The law on the powers of governorates not organised in a region was adopted by the Iraqi parliament on 13 February 2008, but much of the reporting surrounding it in the Western mainstream media has been highly misleading. As a consequence, one of the most significant new trends in Iraqi politics - the rise of a moderate centrist force in Iraq's constitutional issues - is being overlooked.
Firstly, the general context of the bill's adoption has been grossly misrepresented in the Western media. The law was passed in a bundle with two other bills: the 2008 budget, and a law on amnesty for prisoners. Leading newswires and US papers have reported this as a "compromise between Shiites, Sunnis and Kurds," where each community supposedly favoured one particular law. However, nothing could have been further from the truth. The amnesty law was called for in particular by some Sunni parties as well as by the (Shiite) Sadrists, some of whom later complained that the law was not comprehensive enough. The law for the governorates, in turn, was not a "Shiite" demand, but a project that was sought by a broad alliance of centrists and opponents of federalism - Shiites and Sunnis alike - who have seen it as a framework in which the existing governorates can be given real powers and the holding of provincial elections can be accelerated. This explains why parties like the (Sunni Islamist) Tawafuq, the (Shiite Islamist) Sadrists and Fadila and the (secular) Wifaq and Hiwar all have cooperated on the bill. Finally, parties representing all communities have realised the importance of passing a budget, although in this case an open "ethnic" dimension did materialise: the Kurdish demand for a 17% share of the federal budget has been criticised as being too high and out of touch with demographic realities; the compromise solution of a promised new percentage calculation for next year's budget survived in parliament but was nevertheless criticised by some non-Kurdish parties later on.
Particularly central to understanding the new centrist trend is the fact that a timeline for provincial elections (with a 1 October deadline) was eventually inserted in the law on the powers of the governorates. The idea of doing so had been creatively introduced by the opponents of the Maliki government; it was ferociously resisted by Maliki's most important backers and Washington's principal friends, the Kurds and the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq (ISCI). The latter argued that an election timeline would simply be out of place and should be postponed to separate legislation - an attitude many observers ascribe to the strong position these parties enjoy in the current governorate councils and the risk they run by holding elections. Their grudging accept of a timeline for elections thus represented a considerable triumph for the opposition, and at the same time exposed both the weak parliamentary support base of the US-friendly Maliki government and the anti-democratic strategies attempted by several of its coalition partners.
However, the opponents of the new moderate centrism still have a few cards left to play. On 27 February 2008, the Iraqi Presidency Council vetoed the law on the powers of the governorates, while ratifying the two others. The objections, which were spearheaded by ISCI's Adil Abd al-Mahdi and seconded by the Kurds, ostensibly grew out of anti-centralist ideas and were directed against provisions in the law deemed to give too much power to the centre. It is quite remarkable how the tripartite Presidency Council - designed by those who want the Iraqis to think of themselves as Shiites, Sunnis and Kurds (hence the three seats on the council) - is now being used by the ISCI-Kurdish ruling minority to scupper a project that in fact enjoys widespread Iraqi nationalist support in the Iraqi parliament. At the same time, the budget and the amnesty law was passed so that the original effect of coupling everything together was eliminated.
The provincial powers law now goes back to parliament for revision; supposedly the election date will remain unaffected. In its present shape it represents a hopeful step forward for a more nuanced and realistic framework for dividing power between the center and provinces in Iraq, without much of the hysteria that has surrounded more fanciful visions of instant federalism for hypothetical entities that currently have no real existence on the ground. It also puts the all-important issue of provincial elections firmly back on the agenda, which can only have a positive effect on Iraqi politics. The ISCI-Kurdish alliance which framed the decentralist 2005 constitution will no doubt continue to resist challenges to their grip on power, but while their hegemony remains strong in the Western media, indications are that it is declining within Iraq itself, as exemplified by these latest parliamentary developments.
Reidar Visser is a research fellow at the Norwegian Institute of International Affairs and editor of the Iraq website http://www.historiae.org. His latest books are Basra, the Failed Gulf State: Separatism and Nationalism in Southern Iraq and, with Gareth Stansfield, An Iraq of Its Regions: Cornerstones of a Federal Democracy?
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