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February 29, 2008



"it's been widely noted that Adel Abed al-Mehdi's surprising veto of the provincial powers law has thrown a serious spanner into the works. Back when the package of three key laws passed through Parliament, I reserved judgement until we saw the actual text of the laws and saw how they would be implemented. With the provincial powers law now on hold, it appears that we might not even get that far. Abed al-Mehdi's reason for the veto is telling from the perspective of those who see the construction of an effective, viable, Weberian Iraqi state as the goal: he sees it giving too much power to the central government."

To provide some context to the above and also to any future comments on Iraqi governance, can I recommend Bill Erdolino's informative 5 part series "Inside Iraqi Politics" at http://longwarjournal.org/archives/2008/02/inside_iraqi_politic_4.php

Relating to provincial powers legislation he writes:

"The Provincial Powers Act and Provincial Elections Law

The proposed Provincial Powers Act and Provincial Elections Law are other pieces of legislation with the potential for significant political progress. Respectively, the laws codify the distribution of powers between the provincial and federal governments, and outline election schedules and rules for the provinces.

The Provincial Powers Act was passed 83-82 by parliament on Feb. 13 in a package of three laws that included General Amnesty Law and the 2008 Budget. But the bill failed the final step of approval on Wednesday when a majority of the Presidency Council refused to sign it.

“No agreement has been reached in the Presidency Council to approve the provincial elections draft law and it has been sent back to the parliament to reconsider the rejected articles,” according to a statement by the council, composed of President Jalal Talabani, Vice President Adel Abdul Mahdi, and Vice President Tariq al Hashemi. Talabani, a Kurd, and the Shia Abdul Mahdi, a member of the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq (ISCI), specifically rejected the bill because of articles outlining federal authority to fire provincial governors.

The most recent draft of the bill creates a framework for the distribution of political power between the federal and provincial governments. The bill attempts to resolve a fundamental controversy, similar to the US tug of war between strong federalism and states’ rights. The delineation of power in the law also would clarify an inherent contradiction in the Iraqi Constitution, parts of which stipulate that nonfederal governorates have equal authority to the federal government, while other sections outline federal supremacy.

A secular Iraqi politician speaking on condition of anonymity asserted that the latest version of the bill assigned a large degree of authority to the provinces. “Maybe too much,” the politician ruefully added. But others disagree. Notably, ISCI and the Kurds advocate significant provincial powers; the Shia party advances decentralization to consolidate its current dominance of southern Iraq in the face of a pending electoral challenge by Sadrist rivals, while the Kurds dislike any provisions that diminish authority in their already semiautonomous region.

US strategy in Iraq has already advanced practical decentralization of political power as a mechanism to achieve reconstruction and security gains. Bolstered by the Iraqi federal government’s direct distribution of funds to provincial control, the strategy of empowering diverse provinces and locales facilitates rebuilding and removes incentives for insurgency. The resulting local hierarchies that are part of grassroots political progress would further integrate into an official government framework with the passage of the law. Specifically, the last draft of the Provincial Powers Act outlined the following:

1. The definition of legislatures and the procedures for establishing them. This includes conditions and termination of membership and the powers of provincial, district (local), and subdistrict (local) councils.

2. The rights and privileges of public servants, including pay, general responsibilities, terms of dissolution, and responsibilities of the heads of administrative units. These executives include the provincial ministers, the governor, and the district and subdistrict directors, who are like mayors.

3. Various other provisions, including directives governing provincial and local financial resources, various administrative boards, oaths, and oversight responsibilities.

In many ways, the latest bill is remarkable in its degree of decentralization. But the legislation maintains federal supremacy and oversight while mirroring the national government’s structure at the provincial, district, and subdistrict levels – roughly analogous to US states, counties, and cities. The spirit of the legislation can be found in its definition of a provincial council, essentially a province’s parliament, which would be the highest legislative and oversight authority within the province. The bill would give the council the right to create laws governing its own affairs, as long as they do not explicitly contradict the Iraqi Constitution and any federal laws.

This significant power-sharing scenario is agreeable to most of the naturally decentralized political movements, but significant differences obviously remain about certain aspects outlining federal authority. US officials see long-term challenges because of the complexity and importance of such power-sharing, as illustrated by America’s continuous struggle with similar questions.

“If you look at provincial powers, it’s absolutely crucial,” said Reeker. “But it’s very much an existential thing, like states’ rights in the US. Our founding fathers didn’t get that quite right in the 18th century, and so by the 19th century we had a pretty miserable Civil War, and we continued to work that out and even today there are issues of states’ rights.”

Furthermore, the passage of the Provincial Powers Act was viewed by Iraqis as a precondition for the proposed Provincial Elections Law. The former, as passed by parliament on Feb.13, stipulates that the latter must be passed within 90 days and that elections must take place by Oct. 1, 2008. Despite its subsequent rejection of the Provincial Powers Act, the Presidency Council has stated that plans to move ahead with elections will move forward, though some analysts are doubtful the deadline can be met.

Provincial elections are of especially pressing importance because it is anticipated that they will create a political outlet for the Sunni leaders who previously boycotted the political process and/or engaged in insurgency, yet who have since allied with the US and Iraqi government against al Qaeda in Iraq. The Awakening tribal alliance based in Ramadi probably will dominate provincial balloting, as its politicians are generally considered more representative of the Sunni population than the Iraqi Accord Front.

In addition, provincial elections will shape the ongoing power struggle between ISCI and the Sadrist Movement in southern Iraq. The Sadrists boycotted regional elections in 2005 and now want to challenge ISCI power through the ballot box, while ISCI wants to consolidate its current regional dominance through dramatic decentralization outlined in any final version of the Provincial Powers Act.

Opening the door to provincial representation for the Awakening movement, or Sahawa al Iraq, in Anbar province and new political parties in other provinces will also have implications for national elections in 2009, as will the design of the vote. Though the Provincial Elections Law is yet to be written and passed, some US and Iraqi officials either speculate or assert that the “closed party list” voting construct used in the last national elections will be replaced by votes cast for individual candidates, a change that should soften sectarian divisions and benefit parties with strong individual candidates.

US officials see a pressing need to hold provincial elections soon, believing they must occur before some elements of Sunni society become restless about lacking political power and official recognition in Iraqi society. But significant hurdles remain.

“The elections working groups are working with the GOI [government of Iraq], but they still have to do a rewrite of the elections law before they can even schedule the provincial elections. And there is a question of … [whether to] do them all at once or do them rolling by province,” said Colonel Martin M. Stanton, Chief of Reconciliation and Engagement for Multinational Corps–Iraq.

Hopes for quick provincial elections also are complicated by the lack of an elections budget and an accurate census, as well as drastic population shifts caused by the return of displaced persons within Iraq. The Oct. 1 deadline for elections reflects the urgency of involving local leaders in the political process, but presents a logistical challenge that US and UN officials are trying to address. A December 2007 report to Congress by General David H. Petraeus’ staff detailed US efforts to lay the groundwork for elections that include “working with the UN to assist [Iraq’s Independent High Electoral Commission] in building staff capacity, particularly in public outreach and internal organization; building database capacity that will support new registration; and establishing provincial, district and precinct-level election bodies.”

Potential flashpoints in the design of the elections law involve disputes over personnel who are appointed to the electoral commissions responsible for organizing the vote. On the Shia side, the Sadrists fear that the ISCI will try to rig the process in southern Iraq. And members of the Sunni Awakening movement are calling for the dissolution of the current electoral commission because they believe it is stacked with members of a rival Sunni party who will exercise inappropriate influence to maintain power in the face of questionable popularity.

Collectively, the pending Provincial Powers Act and Elections Law have the potential to make great political headway for Iraqi stability and reconciliation. But the rejection of the Powers Act has thrown progress in this area into significant doubt. Ideally, the parliament will quickly resolve the disputed articles, or at least press ahead with vital provincial elections before the end of the year. Despite the challenging deadline, the prime minister’s office is drafting the Elections Law, and logistical preparations are under way. And while the long-term disposition of provincial and federal power-sharing will undergo metamorphosis after the recent approval and rejection of the Provincial Powers Act, its eventual passage can solidify political outlets for those formerly inclined to civil war or insurgency by codyifing a significant degree of local self-determination. Officials also believe that official decentralization of responsibility could further streamline the country’s reconstruction and security efforts. "

The same article also provides a detailed rundown of the amnesty, de Baathification and 2008 budget bills that were also passed by the Iraqi Parliament.

As have remarked before, how astonishing is it to observe a functioning parliament working within the framework of a democratic constitution in an Arab country? And also the fact that legislation can only be passed after a consensus process involving all groups elected proportionately?

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