Iraq and Gulf Analysis

Archive for March 6th, 2012

The Budget Aftermath: Another Quasi-Decision in the Iraqi Parliament

Posted by Reidar Visser on Tuesday, 6 March 2012 18:51

Iraqi parliamentarians have been on a week-long holiday since they passed the annual budget for 2012. Meanwhile, Iraqi media have given Iraqi politicians a chance to vent their anger regarding items in the budget about which they had second thoughts.

The first days after the passage of the budget, the debate was dominated by signals that some in the government, especially those close to Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki, were unhappy with the failure of parliament to pass article 36 of the budget which would have given the government greater freedom with respect to spending money. There were even suggestions that the government would bring the matter before the supreme federal court – based on the argument that the annual budget is a special case of legislation for which article 62 of the Iraqi constitution imposes limits as to how much parliament can do in terms of editing (basically nothing much beyond moving money from one post to another). Furthermore, it has emerged that it was the financial committee headed by Haydar al-Ibadi, a Maliki ally, that played the leading role in abruptly adding articles to the budget on the day of voting subsequent to the cancellation of article 36, including some that seemed nonsensical or out of place (for example, a stipulation that scholarships abroad be distributed evenly between governorates). Was some of this last-minute added matter a deliberate move to make the budget vulnerable to challenges in the supreme court so that the government could regain article 36 if it wanted? One can wonder, especially since the cancellation of a single article on spending hardly goes beyond what the constitution allows for in terms of transfers (i.e. the equivalent of nullifying something), and also since it has been done before (in the 2011 budget, article 22 cancelled the “social spending” of the three presidents also through a last-minute change).

More recently, it is the earmark for armoured cars for Iraqi parliamentarians that has come to the forefront. The massive public criticism of special protection for politicians is understandable given the continuing security problems affecting the poorest of Iraqi society. Nonetheless, the question is how parliament can make changes to the whole budget it just passed.

Today, that issue came up for debate as the Iraqi parliament reconvened. It was decided that in order to make changes to the budget, a new, ordinary law has to be passed. The committees for finance and legal affairs were charged with preparing a draft law, which supposedly will go through the usual two readings before a vote. Thankfully, parliament did not opt for the (perhaps more logical) solution of amending the entire budget.

Politically, it is noteworthy that members of Maliki’s State of Law bloc were in the forefront among those demanding a new law to cancel the spending on the armoured cars. That, alongside the fading of the calls for a supreme court review of the budget, might indicate State of Law ended up concluding that the glass is at least half full and that there is a political net advantage of having negotiated the budget hurdle without any major showdown. Certainly, opening up once more the whole parliamentary debate on the budget would be risky, and even the Iraqi supreme court would probably find it difficult to go ahead with what Maliki perhaps might prefer – reinsertion of article 36 and keeping the rest unchanged.

As for the Iraq parliament as an institution, despite what the media says, today’s “decision” on the budget was essentially a non-decision. The deputies “agreed in principle” to press for a law to cancel the armoured cars. That “agreement in principle” is not a law, but with parliament so often unable to do what it should do (i.e. pass laws) there has been an inflation of this kind of quasi-decisions  that can help mask the ineffectiveness of the deputies. A recent, interesting case in point is the little-noticed “decision” that preceded passage of the budget on 23 February – about “balance” (ethno-sectarian quotas) in the armed forces (as per article 9 of the constitution) and special representation of the federal regions and the governorates at the level of state (article 105). This is however not a law (and article 105 specifically calls for a law), and whoever demanded it as a prerequisite for passing the budget (presumably the Kurds) has in fact signed up to yet another mini Arbil agreement unlikely to see implementation any time soon.

In the weeks leading up to the Arab summit scheduled for the end of March, focus in parliament is likely to move to the amnesty law (with another attempt at a second reading on Thursday). Generally speaking, Sadrists and the secular Iraqiyya have people in their constituencies who would benefit from a liberal amnesty law whereas Maliki’s State of Law are pressing for more restrictive definitions of who should be eligible for pardon. The law has been at the level of a second reading for several months, exemplifying the kind of long-term stalemate that has become so characteristic of Iraqi politics.

Maybe Iraqi parliamentarians will understand that one day, armoured cars may not be sufficient to protect them from the anger of an unhappy electorate fed up with parliamentary inefficiency?

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