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.
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