Middle-east Arab News Opinion | Asharq Al-awsat

Asharq Al-Awsat Q & A with Acting Iraqi Parliament Speaker Fuad Masum | ASHARQ AL-AWSAT English Archive 2005 -2017
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Q) Is the current Iraqi Chamber of Deputies constitutional?

A) Yes, in its current form, the Chamber of Deputies is constitutional; but did the Chamber of Deputies commit a constitutional violation? The answer is also yes. The first and most important violation of the constitution is that the Chamber of Deputies should have elected a speaker during its first session and should have elected the president of the republic within one month. More than one month has passed but no speaker has been elected and no president of the republic has been elected. This is the violation of the constitution.

Q) So why did you hold the first session and left it open?

A) When we held the first session the belief was that the Chamber of Deputies speaker and the president of the republic would be elected within two weeks. But so far no agreement has been reached on these two posts and no specific date has been set for the election. Agreement should be reached on the election of three senior posts (the parliament speaker, the presidency, and the premiership) since they are all related to one another.

Q) Was it not possible for the political blocs to agree at least on the speaker of the chamber?

A) The problem is that the tradition among the Iraqi political parties and blocs is that if the speaker is elected from a certain bloc, this bloc will be deprived of obtaining the presidency or the premiership. The operation should be done in one agreement (one basket) and the three senior posts should be distributed together in agreement among the principal blocs. This has not yet happened. Had we been like the advanced democratic countries, a party or a bloc that has 50% of the seats plus one would have elected the president and the candidates for prime minister and speaker would be from the same bloc. Unfortunately, no bloc won this number of parliamentary seats. Thus, no political side can rely on its seats and on itself in forming the government. So the blocs need to form coalitions and this means that these blocs should come to an understanding on the sovereign posts in the country.

Q) Is there an article in the Iraqi constitution related to an open session and for how long such a session can remain open?

A) There is no text in the constitution that says that an open session is not permitted. Thus, an open session is permitted and the constitution did not say that an open session is unconstitutional. In 2006, the open session lasted for 42 days. Of course, this time the open session has lasted for much longer than that. Moreover, the former Chamber of Deputies practiced the method of open session throughout its term. The reason was that before a draft law is ratified, there should be a first reading and a second reading and then it is voted upon. Because there is no quorum during the first reading or the second reading, we are forced to resort to the method of open session until a draft law is approved and ratified. Otherwise, we will be forced to cancel many sessions because of the lack of the legal quorum.

Q) What happens if a session is closed?

A) If the speaker decides to close a session this means waiting for a quorum, which sometimes meant waiting for two or more weeks. The chamber often suffered from lack of quorum because most of the times the deputies did not attend the sessions regularly. That is why we were forced to keep the sessions open.

Q) Will this recur in this chamber?

A) The situation is totally different at present. There is no speaker, no president, and no prime minister. The president of the republic has not been elected and no one has been designated to form the government.

Q) Is it on this basis that you consider the open session as constitutional and has not violated the constitutional?

A) The open session per se does not violate the constitution but what ensues from it is a constitutional violation.

Q) You have always been an active member of the former Chamber of Deputies and now you occupy the post of speaker because you are the oldest member. How do you assess the performance of the former chamber?

A) I can say that the former chamber was active in the first two years of its term, but a lot of confusion arose in the wake of the numerous and deep disputes between the government and the Al-Sadr Trend and later after the elections of the municipal councils. The Chamber of Deputies did not debate many draft laws submitted by the government. The chamber would often fail to debate the nominations for the posts of undersecretaries. So far, all the undersecretaries are acting undersecretaries. In other words, the undersecretary of such and such a ministry is only in an acting capacity. The cause is the disagreements within the chamber.

Q) This means that the differences inside the former Chamber of Deputies reflected on the people and damaged the interests of the people who elected the deputies to assist them.

A) Yes, yes; the differences inside the chamber impeded many laws and matters of concern for the people and the country.

Q) Who was the victim, do you think?

A) The victims were the people, definitely.

Q) This means that the chamber that was elected by the people did not do anything for the people.

A) Definitely.

Q) Is there any paragraph or paragraphs in the constitution that say that the chamber that does not meet and does not do its work should be dissolved?

A) No; there are two ways to dissolve the Chamber of Deputies. The first is for the president of the republic and the speaker to propose the dissolution of the Chamber of Deputies. The absolute majority of the chamber members should approve the dissolution of their chamber. The second way is for one-third of the members of the Chamber of Deputies to propose the dissolution of the chamber. If the majority of its members approve the proposal to dissolve it, then the chamber is dissolved. This means that the dissolution of the chamber can only take place from within the chamber. I do not think that there are members of the chamber who would want to dissolve it after reaching it and becoming its members. I consider this a deficiency in the Iraqi constitution. Just as the constitution grants the Chamber of Deputies the right to withdraw its confidence from the prime minister, there should have been a mechanism to dissolve the chamber that does not depend on the members of the chamber itself. For example, the president of the republic and the prime minister could have been given the right to dissolve the chamber if they agree on dissolving it.

Q) This means that the Chamber of Deputies has guaranteed its stay regardless of whether it works or does not work.

A) Yes, that is correct. A mechanism should have been put in our parliamentary system to dissolve the chamber from outside the chamber. For instance, in a presidential system – and let us take the United States as an example – the US President cannot dissolve the Congress just as the Congress does not have the right to withdraw its confidence from the President unless there is a national issue or a scandal or the President is involved in a criminal act. In the parliamentary system that we have, since the Chamber of Deputies has the right to withdraw confidence in the prime minister, there should be a way to dissolve the parliament by the prime minister or by the president of the republic or by both.

Q) As members of the Chamber of Deputies, how can you convince those that elected you of your right and your qualification to be in the chamber and to enjoy its numerous privileges while the citizen is suffering from bad services and bad security conditions?

A) This definitely creates negative reactions by the citizen who defied terrorism and the security and services problems and went to cast his vote and elect his representative in the chamber and then sees this result. No doubt, negative reactions will take place.

Q) There is another important constitutional problem related to the destiny and future of the country. This problem is how to define the largest bloc that has the right to form the government. The Al-Iraqiya List, headed by former Iraqi Prime Minister Iyad Allawi, was the winner and it insists on its right to form the government. Meanwhile, Nuri al-Maliki, the head of the SLC and the prime minister whose term in office has ended, insists on remaining in his post since he is from the biggest bloc, namely the National Alliance. How do you view this problem?

A) The constitution says the largest parliamentary bloc without specifying whether it is the winning bloc or the bloc that is formed afterward. This too is a problem. The constitution does not stipulate that it is the right of the winning bloc to form the government; it says the parliamentary bloc. There are two interpretations in this case: The first interpretation is the bloc that won the elections and the second interpretation is the bloc that is formed of parliament members after they take the constitutional oath.

Q) Who decides on such issues in the absence of a constitutional court?

A) The federal court performs the functions of the constitutional court and that gives its opinion after it is asked. In this case, its opinion is not binding. However, if a case is referred to it and there is a lawsuit, in this case its judicial decision is binding. Regarding the issue of interpreting the largest bloc, the federal court gave its opinion and interpretation and said that there are two interpretations. It did not issue a binding decision, just an opinion and this opinion is not binding because there is no lawsuit that is debating it in a judicial approach. There are two interpretations to this article.

Q) You were a member of the constitution drafting committee. Was the constitution drafted in a way as to accept several interpretations? Was this intentional in one way or another?

A) All the constitutions in the world are like this; they may have different interpretations. An interpretation is made up of words and sentences, and sentences may have this meaning or that. That is why the constitution needs many amendments; the vagueness needs to be clarified. There are elastic sentences instead of specific legal terms and definitions. I can say that more than 60 articles have been amended by the constitutional amendment committee. All these articles are related to such problems of clarification, definition, and interpretation.

Q) Have these amendments been implemented?

A) No; the political blocs should agree on them.

Q) A full four-year parliamentary session has passed and you have been unable to agree on the constitutional amendments?

A) No, no agreement has been reached on them. Our opinion in the Kurdistan Alliance was to refer these amendments to the chamber and then a referendum is held on them. However, we faced the problem of postponement to the next parliamentary session (the current session). Thus nothing changed. The prevailing opinion was either all of the amendments are debated or nothing.

Q) Since 2003, you have served in all the Iraqi parliaments, the Governing Council, the National Assembly, and the current and past session of the Chamber of Deputies. In your opinion, will the new parliament be better than its predecessor?

A) Yes, I expect the current chamber to be better than its predecessor because there are large blocs that are competing and not just one bloc. In the previous parliament, there was the National Alliance bloc with 130 seats before it split into smaller blocs. We the Kurdistan Alliance formed the second bloc with 58 parliamentary seats. The Al-Tawafuq bloc (Sunni) had 44 seats and the Al-Iraqiya had 25 seats. A split took place in the Al-Tawafuq as well and some members of the Al-Iraqiya left it. The situation is different in the present chamber. The blocs are trying to remain cohesive. More over, there is a large percentage of young parliament members that are promising.

Q) In your opinion why is the culture of the opposition – a bloc in power and another that opposes in the interest of the country – absent in the political process in Iraq?

A) The experience of six years of democracy has not brought us to an advanced stage in democratic political action. We need more years of serious democratic action to convince some parties to be in the opposition and not only in power. Countries that have preceded us and developed in democratic action also suffered in the beginning of their experiments in democracy. It is not easy to transform a nation from a state of dictatorial oppression and bad governance to an oasis of democracy and freedom. This is very hard; we need time. Moreover, many of our political leaders suffer from a contradiction. When they talk you think they are very democratic but in practice you discover them to be extremely bigoted.

Q) Do you mean that the electoral slogans that were raised during the election campaigns in which their proponents announced that they oppose sectarian practices and proportionate power sharing remained mere slogans?

A) Such practices may have diminished or at least the proponents of these slogans raised new slogans that negated their sectarian practices; this is progress.

Q) How do you explain the proposals of Nuri al-Maliki, the prime minister whose term has ended, in which he said that the premiership should remain for the Shias and the parliament for the Sunnis although he should be equidistant from all Iraqis?

A) No, the prime minister is not equidistant from all, but the president of the republic should exercise his patrimony on all, and this is what President Jalal Talabani is doing. However, the prime minister belongs to a specific party and he is not required on the political level to be equidistant from the other parties.

Q) We do not mean from a political angle but from a sectarian angle. Do you not think that dividing the Iraqis in such a manner by the prime minister consecrates sectarianism in the country?

A) So far these fears remain and we have not got rid of them. We may get rid of these fears after one or two parliament sessions. Our hope is on the new generations of members of the Chamber of Deputies, particularly since the majority of the members are from the young and promising generation. They did not suffer much from the practices of the former regime and sectarianism concepts have not become entrenched in their minds.

Q) At present, there are three political leaders and each one believes that he has the most right to head the government: Allawi since he is the candidate of the bloc that won the elections; Al-Maliki thinks he is the best and has said “No other candidate is better than I am”; and Adel Abdel Mahdi, the candidate of the National Alliance. What do you think the solution will be?

A) The National Alliance should make a final decision and select a candidate for the post of prime minister, either Abdel Mahdi or Al-Maliki. Then it should embark on discussions with the Al-Iraqiya and the Kurdish Alliance to form the government.

Q) But the Al-Iraqiya has threatened to withdraw from the political process if it is deprived of its electoral right to form the government.

[Masum] I do not think they will withdraw because withdrawal does not serve the interests of any political party. It will be a big problem if the Al-Iraqiya withdrew; however, I repeat they will not withdraw because the dominant feature of the Al-Iraqiya is secularism and realism. The formation of a government without the Al-Iraqiya will mean a big deficiency in this government. The Kurdish Alliance is doing its best to have the Al-Iraqiya be an important part of any government that is formed.

Q) Do you think that the Al-Iraqiya will accept to be undercut and given the post of parliament speaker although it is the winning bloc?

A) An idea that is being floated is to form a political council for national security or for strategies and with authority to be held by Dr Allawi.

Q) But Al-Maliki has refused to give up any of his powers.

A) The real problem is that we do not see a serious dialogue among the principal sides in Iraq. All the discussions or agreements that are concluded in Iraq are done through the media. Major agreements related to the destiny of the country cannot be held through the media. They should be done behind closed doors where they talk, discuss, and agree and then announce the results of such agreements. But what is happening is that as soon as a session of talks among politicians is over, one of the sides emerges to give statements to the media and then another politician comes out and makes a statement or gives an interview to the media that is different from what the first politician said and so on. The result is failure.

Q) Do you sense that the political blocs are serious in their discussions?

A) As a negotiating delegation representing the Kurdish Alliance, we did not sense any seriousness in our discussions with all the political blocs. We propose our ideas and ask for their opinions but we get generalities only. Discussing the core of the issue is suspended until the next prime minister is determined.

Q) Have any discussions been held with the other blocs regarding President Jalal Talabani, the Kurdish Alliance’s candidate for the presidency?

A) I can say that if the political blocs are in agreement on one point, they agree that Mam [honorific title in Kurdish] Jalal is the only candidate for the post of president of the republic and that he is the only one that can occupy this post under the current circumstances that prevail in the country. This is the opinion of the Al-Iraqiya, the State of Law Coalition [SLC], and the National Alliance. We insist on having our candidate (Talabani) as president. In fact, several political blocs preceded us – the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan [PUK] – in nominating Mam Jalal for the presidency. The position of President Talabani is balanced with everyone; he is impartial regarding any side. This is also the stand of the Kurdish Alliance because we believe that our role is to bring the viewpoints of the blocs closer together. We believe that we should not be a part of the problem but an active element in solving it.

Q) Does the Kurdish Alliance back a specific candidate or a specific bloc in Baghdad?

A) As I just explained, our stand is seeking to bring the viewpoints of the Iraqi political blocs closer together. However, we have our stands on the Iraqi government’s program and we have our proposals that we submitted in the form of points (19 points).

Q) Are these points proposals or conditions or a work plan?

A) They are nonbinding requests. We have submitted them to the other blocs and they will be debated. They may be amended and they may be omitted here or added to there. They are not binding conditions for participation in the government. The negotiations on these points are subject to the nature of the dialogue and to the opposite side. If we realize that the other side is domineering and that there is a kind of domination, the situation becomes different. However, if we find out that the other side is calm and capable of engaging in a debate, there will be give and take as common saying goes. But there are issues that are sensitive and important for us, particularly those related to the constitution. We cannot concede on these points. We may concede a specific ministry or a specific post. As for Article 140, for instance, which is an article in the constitution, it is impossible to concede. If we concede it that will mean we are distancing ourselves from our street and our electorate that voted for us to be in Baghdad and to defend our issues within the constitution. None of the Kurdish or Kurdistan parties can concede them. We will insist on them within the constitutional mechanisms.

Q) But Al-Maliki’s outgoing government had promised to implement Article 140 as well as points related to the oil for food law but it did not keep its promises.

A) We were in a hurry when the outgoing government was formed. We did not pause long at the points pertaining to the implementation of articles in the constitution. At present, however, the situation is different; we will discuss everything related to the government’s program. The formation of the government has been late for six months and it is not a problem if we are late for another month in order to debate the program and work mechanisms of the next government in order to ensure stability in the country. I am not talking only about Kurdistan but about all Iraq. We discussed with all the blocs their electoral programs and their opinions on the programs of the next government. It is heartening that the programs of all the blocs are close to one another. But what is important is the government’s commitment to implement its programs. This requires an implementation mechanism and this brings us to the importance of the political council for national security that will include several sides in the government.

Q) What do you think is the solution for the current situation in Iraq?

A) Proceeding with the dialogues, persistence, and patience in order to form a government in which everyone participates. Otherwise, the alternative will be infighting. We should work to reach an agreement; the circumstances in Iraq are hard. There are regional interventions by several sides but this interference is different from one state to another.

Q) Is there an idea on the date of formation of the government?

A) I think that next month will witness serious discussions to form the government.

Q) Do you not think that it has taken too long?

A) Definitely, but what can be done? It’s a problem we have to face.

Q) Are there any disputes among the Kurdish sides?

A) There are differences in viewpoints but not disputes. We now have 63 votes in the Iraqi parliament along with the Movement for Change, the Islamists, the independents, and the Christians. Our stand is united. There is agreement that the stand of the Kurdish or Kurdistan sides should be united in Baghdad.

Q) There are reports about a rapprochement between the PUK and the Movement for Change headed by Nawshirwan Mustafa. How true are these reports?

A) There are good initiatives to stop the media campaigns against each other. Our stand is united in the Iraqi Chamber of Deputies and they are also with us in the united negotiating delegation.

Q) The Kurdish media have reported that Adnan al-Mufti, a leading member of PUK and former speaker of parliament, is the candidate for vice president of the Kurdistan Region. How true is this report?

A) This subject has not yet been discussed. The media in the Kurdistan Region publishes a different name every day, but this subject has not been discussed in the political bureau and Kurdistan Region President Masud Barzani has not been approached on this subject.