The Iraqi constitutional referendum

Regular readers of Fruits and Votes—assuming the very concept is not an oxymoron—will wonder why I have had nothing lately to say about this weekend’s Iraqi constitutional referendum. After all, in the first month or so of the life of F&V it was one of the issues that most occupied this blog’s pages—so much so as to merit its own subdimain (iraq.fruitsandvotes.com). The main reason for silence here is that there has not been a whole lot more to say than what I have already said. So, on the even of the vote, let’s look at where things stand.

There was always much doubt that the Sunnis could muster the votes to defeat the referendum (even before the short-lived attempt of the assembly majority to change the rules to make even harder). Now that there has been a deal reached with one Sunni party, there is even less chance. But this changes nothing really—the referendum will pass, as always expected, and Iraq will implement a constitution that Sunnis have clear reasons to distrust, given that it puts most future oil revenues in the hands of a future super-region that Shiites can create under its terms. It creates a very odd form of federalism that gives more rights and representation to the majority of the population than it does to regional minorities, although the Kurds will come out fine because they already have experience with self-governing institutions and the constitution allows them to press their claim to Kirkuk and its oil resources. In short, albeit a federal constitution with a fairly weak central government, it is quite majoritarian.

The “concessions” offered to the one Sunni party that cut the deal, brokered by American diplomats, are symbolic. The only one that looks substantive—allowing for a reopening of constitutional amendments next year by a simpler procedure than what was in the original draft—is also only symbolic. There is no way that they can exercise this option except at the sufferance of the very same Shiite majority that is otherwise empowered by the constitution.

Given that there is nothing of real substance that has changed as a result of this deal, we should put our attention to the procedures used to bring it about. And they are very bad precedents procedurally.

First, the constitutional draft was printed and distributed so that Iraqis would know what they are voting on. I doubt many ordinary Iraqis are going to read it and make up their own mind; most will follow cues of religious, ethnic or other leaders. But that is beside the point. Materials have been distributed saying people are voting on X and now they are actually voting on X’. Moreover, these changes were not submitted to the assembly. They are completely ad hoc and outside the process. If they were a substantive improvement, I would say that some violation of procedure is a cost worth paying. If they are not, then the violation of procedure only is another setback in the already difficult road to institutionalization in Iraq.

Then there is a question of who, on the Sunni side, cut the deal. It is not at all clear to me how the Iraqi Islamic Party (IIP) has any authority here to make deals. It is untested in elections owing to the boycott of the assembly election in January—which, as I have argued, was rational, because the electoral system used, plus the violence of the Sunni regions, meant that Sunnis were unlikely to have had any more real leverage had they participated than by sitting it out. While the IIP signed the deal, other influential Sunni groups, including the Muslim Scholars Association, have denounced it.

Congratulations to the governing majority of Iraq! It feels so protected by an open-ended American commitment to its existence that not only has it successfullly put in place a constitution that empowers it and the Kurds without regard to the Sunnis, but also it has succeeded in dividing the Sunnis by pitting one party against other Sunni organizations, with American assistance.

Meanwhile, the guerrilla war goes on and on. Had changes been negoatiated with a cross-section of Sunni political organizations, a deal might have helped marginalize the guerrillas. Having been negotiated with one organization while rejected by others, it will have either the opposite effect, or if we are lucky, no effect on the war at all.

4 thoughts on “The Iraqi constitutional referendum

  1. I understand your pessimism, and much of it is warranted.

    However, I think that a situation that 1) gets at least some elements of politicized Sunnis to support the process, and 2) encourages greater Sunni voter turn-out is a net plus over the status quo ante.

    At a minimum the situation will allow for further negotiations in an Assembly that has a large proportion of Sunnis (or should, assuming that there is no Sunni boycott in December).

    I share your concerns about both the ad hoc nature of the process, the precedents set, the majoritarian nature of the constitutional order and the bizarre “federalism” in that constitution.

    Still, it seems to me that any process (within reason), at this stage, which increases the ) percentage of the population engaged in the building of the institutions is a positive. It is hardly ideal, I will grant.

    Certainly, I made some public recommendations, granted in short-form as a column (http://techcentralstation.com/061504E.html) that haven’t been followed, and over a year later I would likely rethink a few.

    This may all yet end very badly, but it does seem to be me that this deal has at least the potential to improve the situation.

    In simple terms, it is better to have Sunni voter participation and the chance to negotiate constitutional change with more elected Sunnis is better than the situation would be sans the deal, hence my somewhat positive view on the subject.

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