Around a fortnight ago, in the southern Iraqi province of Dhi Qar, the Iraqi government ceremonially handed over many of its powers to the local authorities. It's something that's been on the drawing board for a while, mandated by Law 21 of 2008, and amended by the Iraqi Parliament in 2013, which gives provinces more control over their own finances and other powers.
“The transfer of powers will give local governments the autonomy to make their own decisions and to draw up development and planning policies without the interference of central government,” explained Dhi Qar's governor, Yahya al-Nassiri.
Al-Nassiri praised the move saying it would allow provincial authorities to complete basic service-related projects and revive projects that had been halted. And analysts generally see the move as a good thing, a way to decentralize the power that was claimed more and more by the previous government, headed by Nouri al-Maliki. It is also a move that is meant to appease those spearheading popular protests, pushing for government reform, that have been going on for several weeks now; these protests began in Shiite Muslim-majority areas like Dhi Qar.
The transfer of powers will apply to several ministries – including finance, health, employment, housing, education, transport, the environment, municipalities and public works, and youth and sports. According to the government in Baghdad, the transfer of powers will be gradual and supervised and will begin with only three portfolios: employment, health and municipalities and public works. After three months, the gradual handover of power in other ministries will also follow.
There are an estimated 2 million people living in Dhi Qar but many of the districts outside of the capital are plagued by poor services and unemployment. There is also a lack of water and other state services like power in the marshes in Dhi Qar, and the province's oil reserves are not being properly exploited yet, with local oil fields yet to produce at full capacity. Many hope that if the province can take care of its own business and manage its own budget, it will do a better job than distant managers in Baghdad.
But the transfer of powers to provincial authorities has come at a tricky time. There's been austerity policies instituted by the central government thanks to Iraq's problems with its national budget.
This has meant that some development projects related to state services have been put on hold. At the same time Dhi Qar's provincial council voted to abolish all the smaller, municipal councils in the province, despite objections from their members. This has led to widespread confusion about who is in charge of what.
To overcome this, the provincial council has formed a number of committees whose task it will be to oversee the transfer of powers, preparing plans to solve any past and future issues.
Despite the good public relations, opinion is divided in Dhi Qar about whether this changeover will actually bring any tangible results. Why would local administrators not have the same kinds of problems with corruption, sectarianism and nepotism that the central government does? Why wouldn't local administrators also just take the money and the power that is coming their way, despite more proximity to those affected by this?
As long as party quotas – the unofficial quota system used in Iraqi politics that sees different parties get jobs and seats based on their sect or ethnicity – remain in place, nothing will make any difference, argues Imad Haddad, one of the organisers of popular protests in Dhi Qar's capital, Nasiriya.
“The quota system only serves the interests of influential parties,” he says, “which is why the demonstrations should continue.”
And Falah al-Nouri, a local activist, says the speedy devolution of powers from the central government in Baghdad to provinces like Dhi Qar is due to one thing: the central government's very current desire to rid itself of the responsibility of providing the basic services that protesters are haranguing it about.
“The government neglected all the previous demands,” al-Nouri argues. “But now they are searching for any kind of success to improve their image.”
In order to calm critics and protestors the Dhi Qar authorities have launched a new campaign they are calling the “service mobilization” campaign. This is supposed to provide a rapid response to protestors' demands. Almost a dozen managers have been removed from their jobs and departments are being prepared so that as soon as powers are transferred from Baghdad, performance can be improved as quickly as possible, local authorities insist.
“All the potential powers available to us will be dedicated to this campaign in order to ensure its effectiveness and continuity,” stated Adel al-Dukhili, the deputy governor of the province.
Right now demonstrations are still going on and the general public remain angry at the deterioration in public services but really, it is just too early to review the effectiveness of the campaign or of the transfer of federal powers to provincial authorities.