Which one comes first, democracy or federalism?

September 2, 2010

As things stand today, all indications suggest that the revived Iraqi National Alliance, INA, will form the government under the leadership of current prime minister Nuri al-Maliki and will be joined by the Kurds.
Iraqiya has declared that if this scenario occurs, they will denounce the process as illegal. Some Iraqiya leaders even suggested that they would boycott the political process.
A boycott would send the political process in Baghdad back to square one, throwing Iraq back into the political turmoil it faced 2005.
At that time, the Shias and Kurds were leading Iraq while the Sunnis remained on the sidelines. This led to a three-year-long wave of violence, terrorism and extremism that swept Baghdad and stretched into other provinces. It was a truly sectarian civil war, the traces of which continue to haunt and threaten us today.
To be sure, the same turmoil would emerge if Iraqiya formed the government on its own with Ayad Allawi as the prime minister, alienating the Shia-dominated lists. And let’s not forget the Kurds — they would join his government as well.
A closer look at the two options makes it clear that there is a serious mistrust not between Allawi and Maliki — or even between the Iraqiya and the INA ¬– but rather between the Shia and Sunni Arabs of Iraq.
In addition to the discrimination, injustice and atrocities committed against Iraq’s Shia before the fall of Saddam, the lack of clarity and progress in national reconciliation by today’s rulers have also contributed to deepening the mistrust between the two communities.
No concrete steps have been taken to achieve a true national reconciliation. On the contrary, in the weeks before the last election, the de-Ba’thification committee headed by a leading Iraqi National Congress member, Ali Allami – who is accused of strong ties with Iran — disqualified a number of candidates for their past involvement with the Ba’th Party. Most were from Iraqiya.
If there was a true will to move forward and a confidence in a democratic system based on equality, these candidates – who after all were entering the democratic process through elections — should have been commended and brought into the fold of the new Iraq rather than being driven back to the Baath Party.
Although the Shia and Sunni communities lived peacefully as neighbours in many regions of Iraq, each appears to mistrust the political leadership and military force of the other. Hence, both sides fear or reject being ruled by the other.
But the dilemma for today’s Iraq is that a government based in Baghdad would have to rule the entire country — and it will need to be either INA or Iraqiya.
In any mature democracy, it is usually the case that one bloc is in the government and the other is in the opposition. Iraq’s democracy does not seem to be ready for such a setup yet.
Each bloc fears being in the opposition, as being in power seems to be the only guarantor for protection.
One interesting point to note here is that the Kurds are not afraid of either bloc being in power. The reason is that they rule their region alone and are trying to work out a federal relationship with Baghdad.
If the Sunnis and the Shia of Iraq had their own federal regions, our democracy would have been solid and the bickering over forming the government would not have lasted this long.
The last six months demonstrated that for democracy to be entrenched in Iraq it needs to have a truly federal structure whereby each of Iraq’s communities live in a region or regions that enjoy a federal relationship with Baghdad.
Once this is in place, policies and issues would replace personalities. Each community would worry more about their federal status in Iraq as opposed to who is ruling in Baghdad.
The leadership in Baghdad would worry more about regulating the relationship with (and between) the regions, including managing the delegation of power regionally, as opposed to focusing on consolidating all of the power in one city, in one office and with one man.
The days of one man holding all of the power have long gone. This is confirmed by the constitution, and is something the politicians must come to realize. The irony here is that the same people who are calling for a strong, centralised state are going to be harmed most by this centralisation.

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