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Iraq’s divisive elections are about much more than politics

The EU should back a transition towards federalism in Iraq, writes Barah Mikail

With results still pending, Iraq’s parliamentary elections held on 30 April are already provoking polarisation. But whatever political formula ends up emerging in Iraq, it will still be necessary to bear in mind that the country’s real challenges go far beyond electoral and representation issues.

Terrorism is one of the main dangers that currently loom in Iraq. The Islamic State in Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS, formerly al-Qaida in Iraq, AQI) remains active. It threatens the Iraqi population, the government and neighbouring countries (Syria, Lebanon and Saudi Arabia). Iraqi Prime Minister Maliki justifies his ongoing quashing of popular protests against his authoritarian rule in Sunni-populated areas by claiming to be fighting against ‘terrorism’. However, his brutal tactics have provoked popular radicalisation in these areas without succeeding in weakening ISIS.

Profound and persistent political issues add to Iraq’s problems. Since it was first elected in 2005, the parliament has failed to address the country’s most acute challenges. Three important issues are still pending today: the adoption of a national hydrocarbons law that would provide a legal framework for investment in the hydrocarbon sector; a tighter definition of what the constitutional provisions on Iraq as a “federal” republic means in practice; and the organisation of referendums in the governorates of Diyala, Kirkuk, Salaheddin and Ninawa to determine the future of these territories. Disagreements over these issues reflect the national climate of political crisis and inter-communitarian tensions.

Iraq’s main communities have counterparts across the Middle East. This is why the country’s inner divides are mirrored in tensions at a regional level. Inter-communitarian fault lines are serious; but their eventual regional reach remains uncertain.

Iraq’s internal dynamics also reinforce the regional relevance of the Kurdish question. Syrian Kurds have sought an equivalent of the state of semi-autonomy enjoyed by Iraq’s Kurds. Members of the Democratic Union Party (PYD) have taken the opportunity of the Syrian crisis to press for a more autonomous government. Though Iraq and Syria’s Kurdish communities do not constitute a single block – both are internally divided – Turkey’s Kurds’ hopes for a similar degree of autonomy in future have been reinforced.

Iraq’s complex Sunni politics have a read over to Syria too. Following the Arab Spring, some Sunni tribes decided to support Syrian opposition groups. They provided logistical and financial support to armed rebels in Syria. However, Sunnis in Iraq and in Syria are not united over whether they should support Assad or the rebels.

Shiites in Iraq do not constitute a coherent block either. Furthermore, their involvement in Syria’s conflict has been limited, with the exception of Asaeb Ahl al-Haqq, a battalion that split from Shiite Moqtada al-Sadr’s Jaysh al-Mahdi in 2004 and that is said to have a presence in Lebanon too.

Few Iraqi parties explicitly advocate sectarian-based partition. They want to avoid being accused of pouring oil on current fires. Rather, local communities are battling over the kinds of competences that the central government should devolve. Yet more serious territorial fractures remain a risk. Iraq’s partitioning into several geographic and ethnic entities is not yet a foregone conclusion. But Iraq will struggle to weather another four years (a full parliamentary term) of insecurity, authoritarian rule and strong political disagreements. The country can be stabilised, if a more inclusive political model is devised. Therefore, it is important for Iraqis to clarify what kind of institutional rule could help defuse political tensions. The adoption of an adequate formula for federalism could help unlock change through progressive decentralisation.

Reform in Iraq would need to build on and adjust to realities on the ground in a country fraught by multiple divides among communities. Decentralisation would require a clarification of the borders of the geographical entities that would benefit from new powers, taking into account certain particularities but avoiding sectarian-based administrative divisions. For instance, Kurdistan has its own local institutions represented by the Kurdish Regional Government and the Kurdish parliament. Any eventual form of federalism would have to recognise this fait accompli. As for the rest, the Iraqi central state would keep its sovereign rights (in defence, foreign affairs, finance, security and other key legislative competences). However, agreement with the government would still be needed on the sharing of oil revenues.

The international community must be ready to cope with whatever results emerge from the 2014 legislative elections. It can contribute to Iraq’s transition to federalism through progressive decentralisation by playing a discrete but important role at the political level.

Some members of the international community are well-placed to exert discreet influence on Iraq’s political class. Iraqis, for example, do not view the UN and the Arab League with hostility. A UN-backed Arab League plan of support to any Iraqi constitutional transition process towards a federal structure may be required to help convince the government and MPs. The future role of the Arab League will crucially depend on the role of heavyweights therein, such as Saudi Arabia and Qatar.

On the Western side, the backing of this plan by the EU could help achieve progress. Granted, the EU could only adopt a low profile and act discretely because of the population’s reluctance to deal openly with Western actors. That said the EU should be prepared to contribute to a long-term transition towards federalism based on the conditions outlined in the previous section. For example, it could appoint constitutional advisers and dedicate significant funds to an Iraqi transitional process, and encourage more private-sector investment. The development of better economic prospects and job-creation would be vital for convincing Iraqis that decentralisation can benefit the population as a whole, making them less likely to focus on sectarian-based matters and bringing more security. The EU’s strategy could come along with cooperation with international bodies and non-governmental organisations who can also be important contributors to Iraq’s transition to federalism and good governance via a coordinated development effort.

Barah Mikail is senior researcher at FRIDE, a European think tank

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