The Veto Straw Man
Posted by Reidar Visser on November 2, 2009
Among the most frequently used and yet least convincing arguments for advocating a delay to the vote on Iraq’s election bill is the fear of the presidential veto. Time and again, Iraqi parliamentarians contend that the greatest possible catastrophe would be to hold a vote without perfect pre-vote consensus, because this would automatically become rejected by the (Kurdish) president, Jalal Talabani, or the (Sunni Arab) vice president, Tariq al-Hashemi, that is, if the outcome failed to satisfy the aspirations of either of them. “Then we would be back to square one”, or so the argument goes. (In theory, the veto could of course also come from the Shiite vice president, Adil Abd al-Mahdi, but Hashemi and Talabani recur in the scenarios that are discussed in the Iraqi press.)
This is a fallacy for several reasons. In the first place, from a theoretical point of view, it is a reductionism that removes any autonomy from the Iraqi parliament and makes it subservient to the presidency council in a way that upsets the existing system of checks and balances and separation of powers. Secondly, from a more practical point of view, this approach ignores the fact that a parliamentary decision would create a dynamic of its own that in turn would set the stage for a different climate for the decision of the presidency council. In either case, the president in question would have the eyes of the international community on himself in a very different way than in the current situation.
For example, in the case of Talabani, there would of course be pressures from his own party and the KDP to stand up for the maximalist position on Kirkuk. But on the other hand there would be potential rewards from the international community (greater international recognition of the Kurdistan federal region, economic cooperation, increased goodwill from the United States etc.) if he should choose to take a more moderate position and emerge as a compromise-seeker instead. Similarly, if Hashemi is faced with a parliament that wants the vote to go ahead in Kirkuk without any special arrangements, he would need to make a careful appraisal of what Kirkuk means in the larger Iraqi context and whether it is still worth a veto if parliament clearly indicates that it is uninterested.
And so there is no reason not to hold a vote on the bill, which is ready in all other respects. As for Kirkuk, there are several alternatives. One would be to persevere with the latest UNAMI proposal for Kirkuk (2009 registers; two compensatory Arab and Turkmen seats; scrutiny of the electoral registers after the election based on older registers going back as far as 1957; new vote one year later).
The proposed formula is so Byzantine that one wonders whether it may have been conceived initially with the intention to fail, but it apparently won approval from almost everyone on the legal committee of the parliament today except the Kurds. (The Kurds reportedly found out they wanted “compensatory seats” for themselves as well, on top of the extra ones they are expected to win at the governorate level based on changes to the voter registers between 2004 and 2009!)
Nevertheless, the new proposal involves a considerable compromise on part of the Iraqi nationalists and it should not be ruled out that the Kurds could end up accepting it when it is crunch time tomorrow (Tuesday has been singled out as yet another “final deadline” for the bill to pass if elections are to go ahead on schedule).
This is true in particular because the theory of an American hand behind the revised proposal also seems somewhat more proabable today, which would be another reason for the Kurds to look at it with new eyes. It has been rumoured for some time that the Americans have joined UNAMI in their behind-the-scenes effort, and yesterday the Sadrist MP Fawzi Akram Tarazi recounted the new UNAMI scheme and added “these arrangements would not have any influence on the future administrative and political status of the governorate” which is more or less a quotation from the mysterious Hill-Odierno statement from before the weekend, except that “influence” has replaced the original “precedent”. (For the record, this latter interpretation of “no influence” is also strictly speaking incorrect; it is obvious that the results of the Kirkuk elections next January may impact the next constitutional revision committee which in turn is likely to deal with Kirkuk.)
Taken together with the conspicuous intensity of telephonic contacts and visits by high-level American delegations to Kurdistan over the last days and weeks, it seems pretty clear that unlike UNAMI (which last week adopted the Kurdish position on Kirkuk) the Americans have been working for some kind of solution that involves compromises on both sides, and are apparently trying to nudge both UNAMI and the Kurds towards the centre.
The likelihood that the Kurds could adjust their policies is probably greater when the pressure is initiated by Washington than in a situation when they are dealing only with Baghdad. [This interpretation seems corroborated by reports in Al-Sharq al-Awsat, Al-Hayat and Iraqi news agencies Tuesday morning, with Kurdish politicians for the first time complaining about US interference and "pressure" and accusing UNAMI of changing its original position.]
However, as long as they agree to hold a vote, Iraqis should not feel any obligation to necessarily include the UNAMI proposal, which is after all a rather wishy-washy affair crafted by foreign hands. This is particularly so if the Kurds decide that they are going to reject it anyway. Alternatively, they could include a vote on two of the “strong” options that have already circulated, for example
1.) No special treatment for Kirkuk, as favoured by the Kurds; and
2.) Postponement in Kirkuk until the conclusion of a satisfactory review of the voter registers, as per the Iraqi nationalist suggestion. This kind of procedure would likely produce a majority and a “dissenting minority” and therefore perhaps be a little more veto-prone, but it would be for the presidency council to review the result carefully (not least the numbers) and to sort out the relative weight of national versus communitarian agendas.
What the Iraqi parliamentarians above all need to avoid is a continued search for an elusive pre-vote consensus: They have tried this for months now, and unless the Kurds turn around and agree to the latest UNAMI proposal in the last second, no such consensus position will probably ever be found. It should be remembered that things cannot go terribly wrong here: If no vote is held at all, Iraq will end up simply using the 2005 law for the next election.
The worst-case scenario of a veto is precisely a reversion to the 2005 law, so what is the risk in trying? Additionally, the sheer act of holding a vote would create positive side effects for Iraqi democracy more generally, partly because voters would get a specific indicator (Kirkuk) of what the political parties actually mean when they shout about “national unity” all the time, and partly because the conspiracy theories about secret preferences for closed lists could be laid to rest.
Finally, a critical note on how the Iraqi media is covering the election law. The Iraqi parliament is notoriously clever in disguising exactly who was present and who was not in the parliamentary sessions (only the worst offenders are given fines). For several weeks now, there have been incidents of parliament lacking a quorum. Instead of dutifully paraphrasing the sometimes not-so-inspirational comments delivered by Iraqi MPs on a daily basis, why don’t some Iraqi journalists simply stand at the door of the parliament and make a record of which parliamentarians attended and which ones were absent? That sort of information could also make the mysterious process about the election law a little more transparent.