Disgruntled and feeling betrayed by their politicians who have failed to end the country’s violent streak and its political turmoil, Iraqis are redirecting massive criticism against their lawmakers whose corruption and inefficiency are seen as contributing to Iraq’s dilemmas.
Recent days have seen a number of sit-ins across cities in southern Iraq by protesters demanding an end to the extravagant privileges, including lavish salaries and pensions, received by thousands of members of the current and former parliaments.
Iraqis are also increasingly resorting to the social media in their campaign to increase public awareness of the abuses and enlist as many people as possible in the drive to stop what they say is the practice of lawmakers to siphon off resources meant to fund services for the people.
For weeks, demonstrators have been taking to the streets every night in Basra, Karbala, Nassiriya, Simawa and other major cities to protest against the parliamentarians’ skyrocketing salaries and pensions as well as against deteriorating security conditions and the lack of public services.
The protesters, mostly Shias, are also demanding the resignation of Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri Al-Maliki, whose Shia-led government has refused to present a bill to parliament to abolish the lawmakers’ privileges.
In Baghdad, many protesters turned out this week in Firdous Square, where the statue of former Iraqi president Saddam Hussein was pulled down by invading US forces and Iraqis on 9 April, 2003, symbolising the end of his regime.
Activists posted announcements on the Internet that they planned big protests in Baghdad’s Tahrir’s Square on Friday.
Activists have also set up follow-up committees to press for the abolition of the parliamentarians’ large pensions. They said they planned to take their efforts nationwide to local tribal, religious and trade union leaders to urge them to join the campaign.
Shamkhi Jabur, a coordinator for the campaign in Karbala, told a local website that the campaign had been launched in reaction to “the deteriorating social, political and economic situation” in Iraq, a reference to what many Iraqis believe is the depletion of the state budget for the last 10 years by large salaries for high-ranking officials.
Despite the country’s considerable oil wealth, Iraq faces major economic problems including deteriorating infrastructure, high unemployment, poverty, and ailing education and health sectors.
Iraq has 115 billion barrels of proven oil reserves, the fifth-largest in the world. Last year, the government earned some $90 billion from oil exports. Many Iraqis believe that government corruption, inefficiency and waste are the main reasons behind the country’s economic malaise.
To illustrate the problem, campaign activists say that an Iraqi lawmaker earns 13.5 million Iraqi dinars (about $11,200) as a base salary per month. Each deputy also receives a one-off payment of about $57,200 to cover expenses during a four-year term.
Lawmakers are entitled to stay for free at a luxurious Baghdad hotel and to collect about $5,800 when travelling inside or outside of Iraq.
In addition, each member receives 21 million Iraqi dinars (about $17,200) to be spent on 30 bodyguards for personal protection, though many deputies are believed to spend a very small part of the money on protection and to keep the rest for themselves.
The deputies also receive 80 per cent of their salaries as retirement pensions for life. Both salaries and pensions are tax-free.
Iraqis have been complaining that they have been kept in the dark about lawmakers’ salaries, even though under the country’s constitution the salaries and privileges of senior government officials and members of parliament are supposed to be published in the Official Gazette, something which has never been enforced.
But by calculating the total salaries, allowances and other perks of Iraqi parliamentary members, the activists say the amount could reach $129,800 a year, or a total of $518,000 over four years.
Compared to parliamentary members in rich nations, an Iraqi MP earns more than his counterparts in the United States and other western countries, despite the huge differences in standards of living and incomes.
The comparison becomes scandalous if earnings are compared with incomes in Iraq and the salaries of other Iraqi government employees.
According to official figures released by the Ministry of Planning and Development Cooperation released in March, the average annual per capita income in Iraq is $4,000. The average salary of government employees in Iraq is about $400.
Taking all salaries and other financial benefits together means each lawmaker receives the salaries of 75 government employees who hold a university degree and 40 times as much as the average Iraqi per year.
There are also other privileges and services for Iraqi members of parliament, who receive interest-free loans for cars and some other purchases from government-owned banks with very easy terms for repayments, for example.
Each MP also receives plots of land for housing in upscale neighbourhoods. They and their families are also granted diplomatic passports and receive free medical services abroad.
The deputies justify their huge salaries, pensions and other privileges by saying that they take huge risks in working under threats of daily bombings, attacks and assassinations. Sometimes their families also are exposed to dangers of terrorism.
However, many Iraqis believe that it is unacceptable that such a large number of officials earn such high salaries and retirement pensions for life, while 11 per cent of Iraq’s workforce is looking for jobs and not finding them.
Most Iraqis believe that the parliament is dysfunctional and ridicule its members as nothing more than “political scum”. They note that the parliament has failed to question security officials over their failure to stop the waves of terrorist attacks that have killed thousands of Iraqis this year, for example.
A large number of deputies do not bother to attend the parliament’s sessions. In countless cases, the parliament has not been able to go into session because of a lack of a quorum. On 22 July, 101 members were absent from a session that was supposed to vote on key legislation.
A report issued recently by the Iraqi Parliament Monitor, a civil society watchdog, showed that the total number of the parliament’s working hours in 2012 was 302.6 for the total of all sessions, equivalent to 12.6 entire days, or 43.25 seven-hour days.
In 2011, the parliament’s speaker, Osama Al-Nujaifi, ordered a list of deputies absent from the parliament’s meetings to be published in an attempt to embarrass them before the public.
The unprecedented decision came after the parliament failed to meet for several days due to a failure to achieve a quorum.
The parliament’s presidency had also warned that it would cut part of the remuneration paid to members who did not attend sessions, a measure many believe has rarely been applied, given the phenomenal absentee rate among deputies.
Efforts to reduce the salaries and privileges granted to members of the parliament have failed, though politicians have made promises to do so. Some members who have tried to pass bills to cut salaries have received death threats.
In what appeared to be a flagrant defiance of the protests, the parliament last week passed its 2014 budget, which included a rise in the salaries of security men for its members.
Deputy Aliya Nisayif said that among the new allocations made for deputies were allowances made for cosmetic surgery, such as teeth correction and stomach fat removals.
However, many Iraqis believe that the campaign to cut the large salaries and extensive privileges granted to the country’s parliamentarians may bear fruit as the political blocs are getting ready for next year’s parliamentary elections.
They hope that the blocs will accept the cuts in order to protect themselves from the public fury that will surely grow if they fail to take action.
In recent days, many prominent figures have joined the call to abolish the parliamentarians’ pensions and lower their salaries. On Saturday, the Shia Citizen Bloc said its members would voluntarily return their pensions to the state coffers. Others said their members would donate their pensions to charities.
Yet, many Iraqis have little faith in their politicians and consider such pledges to be political bluffs and electioneering. Nevertheless, their coordinated approach could pay dividends and turn into a broader national campaign against corruption.