year in review: assessments made on iraqi parliament’s first birthday

MPs that go AWOL, important legislation postponed, physical fights in the house. The list of criticisms levelled at Iraq’s parliament is a long one and provides good material for ordinary Iraqis’ jokes. But there have also been some positive developments. 


At the end of the first year of its existence as one of the highest legislative bodies in the land, it is difficult to assess whether the Iraqi parliament has achieved what it set out to do or not. It has endorsed dozens of draft laws but it has also postponed work on other laws because of a lack of political consensus. Some of the most obvious features of parliamentary life this year have included serious conflicts between MPs and a lot of press conferences, during which parties tried to explain to their voters what they were actually doing. The most recent issue is the fact that, despite the workload, Iraq’s parliament is currently on recess for 40 days. It will not reconvene now before Nov. 20.


The voters themselves have tended to see their Parliament as something of a joke: ordinary Iraqis are using sites like Facebook and Twitter to make jokes about their parliamentarians and to discuss official salaries and the huge budgets for MP’s safety and security. Ordinary Iraqis tend to see parliamentary sessions as “full of humour”.


Sessions of the Iraqi parliament began on Nov. 11, 2010. It took almost six months for Iraqi politicians who had been elected in March of that year to form a government. Indeed, this was one of Parliament’s biggest challenges – one that was overcome.  


During the year, the position of Speaker of the House was held by three different men. The role of the Speaker is to chair the body, overseeing debate and procedure. First there was Iraq’s elder statesman, Hassan al-Alawi, who had once worked for Saddam Hussein but who had become his opponent and fled the country. Under Iraq’s Constitution the eldest member of Parliament “shall chair the first session to elect the speaker … and his two deputies.” Al-Alawi declined to do that job though and the role was given to the second eldest politician, Kurdish MP Fuad Maasoum. The latter led that process and this resulted in the election of Osama al-Nujaifi as speaker of the Iraqi parliament.


Generally, al-Nujaifi, an MP originally from Mosul whose brother Atheel is the governor of the state of Ninawa, is considered to have done a good job. The first legislative year has seen record progress in terms of legislation drafted and discussed. Al-Nujaifi is known for his strictness on absentee MPs and scheduling, especially when compared to parliamentary sessions held between 2005 and 2009. The previous sessions of parliament came under a lot of criticism because of the fact that many MPs never even attended sessions, which often meant that laws could not be passed. Their absence was never really questioned. Additionally the previous parliament was seen as weak in the “checks and balances” department – it didn’t really monitor or question the executive or cabinet. 


“The performance of the current parliament cannot even be compared with the previous one,” MP Hakim al-Zamili, who is part of the Sadrist bloc in Parliament, told NIQASH. “MPs have gained more experience and they have benefited from the mistakes of the past and previous weak political experience.”


The Iraqi parliament’s official website indicates that 35 laws were passed during the year, while 65 draft laws were reviewed. There was also a second review of 30 laws which needed further discussion before they were voted upon. Among the most important laws that Parliament worked on were those related to the Iraqi state’s executive and their salaries, the protection of journalists and journalists’ rights, the Commission on Integrity and laws around literacy. 


However the legislation that has been delayed – and sometimes, several times – is considered equally important. In particular, the national law on oil and gas, the federal budget for 2012, a new body: the National High Council for Strategic Policies and the voting for new ministers to head the security-related portfolios of the Interior, Defence and National Security.


“There are dozens of important draft laws which were not passed by Parliament and which were postponed until further notice,” Alia Nassif, a member of the Iraqiya bloc, told NIQASH. “These were not passed because they need political consensus. And this is not forthcoming because of the pressure that leaders of the various parliamentary blocs put on their MPs.”


There have been complaints about this. MPs usually wait for instructions from the leaders of their political blocs before voting on any issue. The same applies to discussions on draft laws. If they vote outside the party line they know they may be ostracized.


“And conflicts between the political blocs have meant that important draft laws are not being passed because of a lack of consensus,” Nassif explained.


In some cases those conflicts became physical. For example, fisticuffs between in June 2011 when Kamal al-Saedi, an MP from the State of Law coalition, which is led by current Iraqi prime minister Nouri al-Maliki, and another MP, Haider al-Mulla, a leading member of the Iraqiya list headed by the former Prime Minister Ayed Allawi, which is the State of Law’s biggest political opponent. A scuffle broke out when one politician apparently hit the other with a walking stick due to comments that had been made on television about him. The Iraqiya bloc boycotted parliament the next day. Another such clash took place between Baha al-Araji, a member of the Sadrist Movement and  Sadeq al-Rakabi, an MP from the State of Law coalition. 


The legislative year was also marked by a multitude of press conferences. During these, MPs explained the various positions they were taking. The most important subjects of the various press conferences revolved around the building of the controversial Mubarak Kabir port project in Kuwait and the potential withdrawal of US troops from the country. This could be considered a positive effort by Iraqi politicians to make themselves more accountable and transparent to voters. On the other hand, media observers also said that “the majority of these conferences were used by various political blocs to blame each other for the lack of progress”. 


One of the biggest logistical problems for Iraq’s parliament this year has been the issue of frequent absences by MPs, which has meant that at times, it has not been possible to achieve quorum, the minimum number of politicians needed to reach a reasonable consensus and to approve legislation. One Baghdad news agency reported that there were almost 30 MPs absent per day on average and that meetings have had to be adjourned several times because of poor attendance.


MP Ziad al-Tharb, who is part of the opposition Iraqiya bloc, agreed that “repeated MP absences have caused a lot of disruptions during this first legislative year. This is because those in charge are reluctant to enforce penalties, as they are written in the procedural rules,” he explained. 


Parliamentary rules say that MPs absent without a legitimate excuse must pay monetary fines. It also says that if this happens several sessions in a row, the MP may be considered to have resigned. However these rules are under review and may well change, which is why MPs have often ignored them and executive members have been reluctant to mete out the prescribed punishments.


As it stands, this is just another item on the Iraqi parliament’s already crowded agenda that will have to wait until MPs return from the current recess. Speaking of which, the controversy around the recess is also highly likely to make it onto the everyday Iraqi’s list of good jokes about their politicians.


Because 70 MPs left early to perform Hajj rituals, it became impossible for parliament to debate an important proposal: A suggestion that the current 40-day recess period be either shortened or cancelled so that parliament could continue to discuss a number of urgent pieces of legislation. Unfortunately just under a third of Parliament’s MPs had already left the building.