Iraq: Can Local Governance Save Central Government?
Iraq: Can Local Governance Save Central Government?
Table of Contents
  1. Executive Summary
A Way Out of the Iraqi Impasse
A Way Out of the Iraqi Impasse

Iraq: Can Local Governance Save Central Government?

With much territory beyond the Interim Government's control, sectarian and ethnic forces threatening to pull the country apart, and national elections likely to be postponed or held in parts of the country only, the best - perhaps only - way to hold Iraq together is to concentrate on local governance.

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Executive Summary

With much territory beyond the Interim Government's control, sectarian and ethnic forces threatening to pull the country apart, and national elections likely to be postponed or held in parts of the country only, the best -- perhaps only -- way to hold Iraq together is to concentrate on local governance.

Because seats in the National Assembly are to be allocated proportionately on a single national electoral district basis, it will be impossible to set some aside for areas where voting does not take place. Non-participation in Sunni Arab areas would have a devastating, long-lasting impact, not least because it would entail Sunni Arabs' effective exclusion from the process of drafting a permanent constitution, a task assigned to the new Assembly. Regardless of whether there can be elections for that National Assembly by 31 January 2005, elections for provincial councils in the eighteen governorates should proceed, if necessary on a rolling basis, with votes held in different areas as they become sufficiently secure: if national elections have to be postponed, they should be held only when legitimate provincial council elections are able to take place in the remaining governorates.

Local government is no substitute for central government, and there is a great need to recreate a sense of national identity. But in the context of rising violence, a growing sectarian and ethnic divide, and doubts on the feasibility and impact of national elections, the best way for now to protect the centre from centrifugal tendencies is, paradoxical as this may seem, to strengthen government at the various local levels. This means not only electing local governments but effectively empowering them, particularly on budgetary matters, and improving communication between national ministries and local councils. Without such steps, the isolated central state and the neglected local councils will both lose relevance and be unable to hold a fragile country together.

Establishing effective, representative local institutions should have been an early priority for the occupation forces and its Iraqi allies, but it wasn't. The U.S.-led occupation mostly viewed local governance as secondary, and Prime Minister Iyad Allawi's administration acts as if it is a threat. The occupation forces lacked a clear plan, did not consider local governance a main concern, and subordinated it to their shifting national agenda. Responsibility was given either to military commanders, who lacked experience or to the U.S. Agency for International Development, which had expertise but insufficient means and saw its strategy sidelined by short-term political considerations. The result was an inconsistent, ad hoc, stop-and-go process. Reconstruction funds were unevenly allocated. Military commanders appointed governors quickly without popular input and then sought to establish municipal and governorate councils with only minimum local participation.

Just when many Iraqis were nevertheless beginning to seize the opportunity to join the provincial, municipal and neighbourhood advisory councils established by the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA), the process was hastily diverted by a new U.S. agenda. Concerned over worsening security and its loss of legitimacy, the CPA made transfer of sovereignty the priority. Provincial and municipal councils were to play a pivotal role in selecting a transitional National Assembly. When the transitional assembly in turn was abandoned, the CPA lost interest in the new local councils but Iraq was left with an imperfect, largely illegitimate process.

The CPA's unfocused approach deprived local councils of credibility required to become effective. They received no real powers and could never shake the taint of having been fashioned by foreigners in exercises that fell short of real democracy. The CPA's choice to pursue quasi-elections, not direct local elections under UN supervision and not to devolve genuine powers, made the councils increasingly irrelevant. The Interim Government, eager to retain its meagre power, is more suspicious of than interested in local governance. As a result, neither central nor local authorities possess the legitimacy needed to hold Iraq together.

It is that reality which has to change, and giving priority to the early election of properly representative and empowered local governments can lead the way.

Baghdad/Amman/Brussels, 27 October 2004

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