Is regional federalism the solution for Iraq?

To achieve greater decentralization of power in Iraq, the government in Baghdad must first undergo significant changes

Is regional federalism the solution for Iraq?

 Saad Aldouri

As Iraqi forces advance further into Daesh’s last enclaves in western Mosul, the Iraqi government supported by state-backed paramilitaries and an international coalition edges closer to defeating Daesh in Mosul.

As defeat draws nearer, the debate over “the day after” regarding the future of governance and political settlements in Iraq is intensifying. Increasingly over recent years, the question of regional federalism in Iraq has gone from being a sensitive topic of discussion to one that is being considered seriously by local politicians.

The debate over regional federalism in Iraq has developed significantly since a new constitution was ratified in 2005 and has gained traction among certain politicians and factions as the country’s geopolitics become increasingly fractured.

There have been calls for regional federalism from across the country, from both Sunni- and Shia-dominated regions such as Basra, Diyala and Nineveh.

However, regional federalism in Iraq would require a major renegotiation of the relationship between the central government and the country’s 19 provincial regions. It would ultimately require a strong central government able to form effective working relationships with the regions to devolve decision-making power and resources.

But this is something that has been absent in recent years and has led to the deep-seated governance issues that the country faces.

Regional federalism

Regional federalism has developed into a feasible option in response to what many community leaders and politicians perceive as a failing system of centralized government in Baghdad.

For some, there has been a growing divergence between the federal government and associated provinces that necessitates a change in the rules of engagement between the two.

Fluctuating levels of social and political conflict since 2003 have hampered confidence in the state system and have led to mounting calls to reform the relationship between Iraq’s provinces and the federal government.

This divergence is perhaps best demonstrated by the way in which Daesh was able to overrun Mosul in June 2014, with the relationship between the wider province of Nineveh and the government of Nouri al-Maliki at the time being at its lowest ebb.

This development was seen as a symptom of wider disillusionment and pushback against al-Maliki’s attempts to further centralize and monopolize power.

The central government in Baghdad is seen by some groups, provincial councilors and politicians as unfit to provide the required resources and support to develop key infrastructure and investment projects.

Particularly in areas recently liberated from Daesh, some feel the central government has been too slow in rebuilding towns and cities as it continues to prioritize the fight against Daesh in other areas.

The impression of some political representatives is that the lack of powers devolved to provincial councils is preventing them from rebuilding such areas.

Saladin Governor Ahmed Abdullah al-Jibouri recently stated that reconstruction projects in Tikrit following its liberation from Daesh had been hampered by the dominance of government ministries and federal departments that have been slow to act.

In recent months, prominent Sunni political figures -- such as Osama al-Nujaifi -- have announced devolution plans of their own in hopes that Nineveh province might receive greater powers.

However, this particular example demonstrates an issue that other provinces are likely to face: the somewhat diverse demographics of the provinces pose a challenge to the devolution of power and authority within those regions themselves.

If we look at Mosul and the wider Nineveh province alone, it is home to a number of different ethnic and religious groups, such as Kurds, Ezidis, Christians and Turkomans, who may want to have a different devolution arrangement to those proposed by leaders of the majority Sunni-Arab population.

Similar campaigns for regional federalism in Basra have been ongoing for years, as local residents become increasingly disillusioned with what they perceive as unfair treatment by the central government.

Despite being the country’s main oil exporter, many Basra residents feel aggrieved at the failure of the state to deliver on its promises to use oil income for much-needed infrastructure projects.

This has led to calls among local residents to turn Basra into a semi-autonomous region, with several attempts having been undertaken to hold a referendum on the issue.

Residents had hoped to hold a referendum after gaining permission from the electoral commission in 2015, but their hopes thus far have failed to materialize.

This all points to widespread perceptions of state failure and bolsters the case for alternative models, such as regional federalism, to provide more localized governance.

The Kurdish Regional Government (KRG) is seen by those who are in favor of greater regional federalism as an example of the benefits of such an arrangement.

The KRG’s control over its own resources, industry and infrastructure is touted by politicians such as al-Nujaifi as the ideal alternative to centralized government control.

However, this ignores the historic difficulty in the relationship that exists between the KRG and the central government in Baghdad.

Strained relations between Baghdad and Erbil have undermined the work of both entities, with disputes over key issues such as budget allocations and contested territories causing deep rifts.

One perspective among those who support KRG-style semi-autonomy is that a weak central government works to the benefit of the region; however, the opposite is true and an effective federal government would be better placed to devolve executive powers and offer support to regions.

Prospects for change

It is important to note that legislation has previously been passed to hand over greater devolved powers to Iraq’s provinces.

For example, amendments to Law 21 of the Iraqi constitution, passed in June 2013, were meant to grant unprecedented power to Iraq’s provinces, such as full control over the appointment of officials who work in government departments within the provinces and shared authority between provincial governors and the central government regarding military activities.

However, many of these amendments have not been put into practice in any meaningful way.

Upon becoming prime minister, Haider al-Abadi voiced his support for greater decentralization and promised further powers to the country’s provinces within one year. However, once again, these reforms failed to materialize fully.

One of the principle reasons is the weak position of the prime minister and his inability to pass legislation through parliament, with major political figures such as former PM al-Maliki and his allies blocking major reforms.

In order for greater decentralization of power and regional federalism to be achieved, significant changes need to be undertaken within the federal government in Baghdad. For this to happen, confidence in the government’s decision-making powers must be restored.

There has been a host of decentralization legislation in the constitution that affords significant power to provincial councils. However, this legislation has often been bypassed or ignored.

This therefore reinforces the argument that a strong federal state committed to implementing decentralization reforms and relevant legislation will be essential for the effective implementation of such measures.

It has become clear that in a post-Daesh setting the political status quo cannot be maintained. The presence of Daesh on Iraqi territory over the past three years is a symptom of the failure of governance structures in the country.

For a viable solution to be found, there needs to be a renegotiation that includes all Iraqi voices, on a local, provincial and state level.

This brings us to a fundamental conclusion: that without agreement across the political spectrum, the implementation of devolved power in a federal state in Iraq -- be it regional or provincial -- cannot be achieved.

[Saad Aldouri is a research assistant with the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) Program at Chatham House. His fields of expertise are Iraq and youth policy in the MENA region.]

Güncelleme Tarihi: 15 Mart 2017, 14:48