A number of important political developments in Iraq this week have failed to receive the attention they deserve, especially for the light they cast on the perennial question of Iraq’s territorial unity in the face of real and imagined schemes of disintegration.
A good place to start are the provincial powers law “revisions” that were passed by parliament on Sunday. The word “revision” is somewhat misleading, since it can be argued that the new changes are so dramatic that they amount to a rewrite of the original law from 2008.
Here are some of the important changes:
Article 7-4: It is for the first time specifically stated that in an area of shared competency between the central government and the governorate, the policy of the governorate shall prevail.
Article 7-6: The governorate is given responsibility for all state officials in its jurisdiction – significantly no longer excepting the courts, the military and the universities which had previously been designated a central government preserve.
Article 7-9: Whereas the ministry in Baghdad was formerly involved in picking top officials of the various government departments operating in the governorates, the selection process is now exclusively limited to the governor and the governorate council.
Article 31-10: Whereas the military was previously expressly excepted from the authorities of the governor, this no longer applies and an ambiguous shared power formula is outlined.
Article 44: Revenues for the governorates are for the first time specified in law (rather than being the subject of annual budget negotiations). This includes 5 petrodollars per barrel of oil or 150 cubic metres of natural gas. Various potential taxes are mentioned, including the right of governorates to tax companies for damages to the environment.
Article 45: This was formerly a vague cooperation council between the central government and the governorates. The council is now being tasked with transferring, within 2 years, control of all governorate-based government departments under the following ministries to local authorities: Municipalities, housing, employment and social issues, education, health, agriculture, finance, sports. If the transfer is not complete within 2 years, the transfer will nonetheless be considered a legal fact. Henceforth, the role of the ministries will be limited to “general planning” only.
It has been suggested that these dramatic changes were acceded to even by sceptics as an alternative to the creation of federal regions. The question is: What is the point in arguing about the creation of federal regions when this law effectively transforms Iraq into a confederation consisting of all its governorates plus the virtually independent Kurdistan? Is it perhaps just the word “federalism” they fear more than anything else? Do Iraqi politicians realise the implications of giving governorate decisions priority in areas of shared competency? It is for example very hard to see any exemption of the oil and gas sector from the general scheme of provincial dominance, since energy is specifically referred to in the new law through a reference to article 112 of the Iraqi constitution.
Whereas decentralisers among the Kurds and ISCI will have been very happy with these new changes, it is more surprising to find Iraqiyya and the State of Law alliance of Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki backing them in a parliamentary session with unusually high attendance (217 out of 325 deputies). Of course, parts of Iraqiyya have long been drifting in a pro-federal direction, and with even Ayyad Allawi calling for widespread decentralisation of services. More surprising is the apparent green light from Maliki, whose parliamentary allies reportedly objected only to an initial article that further limited the powers of the Iraqi army locally – and who expressed satisfaction at the compromise that later emerged on this. Maybe it is the complications of government formation after the 20 April local elections that have prompted this apparent outburst of modesty on the part of State of Law?
More theoretically speaking, even if this law was adopted as a safeguard against the creation of federal regions it is hard to see why the pressures were perceived as being so acute at this time. Firstly, there are the recent (delayed) provincial elections results from Anbar and Nineveh. After pro-federal winds have been blowing over the Sunni-majority parts of Iraq for some time, there is nothing in these results to suggest the existence of an overwhelming demand for new federal regions in north-western Iraq. True, the Mutahiddun bloc of parliament speaker Usama al-Nujayfi picked up 8 seats in each of these two provinces. But politicians with more anti-federal agendas (Mutlak, Karbuli, local lists etc.) achieved the same number of seats in Anbar and Nineveh and will make coalition forming something of a challenge for Nujayfi (on top of the fact that the Kurds emerged as the biggest bloc again in Nineveh with 11 seats). Second, if the persistence of demands for federal referendums was the problem for Maliki, it could have been solved much easier simply with legislative action to abrogate the law on forming regions that was adopted in 2006. This could have been done even with a simple majority in parliament and without infringing on the constitution since the right to form a region would be intact – it would just need another law to be passed.
The 2-year automatic sunset clause for transfer of service ministries to local control epitomises the decentralisation extremism of these latest amendments. One small potential hindrance remains – the federal supreme court. Technically, the law is a “proposal” emanating from parliament rather than a “project” driven forward by the government, and the supreme court has in the past struck down attempts by the legislature to circumvent the executive in the legislative process. Indeed, in 2010, the supreme court veto related to a far more modest decentralisation attempt to sever the ties between a couple of service ministries and the governorates. However, this year it is noteworthy that after initial protests, Maliki’s State of Law list has remained silent about the controversial law limiting the terms of the prime minister following its publication in the official gazette on 8 April. Similarly, there has so far not been any loud indication that they intend to protest this latest law on a technicality.
Amid all of this, deputy speaker of parliament Qusay al-Suhayl, a Sadrist, has resigned. That should give Iraqi politicians ample opportunity to do what they do best – disregard questions of governance and instead focus on petty personal struggles over top positions.