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why iraqi MPs can never pass a law, and why it may endanger 2014 elections

Mustafa Habib
The Iraqi parliament has become notorious for never passing an important law. For weeks MPs have been discussing legislation around how political parties are formed. At the same time they’re neglecting other…
24.10.2013  |  Baghdad
Iraqi MPs are becoming notorious for their inability to legislate.
Iraqi MPs are becoming notorious for their inability to legislate.

Iraq’s elected representatives have been talking about the same topic for weeks now: the laws that will govern next year’s parliamentary elections. These are scheduled to be held in April 2014.

The debate about the law regarding next year’s election is a complicated one that will decide on exactly what kind of system of representation the country uses. There are various different models used in different democracies around the world and currently Iraq is trying to decide which one it wants. This year, the results of the provincial elections were newly governed by a mathematical formula called the Sainte-Laguë formula. This system stops larger parties from gobbling up the votes smaller parties have won, if the smaller parties haven’t won enough votes to pass a certain threshold.

Obviously it is important to decide which system is going to be used in Iraq’s 2014 elections and apparently a deadline – Oct. 30 - has been set for the debate to end and the new system to be legally adopted. Currently though, the debate continues in Baghdad and some have even suggested that if the legislation isn’t renovated in time, that the current prime Minister, Nouri al-Maliki may use the delay as an excuse to postpone the elections.

However while MPs are debating this law, several other very important laws continue to languish in a legislative no man’s land. And now, if elections do go ahead on time, they may never be voted on, debated or passed – because Parliament has only six months to finish its current business.

“Parliament has been busy discussing the 2014 electoral law for weeks,” says Bahaa al-Araji, a leading member of the Sadrist bloc. “And now time is running out [for these other laws]. We only have a few months before this session of parliament ends and that might not be enough to get through these laws, which have been suspended for months already.”

Judging by the Iraqi parliament’s previous performance, his prediction is most likely correct. It seems to take many months to pass any even vaguely important law and if the laws are still being discussed, or if no agreement can be reached, then they simply seem to be shelved until a later date.

Even one of the most recent, most widely discussed pieces of legislation has yet to be acted upon. A law dealing with MP pensions that had sparked widespread protests right around the country has been drafted, reflecting popular sentiment that MPs get paid far too much when they retire from the job. But even this legislation – which one imagines, might make a lot of ordinary Iraqi voters happy and which was supported by many MPs – has not been passed. And that is despite several efforts and many promises to table it.

Some of the most important pieces of legislation- that the country has been without for, in many cases, years – are as follows:

*The Political Parties Law

Even today a law enacted by US administrator, Paul Bremer, after the 2003 US-led invasion that toppled the government of Saddam Hussein, still governs how political parties are formed in Iraq and which rules they should abide by.

A document put together by Ana Nikonorow of the NGO Coordination Committee for Iraq, a body that coordinates NGO activities in the country, outlined the problems facing the passage of a draft law on the subject.

“A law governing the formation and running of political parties is a long awaited step to improving the transparency of this institution [the Iraqi Parliament]. A draft political parties law now nears passage. However articles deemed essential by civil society, regarding funding transparency and bans on parties associated with militias [are refuted by] key ruling parties,” Nikonorow writes. “Likewise the ruling parties draftingthe law have sought to locate the authority deciding the legality of parties under a political appointee.” Which means they would hardly be independent.

Over the past month the draft law on political parties has once again been in the spotlight. In September, voting on it was postponed thanks to a request from the ruling State of Law coalition, headed by al-Maliki.

Other parties – and in particular, those associated with the Sadrist bloc and the Iraqi Communist party – have been vocal in their protest about this; they say that the draft law needs to be passed before the 2014 elections.

“This is one of the most important laws for the country in terms of organising any political process,” admitted MP Ali Shabbar, a Shiite Muslim politician from the ruling State of Law coalition. “Unfortunately we weren’t able to pass it a few weeks ago and we may not be able to get it passed during the remainder of this parliamentary session.”

*The Federation Council

Another of Iraq’s long-suspended laws involves the Federation Council. The Federation Council is supposed to act in a similar way to the US Senate, the German Bundesrat or the House of Lords in the UK and Articles 46 and 62 of the Iraqi Constitution also specify that a body like the Federation Council should exist..

As NL Aid, a Dutch blog reporting on foreign aid, pointed out in a 2012 essay, the Iraqi Constitution encourages Iraq\'s provinces to become more independent and form their own regions. To prevent separatism, conflict or the total disintegration of the nation, another element of government is required and this would be the Federation Council.

A law has been drafted and the first draft was finalized and discussed in August of this year. However disagreements on it meant that no consensus between the major parties was reached and now this institution remains in legal limbo.

It’s a big problem, former MP, judge and legal expert, Wael Abdul-Latif, told NIQASH.

“Mainly because of the Federation Council’s part in passing laws,” he explains. “It would help pass laws in a country that still needs many of them.”

*The Federal Public Service Council

The so-called Federal Public Service Council is in a similar state of stasis. In a rentier economy like Iraq where the government provides most of the jobs, these tend to be given out via bribery, nepotism or influence.

The Federal Public Service Council is supposed to solve this problem of corruption within the state services and to raise the level of public office as well as provide equal opportunities.

In fact, a law on the Council’s existence was passed in March 2009 but because nobody could decide how the Council was going to be formed or what sort of representation each political party would have on it – that is, who would be giving out the jobs “more fairly” – the Council doesn’t exist as yet.

It was meant to put an end to corrupt practices – however the Federal Public Service Council has become yet another duelling ground for arguments about quotas, power and corruption.

*The Federal Supreme Court

There is also a draft law regarding the work of Iraq’s highest court, the Federal Supreme Court, waiting for further discussion. The court has regularly taken a stand on, and interfered with, political decisions – just as the Supreme Court does in the US.

In Iraq, the Federal Supreme Court has been a controversial body with some saying it is too much influenced by those currently in power.

MP Abdul Rahman al-Lawzi, a member of parliament\'s legal committee and part of the opposition Iraqiya movement, told NIQASH that the law on the Federal Supreme Court needed to be passed before elections in 2014.

“The elections might give rise to conflict,” al-Lawzi explained. “There might need to be decisions made about who can form the government.”

After Iraq’s last elections in 2010, the Federal Supreme Court came down on the side of the current prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s coalition and basically supported his coalition’s bid to rule Iraq.

“But,” al-Lawzi warned. “there isn’t enough time to pass this law on the Federal Supreme Court.”

Local political analysts have expressed deep concern over the Iraqi parliament’s obsession with one law at a time, to the detriment of all others. It’s not healthy, they say, especially in a country like Iraq that is still dealing with legislative baggage left behind by Saddam Hussein’s totalitarian state.

So why are Iraqi MPs like this? Observers say the reason that Iraq’s parliamentarians are so slow to do anything that has impact has to do with the political culture in Baghdad.

“The Iraqi Parliament has trouble dealing with legislation because the background of many MPs is not in business or trade,” suggests Abdul-Jabbar Ahmad, Dean of the College of Political Sciences at Baghdad University. “Rather they come from a partisan background, based upon a quota system.”

The unofficial quota system that is so often used in Iraqi politics is considered a source of many political ills in the country. After the 2003 US-led invasion of Iraq, the quota system was used to put together an interim government. The religious and ethnic background of would-be politicians in the interim leadership was based on demographics and the quota system was used to keep the peace and to maintain a balance between all the different, and often competing and conflicted, ethnic and religious factions. Although the quota system was never based in law, it has continued to be used in Iraqi politics today. However what often happens is that this quota principle leads to supposedly independent institutions being hamstrung, or dead locked.

Meanwhile Amer Fayyadh, Dean of the Political Sciences College at Baghdad’s Al Nahrain University, told NIQASH that he believes Iraqi politicians don’t place enough importance on passing laws and planning ahead.

“Political thinking in Iraq isn’t about future planning,” Fayyadh said. “It’s not about any kind of long-term or strategic planning.”