonstrated the acute vulnerability of the parliamentary complex to concerted protest action. Only a recourse to deadly force on the part of the authorities could prevent a protest demonstration numbering in the tens-of-thousands from physically occupying the House of Representatives – if it wanted to.
And there’s the rub. Progressive New Zealanders are simply not mentally wired to escalate their protest activity to such an extent. Their innate respect for the democratic process and its representative institutions is too great.
Once again, the TPPA issue offers the proof. Rather than build on its Auckland success, the anti-TPPA movement switched its focus from the angry streets to MFAT’s explanatory meetings; the hearings of the relevant parliamentary select committee; and the Treaty of Waitangi Tribunal.
That none of these bodies would be permitted to exercise the slightest influence over the outcome of the TPPA ratification process was known to all the participants. And yet, such was their faith in the “democratic process” that they turned up again and again to be condescended to (and, if necessary, silenced) by Sean Plunket, and endured by the National Party-dominated select committee. Lacking the force of law, any adverse Waitangi Tribunal findings will undoubtedly be set aside with equal disdain.
Lacking any lengthy, or positive, experience of democracy, the Shia poor of Sadr City were unmoved by the magic and majesty of representative government. In their eyes, the people they had elected to rebuild and rehabilitate their shattered nation had failed in their duty. Even worse, they had used their privileged positions as parliamentarians to corruptly enrich themselves. Far from opening the road to a better future, they had erected barriers across it. Any respect they might have been due from the Iraqi people had long ago been squandered. Away with them!
Moqtadr’s followers have now returned to their homes, but they have left behind them more than a wrecked debating chamber. In the bellies of the MPs who fled their invasion there is now a gnawing fear of the people’s righteous anger. They will not lightly rouse it again.