By Mustafa Habib.
Drama On Iraq’s Councils After Provincial Elections Are Cancelled Again
Conflict at federal level is complicating local politics too. Provincial elections have not been held for five years and council leadership no longer reflects the country’s new political reality.
In the weeks before the end of the year, Iraq’s provincial councillors saw plenty of drama. There were attempted dismissals of various governors, actual dismissals and political coups and in-fighting among state-level politicians.
In mid-December, a new governor was chosen for Baghdad by councillors representing parties at federal level. But then other councillors, representing opposition parties at federal level, chose a completely different new governor.
Members of two groups – the Sairoun alliance led by cleric Muqtada al-Sadr and the National Wisdom party, led by another cleric, Ammar al-Hakim – chose the first new governor. Then, provincial councillors from the parties that oppose those two groups stepped in and selected another candidate from their own ranks instead.
At this stage, the Iraqi president, Barham Saleh, intervened, refusing to ratify either candidate and referring the matter to the courts.
A similar situation arose in Basra where provincial council members who tried to elect a new governor were prevented from doing so by protestors outside the council buildings, who supported the sitting governor. The involvement of security staff meant that a vote could not be held. And in Najaf, the sitting governor there was also dismissed. More firings are expected in other Iraqi provinces too.
Why the drama? Because the country has not held provincial elections since 2013 and in many areas, the current provincial council does not reflect the contemporary political realities brought about by federal elections last year.
By rights, provincial elections to select local councillors should have been held in 2017. However the ongoing security crisis and the fight against the extremist group known as the Islamic State meant this was impossible. The federal government then decided to combine provincial elections with federal ones, to be held in May 2018, but again failed to do this.
The next date for the provincial elections was supposed to be December 22, 2018, but yet again the federal government – this time the new one headed by Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mahdi – decided not to hold them. A new date was not set and election authorities say it will be too difficult to hold provincial elections in 2019.
The Independent High Electoral Commission, or IHEC, has not been working properly for the past few months because, ever since the May 2018 federal elections, there have been all sorts of other concerns, explains Hazem al-Rudaini, a member of IHEC.
“The debate about the integrity of the federal elections, the various appeals and the recounts overseen by a judicial authority,” al-Rudaini listed the reasons. “All of this has impacted on the Commission’s work and makes it impossible to hold the provincial elections anytime in the coming six months at least.”
Amendments to the laws and rules around provincial elections are being discussed by IHEC and relevant federal authorities and politicians, al-Rudaini said, but “all that will take time”.
In fact, senior members of IHEC have been summoned to parliament to discuss this issue because some of the provincial appointments are now unconstitutional – for example, a governor cannot be a sitting MP at the same time yet some are. Additionally, the provincial councils hardly reflect the outcome of the federal elections, which saw the al-Sadr-backed Sairoun alliance win the most votes. In fact, that is part of what has caused the recent problems: The winning political parties are forcing through new alliances at provincial level, that allow them to remove the sitting governors who belong to other now-less-popular parties.
“We refuse to allow the current provincial councils to carry on working,” Rami al-Sukaini, an MP for the Sairoun alliance, told NIQASH. “There are proposals now that allow them to keep working for the next six months, and others to remove them and give parliament the power of supervise provincial councils, until provincial elections can be held.”