Iraq and Gulf Analysis

Archive for August 11th, 2011

Parliament Finishes the First Reading of the Strategic Policy Council Bill

Posted by Reidar Visser on Thursday, 11 August 2011 20:58

It may be that Ramadan exhaustion in combination with another hot Iraqi summer has made its impact: In a Byzantine development, the Iraqi parliament today voted “in principle” to continue working on the strategic policy council bill.

The procedure adopted today is in itself extraordinary. Normally a bill advances through parliament by way of two separate readings, each of which is followed by discussions and amendments before a final version of the bill is voted on. Nonetheless, at the end of the reading, parliament found it necessary to vote “in principle” on continuing to read the bill! The move was even misreported in some media to the effect that the bill had already been passed.

The bill itself is as convoluted and ambiguous as the early versions that circulated. A wide scope of operations is outlined for the projected strategic council, with areas ranging from the energy sector to foreign policy. In practice it amounts to a parallel government in everything but the name, except that unlike the government proper it will not be based on the input from specialised ministries. Just to make matters even more confusing, separate items specified as falling within the jurisdiction of the council include vague national-reconciliation tasks as well as making suggestions for the projected federal supreme court. An interesting new focus is the idea of limiting the council effectively to one parliamentary term, which would give it a certain transitional character.

There are however some serious caveats that will limit the power of the council in practice and makes you wonder whether it is worth going through all the trouble of trying to adopt it anyway. Firstly, in order for the decisions of the council to be binding, an 80% majority will be required as per the draft law requirements reported in the press. As is all too well known, 80% agreement on anything is a rarity in Iraqi politics.  Secondly, look at the projected composition of the council. It will include the president with his deputies, the parliament speaker with his deputies, and the prime minister and his deputies. Additionally there will be the president of Kurdistan, the head of the federal supreme court as well as two representatives from each of the four major blocs in parliament (incidentally the latter criterion seems to recognise that the so-called National Alliance of Shiite parties is in fact two separate alliances). The point is that these will all be familiar faces that will reproduce the stalemates of parliament rather than bring in new dynamics that can help solve them. And finally, look carefully at the draft law. Early versions seemed to indicate a power to introduce legislation to parliament, making it analogous to the presidency and the cabinet in this respect. However, in keeping with the ruling of the federal supreme court that insists on differentiating between just proposing a law (muqtarah) and preparing it as a fully-fledged project (mashru), the latest draft puts the strategic council on par with the parliament and reserves the right to initiate detailed legislation for the two existing branches of the executive.

In sum, if the council is adopted, it is unlikely to be effective in other ways than buttressing the stature of its projected leader, Ayad Allawi of the Iraqiyya coalition. The rest is likely to remain theory, but in this respect it would certainly make Iraq into a crazy-quilt political regime without any clear parallels anywhere in the world. Cohabitation on the French pattern? No, not quite so, since French dualism in the executive consists of a president with a clear popular mandate and a prime minister answerable to the legislative assembly.  Also, French presidents and prime ministers have tended to divide the tasks of governing between themselves during periods of cohabitation, whereas the Iraqi proposal looks more like an attempt at creating a second government that will spend most of its energy in Sisyphean attempts at agreeing internally. In fact, if adopted, it would create a tripartite executive in Iraq, alongside the cabinet and the mostly symbolic presidency.

If implemented, the council would clearly be antithetical to the spirit of the limited Iraqi spring (with its call for an end to superfluous top government positions) as well as to the recent downsizing of the government (which to some extent represented a response by the government to those new trends in Iraqi public opinion. Resistance to the bill, which is perfectly logical from the constitutional point of view, has however so far been mostly limited to the State of Law bloc of Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki. Today in parliament, even Ibrahim al-Jaafari reportedly said the bill was broadly compatible with the constitutional framework. Since Jaafari is often seen as closer to Iran and one of the key players in maintaining the sectarian Shiite alliance, it makes you wonder whether Iran, too, is in favour of the formula of more fragmented government in Iraq of the kind that the Kurds have been promoting quite actively over the past years (as seen for example in the way the projected oil and gas council of politicians that is supposed to supplant the regular oil ministry and its technocrats in many important decisions). It seems all the opponents of Maliki are happy to press along with the council despite its glaring weaknesses, with only the Kurdish oppositional Gorran party presenting some good criticism so far, saying Iraqiyya should focus instead on passing legislation for the projected senate (which at least is stipulated in the constitution).

A far more workable objective for Iraq would be to drop the council entirely and instead seek agreement on the security ministries that remain undistributed. Lately there have been some positive ideas about possible candidates from within the Iraqi security forces (instead of politicians) that would be nominated from Iraqiyya and State of Law for defence and interior respectively. However, today much of this was characterised by the official Iraqiyya spokesperson as unsubstantiated, and if the debate over the useless strategic policy council continues to consume the energies of Iraqi politicians over coming weeks and months, agreement on the remaining portfolios in the second Maliki government may prove even more difficult to reach.

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