Iraq and Gulf Analysis

Archive for October 8th, 2009

Hakim Still Dreaming about Regions

Posted by Reidar Visser on Thursday, 8 October 2009 13:34

He has lived in the country less than half of his life but the 37-year old Ammar al-Hakim, the new leader of the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq (ISCI), continues to spend time contemplating radical changes to the state structure of Iraq. In a recent interview with Iraqi television, he made it clear that he still envisages the creation of multiple federal regions in Iraq south of Kurdistan.

In the period between 2005 and 2007 Hakim was perhaps the single most vocal spokesperson for the idea of a single, Shiite sectarian region to be established from south of Baghdad to the Gulf. While he no longer pushes that particular configuration of governorates to form a new region, the recent interview makes it clear once more that he has no qualms about future changes to Iraq’s administrative map: One governorate, three governorates or nine governorates in a single federal region, that is for the people to decide, says Hakim. Iraq may perhaps be the cradle of civilisation with a millennia-long tradition of centralised government but to Hakim this historical legacy simply seems irrelevant.

While legalists will point out that Hakim is finally moving closer to the 2005 constitution, a more meaningful interpretation of the significance of his statement emerges when it is contrasted with what other Iraqi politicians are saying these days. Just within the past weeks, representatives for the Daawa party (Abd al-Hadi al-Hassani), Iraqiyya (Maysun al-Damluji), Hiwar (Mustafa al-Hiti) and the Sadrists (Talib al-Kurayti) have all expressed scepticism to the creation of any new federal entities. Several have hinted that restrictions on federalism may be a subject for the upcoming constitutional review. In other words, when most Iraqi politicians finally seem to respond to recurrent popular demands for an end to federalisation and a greater focus on more pressing issues of security, health and the economy, Hakim makes a point of keeping such options open.

This in turn highlights potential contradictions inside the newly created Iraqi National Alliance, where Hakim is playing a key role. In a recent interview with the Christian Science Monitor that has been widely reproduced in the Iraqi press, another leading ISCI figure, Adil Abd al-Mahdi, weighed in on the issue of state structure. Although some of the translations of the interview have clearly been garbled in the Iraqi press, the one by the Furat television channel based on an ISCI press release is probably an authoritative account of what Abd al-Mahdi intended to say. Put briefly, in his view, the goal of the new coalition is to create a unified government without ideological contradictions: “It is impossible to have a centralist view within a government that believes in decentralisation”.

Seen in isolation, this is clarifying: The Iraqi National Alliance confirms its decentralisation ideology and emphasises its differences with others in the Maliki government, such as the premier himself, on the issue. Alas, the problem, of course, is the presence of certain arch-centralists – in particular the Sadrists – as a key element in the new Shiite-led alliance. Clearly, if Abd al-Mahdi were to follow through on his own logic, the obvious next steps would be as follows: Firstly, to cut all contact with the centralist Iraqiyya (with whom negotiations supposedly still go on). Secondly and, more importantly perhaps, to ditch the Sadrists, who also reject the creation of more federal entities.

But they are not going to do that, are they? After all, the Sadrist votes for the Iraqi National Alliance are badly needed. For his part, Ammar al-Hakim has already declared that he will not subject himself to the unpredictable whims of voters by running as a candidate. And whereas ISCI earned one third of its members of parliament in 2005 not on the basis of actual votes for candidates but in post-election distribution of so-called compensatory seats at the national level, the Sadrists are holding a kind of primaries these days, with a reported turnout of 16,000 in Dhi Qar. The Sadrists, in turn, are under instructions from Muqtada al-Sadr to select only non-clerical independents, making it even less likely that ISCI would benefit from the Sadrist vote under an open-list system.

This illustrates a more widespread dynamic related to the ongoing debate on the elections law. In public, all the parties except the two Kurdish ones agree that an open-list system should be used. ISCI supported closed lists in the past but has been pressured into accepting an open-list system after persons close to the Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani increasingly have expressed a strong preference for this. (In fact, for this reason Sistani is almost portrayed as something of a nationalist hero on normally unsympathetic television stations like Sharqiyya these days, so don’t say Iraqi politics isn’t changing!) In theory, then, the only remaining problem with the elections law should be what to do with Kirkuk, and even here a compromise should be possible after a very helpful proposal two days ago by Hasan Turan, a Turkmen representative, to make provisions for a re-examination of the voter register for that province – an idea that received public support yesterday also from Usama al-Nujayfi, another powerful voice from the north.

However, it is reported that several parties are unsecure about their real standing among voters and secretly prefer the closed-list system for that reason. The motive is that with a closed list the big vote-getters (such as the Sadrists) can enhance their electoral prospects by creating a “ticket” in a very literal sense – i.e. by giving others, less popular politicians, a free ride to parliamentary seats that would otherwise be at risk (that is, if voters were given a chance to intervene in the selection of candidates). As if to underline the lack of respect for Iraqi voters, with all these issues pending, the parliament has announced it will not reconvene until 13 October, only two days before the deadline for completing changes to the electoral system.

Posted in Iraq and soft partition, Iraqi constitutional issues, Shiite sectarian federalism, UIA dynamics | 9 Comments »