Last weekend, a new law passed by the Iraqi Parliament in Baghdad, granted the provincial authorities more power than they have ever had before. This momentous move is seen as another step toward decentralization and a move away from the centralized power that current Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki has been pushing for.
Up until now what provincial governments can do has been regulated by Iraq’s Law 21, passed in 2008 and also known as the Provincial Powers Law. Last week, a series of new amendments were made to this law.
“These new powers given to the provinces will entrench the principle of decentralization in Iraq,” Kurdish MP Mohammed Kayani, head of the Regions and Provinces Committee in Parliament, told NIQASH; Kayani is a member of Iraqi Kurdistan’s opposition Change movement. “The law gives huge administrative and financial powers to local governments - including the appointment, supervision and punishment of senior officials. In addition, it gradually transfers the powers of seven service provision ministries [in Baghdad] to local governments over a period of two years.”
The new amendments to the law gave provinces that are not semi-autonomous regions like Iraqi Kurdistan a host of new political, economic and security-related powers. Provincial authorities may now make more far reaching decisions in these areas without any interference from the central government in Baghdad.
“This is a political agreement between Sunni Muslims, Shiite Muslims and Kurdish politicians,” Ziad Ahmad, a local political analyst, told NIQASH. “They are united in their opposition to al-Maliki’s policies. Anti-government demonstrations in the west of the country have also had an impact on this topic. All of these were reasons behind the passing of this law.”
Ahmad says that provincial authorities now have more serious responsibilities. He also believes they will require professional advice from outside their own regions in order to succeed.
But in fact a lot of these ideas are not altogether new. The provinces were already given broad powers in the 2005 version of the Iraqi Constitution. Articles 111 through 117 give Iraq’s provincial authorities both economic and security-related power. Up until these amendments were passed though, local authorities felt they were constrained by those ruling in Baghdad. Recently especially al-Maliki has been accused of trying to strengthen Baghdad’s authority and his own.
However now local governments are able to choose their own judiciary and their own heads of security. The new laws also give them the power to deploy the Iraqi army inside and outside major cities; Baghdad is also obligated to consult with the local governor, should they wish to deploy the army in their province. In fact the amendment, Article 14, says “the governor shall have direct authority over all the apparatuses operating in the province which are tasked with security and with maintaining public order”.
“Security forces coming from Baghdad have always refused to inform the governor’s office here of their activities,” Ninawa’s last governor, Atheel al-Nujaifi, who looks likely to return to the post after the recent elections, told NIQASH. Al-Nujaifi heads a troubled province where a variety of different military forces hold power. “The Iraqi government has dealt with the provinces in a dictatorial way and it was ignoring the Constitution.”
The new amendments also look likely to make some of the provinces far wealthier.
Another one of the amendments has this to say: “the provincial council is the legislative and regulatory authority in the province. It has the right to issue domestic legislation so as to enable it to administer the affairs of the province in accordance with the principle of administrative decentralization. Provincial councils shall have a legal personality and financial independence.”
For example, the amendments will increase the percentage of money those provinces producing oil get. Article 44 of the Iraqi Constitution stipulates that, besides part of the federal budget, fees or fines and tax revenues, each province gets a percentage from any barrel of oil that is either produced or refined there; a similar stipulation exists regarding the production of natural gas.
“In Basra, this law means that province should get more than US$10 million a day due to oil extraction there – as well as US$1 billion from the federal budget,” former MP, judge and legal expert, Wael Abdul-Latif, told NIQASH.
Basra will get the biggest budget it has ever had in contemporary history, Abdul-Latif noted. “And with that, it should be able to solve a lot of its own problems. The money it gets will almost be equal to the budget of a small country like Jordan.”
Of course, not everybody is happy about the changes to the Provincial Powers Law. The political bloc currently ruling the country, led by al-Maliki, says it intends to challenge the amendments in Iraq’s highest court. They say the amendments deprive the federal government of important powers it should have.
State of Law MPs even boycotted the voting session during which the amendments were passed. However all the MPs that remained in Parliament supported the law.
The timing of the new law is also interesting, coming as it did shortly after provincial elections that saw al-Maliki and his supporters lose a lot of power in some provinces.
But as Kurdish MP, Hassan Jihad, who supports the amendments as an expression of Iraqi federalism, said: “any party that votes against this law will most certainly be accused of being a supporter of a centralist and totalitarian system.” Then again, those charges are nothing new to al-Maliki.