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new political overseers
iraq finally gets senate

Mustafa Habib
Baghdad may soon get its own version of a US Senate as MPs attempt to decentralize power further. A law is in the making to form the long-awaited Federal Council, but whether it passes in the face of opposition, is…
15.08.2013  |  Baghdad

It seems that Iraqi MPs' success in passing a law giving Iraq\'s provinces more power than ever – the Provincial Powers Law – has made themmore confident about pushing for decentralization than ever. After that coup in June this year, the next item on their agenda is the so-called Federation Council.

The Federation Council will act in a similar way to the US Senate, the German Bundesrat or the House of Lords in the UK.

As NL Aid, a Dutch blog reporting on foreign aid, pointed out in a 2012 essay, the Federation Council is all about “horizontal federalism”. Writer Nasos Mihalakas points out that the Iraqi Constitution encourages Iraq\'s provinces to become more independent and form their own regions, in a similar way to how the semi-autonomous region of Iraqi Kurdistan currently operates. To prevent separatism, conflict or the total disintegration of the nation, another element of government is required, Mihalakas suggests, and this would be the Federation Council.

The Iraqi Constitution does detail some things about the Federation Council. Article 46 talks about its existence within the Iraqi government and Article 62 says that: “A law, enacted by a two-third majority of the members of the Council of representatives, shall regulate the Federation Council formation, its membership conditions and its specializations and all that is connected with it”.

However the Iraqi Constitution does not prescribe any particular powers to the as-yet nonexistent body. These will be decided via the Iraqi Parliament’s new law. And according to initial discussions, the kind that are currently taking place, so far the Federation Council\'s main job is to defend the provinces\' new powers, as given to them in June.

Article 133 of the Iraqi Constitution makes any final decision a little more difficult. Any laws relating to the Federation Council “shall be postponed until the Council of Representatives issues a decision by a two-thirds majority vote in its second electoral term that is held after this Constitution comes into force”.

This meant that the Federation Council couldn’t be finalised during the Iraqi Parliament\'s first term between 2005 and 2009. However this is the second term – 2010 to 2014 – and MPs have been able to start discussing the Federation Council. The first draft of the law has already been finalized.

NIQASH has sighted a copy of this draft and according to this, the Federation Council should be able veto legislation if it contains irregularities, even if it has already been through parliament and the executive. If the Federation Council vetoes a law, it can be re-submitted to Parliament where it can either be amended or cancelled altogether. If Parliament is able to vote on the law with a two-thirds majority, then the legislation can still be passed. The Federation Council cannot enact laws or submit proposals for laws.

Other aspects of the law say that Federation Council members may attend parliament to discuss legislation and to vote on it. Members will be elected by Iraqi voters and they will enjoy the same privileges as MPs currently have. Historically in Iraq there was a similar body to the Federation Council during Iraq\'s monarchy. Back then the Iraqi version of the senate was made up of tribal leaders, military officers and businessmen and all were appointed by the Iraqi king.

Decisions issued by the Federation Council are also binding for both parliament and the executive – this would force the government to abide by laws passed by Parliament. The Federation Council will be a central point for the revision of the relationship between the Iraqi government and the provinces and the government and parliament. This would be helpful, observers say, as all three groups are blaming one another for the Iraq\'s current crises in politics and security.

“The broad outline of the law on the formation of the Federation Council is almost complete,” MP Ziad al-Tharb, a member of the opposition Iraqiya bloc and the Regions and Provinces Committee in Parliament, told NIQASH. “There are still some disagreements on how many members the Council should have and how these members are to be selected. The initial agreement says that there will be four representatives from each of the 18 provinces around Iraq.”

However this is far from the final decision. Various minority groups are demanding special representation on the Federation Council, including religious, ethnic and gender-based groups.

For example, Baghdad lawyer Yusuf Khan says the Federation Council is important because it will monitor the Iraqi government\'s actions but he thought members should be experienced elder statesmen, from the military, society and politics, so that the country could benefit from their experience and accumulated wisdom.

Several major political blocs support the Federation Council laws. These are the Kurdish MPs, the opposition Iraqiya bloc and the major Shiite Muslim-denominated group, the Sadrist movement. Broadly speaking these groups tend to be more enthusiastic about decentralization of power in Iraq.

Independent Kurdish MP, Mahmoud Othman said that so far, his bloc\'s arguments were mostly about what share of membership the Kurdish would have on the Federation Council. “Our bloc also recommended that international expertise should be sought while drafting this law,” Othman said.

“The Council\'s powers are very limited,” MP Adnan al-Janabi, a member of the opposition Iraqiya bloc, said. “So its important to reconsider these powers and possibly increase them.”

Naturally the political grouping with the most reservations about the Federation Council is Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki\'s State of Law bloc. Al-Maliki has been criticised almost constantly for trying to centralize Iraqi government powers. And his ruling bloc actually opposed the recent law that gave the provinces more powers and withdrew from that voting session.

“Giving members of the Federation Council the right to veto laws is not consistent with the Constitution,” Khalid al-Asadi, a leading member of Maliki\'s State of Law coalition, argued to NIQASH. “Parliament should be the highest authority in the country because it is composed of the MPs voted for by the people.”

Clearly passing the Federal Council legislation will hardly be easy – the two thirds vote requires that 217 out of 325 MPs approve the law.

“Parliament has postponed the second reading of the Federation Council draft law,” MP Jawad al-Jibouri of the Sadrist movement told NIQASH. “It was scheduled for July 16 but its been postponed so that the different blocs can come to an agreement on disputed paragraphs.” Even so al-Jibouri is hopeful that the law will be passed before the end of the current legislative session.