By Reidar Visser (www.historiae.org)
24 September 2008
Iraq’s parliament today approved the remaining article 24 of the provincial elections law that was partially approved on 22 July except for the provisions relating to elections in Kirkuk.
The new article, which has been crafted in cooperation with the United Nations special representative in Iraq, Staffan de Mistura, delays the elections in the disputed Kirkuk province, but also establishes a committee which will deal with power-sharing issues in local government there. The committee will consist of 7 parliamentary representatives from Kirkuk – 2 Kurds, 2 Turkmens, 2 Arabs and 1 Christian – and will have until 31 March 2009 to prepare its report. The Iraqi parliament will then proceed to create a special elections law for Kirkuk. (Or, if it fails to do so, the prime minister, the president and the speaker of the parliament will decree a suitable system for elections in cooperation with the United Nations!)
The new law is a compromise between federalists (in particular the Kurds) and nationalist centralists (now increasingly referred to as the “forces of 22 July”). Back in May this year, Kurdish politicians spoke in favour of postponing local elections in all disputed areas such as Kirkuk, arguing that their strong position in these areas – based on the heavily-boycotted January 2005 elections – would play to their advantage and could perhaps be a negotiating card towards a rapid settlement of territorial issues. The forces of 22 July, on the other hand, demanded more equitable power-sharing in the interim, thereby seeking to shake up Kurdish dominance in the local council and to challenge what they consider to be a number of pro-Kurdish placemen and figureheads that have been anointed by the Kurds to serve as “Arab” and “Turkmen” representatives in Kirkuk despite having little support in the communities they purport to represent.
The compromise is more than a mere postponement: it keeps Kirkuk and the issue of power sharing on the agenda, even if these issues are now lifted to the abstract realm of a parliamentary committee and with a timeline that stretches well into 2009. Also, it is noteworthy that the forces of 22 July scored at least a symbolic victory by gaining an explicit assurance that the central government would play an equally important role alongside the local authorities in facilitating the work of the parliamentary committee. The language on this disputed “fourth point” of article 24 is what held up the passage of the law for the last week or so, and in a testament to the lingering conflict between centralisers and decentralisers in the Iraqi parliament, both Kurds and ISCI (Jalal al-Din al-Saghir) had criticised the nationalists for insisting on a reference to the central government.
In the end, the role of the central government was confirmed, thus in some ways also confirming the diminishing parliamentary clout of the federalists in Iraq. This has apparently enabled many of the component elements of the 22 July forces – including MPs from Iraqiyya, Fadila and the Sadrists – to feel satisfaction about the passage of the law, as seen in a number of positive statements in the wake of the adoption of the law.
Perhaps the more important result of the process – in addition to the fact that provincial elections may now actually be held in late 2008 or early 2009 – is the increased awareness, both inside and outside the Iraqi parliament, of this cross-sectarian bloc and the potential it represents. The big question now is whether the Maliki government is prepared to go ahead with free and fair elections given the increasing signs of a cohesive challenge from the opposition.
Postscript: After having blown hot and cold – mostly cold – with regard to Kurdish participation in the elections, Kurdish leaders according to press reports now say that local elections will not be held anywhere in the Kurdistan region, as the right to legislate on those elections is seen as falling within the domain of the regional government.
While the Kurds are the most pro-federal force in Iraq, Kurdistan itself is quite centralised (with two competing centres in Arbil and Sulaymaniyya), with the local governorates having considerably less power vis-à-vis the Kurdistan Regional Government than their counterparts elsewhere in Iraq have towards Baghdad.
This stance does throw into question the heavy Kurdish involvement in drafting the law, where they dominated parliamentary debates in long periods with their insistent demands that closed lists be used due to the supposed illiteracy of the Iraqi electorate – no such qualms when it came to the constitution back in 2005, apparently!