An Answer To The Gridlock In Iraq?

by Elise Foley | June 25, 2009

Legal changes have been slow to come in Iraq, with legislation moving through the parliamentary system at a snail's pace--or not at all. Bills intended to aid the weak economy have been held up in parliament for years, while laws regulating the oil industry and banning official corruption remain notably absent. Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki recently began lobbying for a switch to a presidential system of government, which he said would be more efficient and democratic than the current parliamentary system.

Iraq experts said they could see why he'd want this change. "What prime minister or president wouldn't like the ability to push legislation more rapidly?" asked David Mack, vice president of the Middle East Institute. But could it actually happen? And, perhaps more importantly, should it?

The short answer to the first question is: probably not. "The system really doesn't lend itself to constitutional changes very easily," Mack said. The first step would be forming a committee in parliament to propose a package of amendments. Then the parliament would have to approve the amendments as a package in a simple majority vote. The last step would be a nationwide referendum to win approval from the people.

Experts said they doubted such a change would make it through the parliament, which has the most to lose from a switch to stronger executive power. But even if it did, the Iraqi public has reason to be skeptical of a push for a stronger executive. "Iraq has a history of having had a very strong president; what it hasn't had is a history of having a strong chief of state and a strong democracy at the same time," Mack said.

Anyway, say that Iraq did install a presidential system, would it even solve Iraq's legislative gridlock? Larry Diamond, a democracy expert at the Hoover Institution who advised Iraq's provisional government, doesn't think so. He notes that Iraq has an extreme form of proportional representation, allowing all parties that receive votes a spot in the parliament. And in a parliamentary system, these parties must form a coalition in order to select a prime minister, creating an implicit commitment that they will support at least some of the PM's ideas. In a presidential system, this coalition-building basis is taken away, which can create even worse gridlock.

What's more, the parliamentary system was chosen because of its slowness--it was intended to require something approaching consensus in a country rife with ethnic and sectarian divisions. The Kurds, for instance, would have very little incentive to support a move that would take away their share in executive power (under the current system they can veto or slow legislation as members of the presidency council). In order to give up the power they have now in central government, they would probably expect more autonomy elsewhere, Diamond said.

Because Iraq's constitution was built with more of a focus on avoiding instability than efficiently passing legislation, some sort of change to the constitution will probably have to occur, at some point, for legitimate progress to be made. "As Iraq stabilizes--if Iraq stabilizes--it makes sense to move to more of a ‘get things done' kind of constitution," says Noah Feldman, a Harvard Law professor who advised Iraqis on the constitution. He hinted that a more likely option to the presidential system would be one that allows a coalition with a bare majority to form a government. But this move away from consensus would require more trust between factions--something that clearly doesn't exist yet.

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