Iraq will see an ocean of purple fingers tomorrow as millions go the polls to local government authorities needed to develop the federal system promised by the constitution. The exercise will also offer a true picture of the Iraqi political landscape as voters decide which politicians to endorse and which to punish.
Today’s election, the first in Iraq since 2005, is important for a number of reasons.
To start with, it is the first contested by all ethnic and religious communities and political parties. This time no one is sulking on the sidelines.
There is also the fact that the parties contesting the election now have an actual, rather than a virtual, record upon which the electorate will judge them.
More importantly, perhaps, this will be the first election in which the future rather than the past provides the main theme of the campaign. Though still bitter memories for most Iraqis, Saddam and Saddamism are beginning to recede into oblivion.
Finally, this is the first election since Iraq regained its full sovereignty, lost by Saddam Hussein in 1991, thanks to the passage of resolution 1859 of the United Nations’ Security Council earlier this month. The resolution released Iraq from the constraints of the Chapter Seven of the UN Charter, welcoming it back into the family of nations. It would be no exaggeration that this marked a second independence for a nation that had lost the control of its destiny 28 years ago.
While local factors are certain to play a major role in today’s election, the exercise is expected to affect a number of crucial national issues as well. Chief among these is the issue of federalism, a new concept in the Middle East and one that has generated most debate in Iraq.
Although relatively rare as a form of government, federalism is, nevertheless, richly present in the international landscape. India is a federation, as are the United States, Canada, Mexico, and Germany. In a slightly different context, even Spain and Belgium could be regarded as federations. The system seems to be best suited to large, multi-ethnic countries that have developed a democratic system.
Such a definition could apply to Iraq that, although not a large country in terms of territory and demography, is a mosaic of ethnic and religious communities. There is also a national consensus in Iraq that a version of parliamentary democracy is best suited to the nation’s needs and aspirations.
However, there are some major differences between Iraq and other countries that have developed a federal system.
In almost every case, federal systems came into being when several independent or, at least, autonomous, entities came together to form a unified government. Iraq, on the other hand, has been a highly centralized state since its inception in the 1920s. Thus, what we have in Iraq is the reverse of what we had in other federalized countries.
Iraq’s oil represents another difference. More than 90 per cent of the nation’s oil reserves, some 11 per cent of the global total, are located in just three provinces with just 20 per cent of the population. In no other federal system, one finds such a gap between resource-rich and resource-poor provinces.
Iraq’s water resources provide another major difference. Their use and management, from irrigation to navigation and flood control, requires a high degree of centralization. There is also the fact that almost 80 per cent of Iraq’s most fertile lands fall into just six provinces with less than 40 per cent of the population.
Let us also remember that Iraq is virtually landlocked. (It has a 72-kilometer coastline, mostly of marshlands, on the Gulf). This puts a single province in control of the chokepoint of the national economy. Finally, Iraq is located in a dangerous neighborhood and surrounded by some potentially hostile powers that could use a loose federal system as lever for their influence in the country.
Thus, Iraq should develop a federal system that reflects its realities and responds to its specific needs.
Some Iraqis, especially the ethnic Kurdish elite, root for a system that is closer to a confederation than a federation. Their model is an exaggerated version of the Swiss confederation in which the cantons run much of the show. Taken to its logical conclusion, their vision would transform Iraq into a virtual state in which the reality of power is vested exclusively in the local authorities.
However, Iraq cannot become an Arabo-Kurdish Switzerland even if most Iraqis wanted it. The country’s geopolitical environment, natural features and history dictate a much greater role for the central government than the Helvetic system would allow.
At the other end of the spectrum, there are some Iraqis who root for a strong central government with federalism reduced to a mere façade. If my understanding is correct, Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki is one of them.
However, they, too, are wrong. Under both the Hashemites and the Baathists, and the brief episode of Abdul-Karim Qassem, the system of strong central government brought Iraq nothing but grief.
We shall see what the ocean of purple fingers would produce. But my own guess is that a majority of Iraqis want a strong central government based on genuine federal structures, a system that protects the nation against its enemies while allowing the people to run their own daily lives in the context of ethnic, religious and cultural diversity.