Iraq and Gulf Analysis

Iraqiyya Tries to Clear the Air on Federalism

Posted by Reidar Visser on Wednesday, 13 July 2011 15:46

During the past few decades, few words in the vocabulary of politics have been more angst-inducing among Arab leaders than “federalism”. Associated with division, colonialism, Israel and other undesirables, “federalism” has long been approached with suspicion by the entire Arab political class. Instead, “administrative decentralisation” – by which was often meant that municipalities would enjoy complete supremacy in such matters as the collection of dustbins – remained the preferred term for contemplating any possible cession of power from the centre.

In this kind of perspective, developments in Iraq during the first part of 2011 have been somewhat remarkable. As is well-known, Iraq’s constitution adopted in 2005 includes flexible provisions for the creation of new, future federal entities alongside the one federal region explicitly recognised in the charter itself – Kurdistan. However, it was generally thought that those provisions largely reflected the wishes of a tiny group of Kurdish (KDP/PUK) and Shiite (SCIRI) politicians who with American help managed to sideline the rest of the Iraqi political establishment: For a long time, real interest in the creation of new federal regions seemed confined to the far south in Basra, whereas pro-federal currents elsewhere remained at the level of rumours. But more recently, even politicians of the secular Iraqiyya alliance have increasingly become associated with various political demands that are federalist, or federalist in everything but the name (as seen for example in the demand by the local council in Anbar to cut separate gas deals with foreign companies). In other words, it seemed as if Iraqiyya was turning its back on everything it had said previously about the virtues of a strong, centralised government.

However, this week, the top leadership in both the secular Iraqiyya and the Shiite Islamist State of Law have brought a measure of clarity to the debate. Ayyad Allawi, head of the Iraqiyya alliance, declared that the party is against the creation of more federal entities, while at the same time calling for “greater powers to the governorates on a decentralisation basis”.  Another Iraqiyya leader, Salih al-Mutlak, expressed the view that no governorate should have more powers than others. Coincidentally, the remarks by the Iraqiyya leadership followed similar sceptical comments by Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki of  State of Law, who has recently seen a string of potential federalist challengers in his “own”, mostly Shiite fiefdoms, including Basra, Wasit and most recently Babel. (At least some of these challengers involve politicians from Maliki’s own faction.) All of a sudden, it looked as if we were back at the well-known configuration of positions known from the past, with Sunni-secularist rejection of federalism and considerable Shiite Islamist opposition to pro-federal tendencies within their own ranks (i.e. by ISCI and some local politicians).

Those latest comments and the reactions to them illustrate the continuing stalemate on one of the more fundamental issues in Iraqi constitutional law. Kurdish president Masud Barzani seemed angry with Maliki for his lack of interest in federal regions outside Kurdistan, despite the constitutional provisions that exist. For their part, some of the participants at the Iraqiyya meeting seemed to condemn federalism as a principle altogether (rather than new federal regions), to the point where media stories about Salih al-Mutlak supposedly rejecting the federal status of KRG began circulating. In this way the whole debate gets polarised: The KRG is actively abetting federal projects outside its own territory and is claiming powers that are not even in the constitution, whereas some Iraqiyya leaders give the Kurds reason to doubt that the federalism granted to them by the constitution is indeed guaranteed. Another complicating factor relates to the discrepancies between the constitution and the provincial powers law of 2008. When Iraqiyya is claiming “more power for the governorates”, do they mean more power than granted to them by the provincial powers law of 2008, or just a proper implementation of that law? In article 115 of the constitution federal regions and governorates enjoy exactly the same residual powers and are arguably created almost equal; in the provincial powers law of 2008 (and the draft oil and gas law) a greater degree of administrative subordination to Baghdad is clearly envisaged.

Many suspect that local politicians in Iraq are contemplating the creation of federal regions for the sake of getting bigger budget shares. Some apparently believe they can ask for anything in the name of the existing governorates as long as they do not utter that “divisive” F word! However, the current practice of allocating a certain share of the budget to the sole federal region (Kurdistan) and exempting it from contributing to other central government expenses than defence and the foreign ministry has no constitutional basis as such, and would become a matter of debate if  more federal regions were created. The bottom line is that unless there is constitutional revision to clear up the distinction between a federal region and a governorate, the discussion about the Iraqi state structure is likely to remain detached from reality and will serve as yet another distraction from the more pressing issue of consolidating a government that can provide services and infrastructure for the Iraqi population.

7 Responses to “Iraqiyya Tries to Clear the Air on Federalism”

  1. Jason said

    As a general rule, decentralization of administration of most public services is indisputably a good thing: greater accountability, greater efficiency, better results, less opportunity for corruption, more balancing of powers and a check against tyranny from the center (see Hayek’s “Road to Serfdom”), perhaps most important – a proving ground for a future class of political leaders to challenge current ones that are incompetent or corrupt, etc, etc. While the central govt squabbles, empowered local, provincial, or even federal regions could fill the void and provide the services that the Iraqi people need. That’s why I keep asking about new local elections. Very important.

    But all that could be done within the context of existing provincial govts and the Kurdish region, which suggests that there is some ulterior motive driving the issue, such as money, or control over oil contracts, or turning a region into a beachhead for Iranian infiltration on the Lebanon-model. IMO, the overriding concern is the latter, which is why I think talk of new regions should be strongly opposed.

  2. Reidar Visser said

    Jason, with the existing ambiguity regarding the powers of the governorates (the constitution of 2005 versus the provincial powers law of 2008), it is not sufficient to be “against” the creation of new federal entitites. Arguably, it is far more important to press for constitutional reform that clears up the distinction between a federal region and a governorate as such.

    By the way, pressing for elections at the sub-governorate level, while it can certainly do no harm, will have a limited impact on this issue since the qadas and nahiyas are in a weak position both according to the constitution and the provincial powers law.

  3. Zaid said

    I think its worth noting that there are clearly strong differences of opinion between Iraqiya leaders on the issue of provincial and regional powers. Mutlaq walked out of the joint press conference when Allawi indicated that he favored stronger powers for the provinces.

  4. Reidar Visser said

    Zaid, iraqiyya leaders keep confusing me on decentralisation. Though I still think most of them agree on a lead role for the central government in anything to do with oil and energy.

  5. robinson said

    Looks like the Anbaris were just kidding around last fall when they were rumbling about regionalizing following the initial Akkaz deal…الأنبار%20تعتبر%20دعوات%20إقامة%20الإقليم%20مدفوعة%20من%20أجندات%20خارجية%20لتمزيق%20وحدة%20البلاد.html

    ال نائب محافظ الأنبار حكمت جاسم زيدان في حديث لـ”السومرية نيوز”، إن “الدعوات لإقامة إقليم الأنبار تقف وراؤها أجندات خارجية تسعى لتمزيق وحدة البلاد” (Also, note the reference to the joint Anbar-Karbala region midway through the article. Perhaps that was a result of a flare up in geographic tensions? Kind of interesting, though I’ve never seen any evidence that there was any reciprocal interest from Karbala. )

    I suspect there are two primary reasons that provincial political actors lobby for regionalism. One roughly corresponding to the rationale laid out by Jason in comment one. The second being a genuine fear of the intentions of the central government…a general sense that regionalizing will mitigate Maliki’s (or his successor) ability to consolidate power. Reason two is where the sectarian element comes into play.

  6. Jason said

    “with the existing ambiguity regarding the powers of the governorates . . . Arguably, it is far more important to press for constitutional reform that clears up the distinction between a federal region and a governorate as such.”

    I share your interest in clarity as necessary to establishing the rule of law, but amending a constitution during a period of such intractable differences may result in opening an entirely new can of worms and should be done only with caution. If the parliament is to be bogged down working on constitutional amendments, I would think establishing a strong, independent supreme court would be a much higher priority. A more independent, better functioning court would help to sort out and manage all the inconsistencies and fudging in the laws until parliament gets its act together, on the issue of regions and everything else as well.

  7. Reidar Visser said

    Except that the legislation on the federal supreme court has stalled as well, and requires a special majority to pass in parliament…

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