Geographical Constituencies as a Step Towards More Representative Provincial Governance
Posted on: January/08/2014 6:50 am by: Lamar Cravens

As we have been arguing in these posts, overtures by Prime Minister Nuri al Maliki for assistance in the Iraqi government’s ongoing struggle with a resurgent al Qaida argues for strengthening institutions of local government as a bulwark against extremism. More representative elective government could significantly defuse some of the dissatisfaction with the central government that makes alternatives so attractive. But making provincial governance more responsive requires making it more representative.

In previous posts we have discussed how the government of Iraq is federal only with respects to the KRG. It is unitary with respects to the provinces, and in those provinces elected and unelected officials share jurisdiction. As cannot be repeated enough, a provincial council is not a provincial government. Instead, it is one of several government actors operating at the provincial level. What distinguishes a council from those other government bodies of course is the fact that membership on a council is determined by citizens.

In the three rounds of provincial elections held since the U.S.-led invasion in 2003, the formulas for distributing a finite number of seats within each provincial council have changed, but the essential definition of a ‘constituency’ has not. Provincial council members, whether elected from party lists or as individuals are presumed to represent the entire population of the province. The three levels of provincial structure – muhafatha (or province), qada’a (district) and nahiya (subdistrict) – are administrative divisions of the executive branch; they are not even remotely the geographical constituencies of provincial council members.

While the absence of electoral districts might save Iraqi provinces from the undeniable evil of gerrymandering, it does not save them from gerrymandering’s most pernicious effect – the elevation of ideology over the general interest. However noble the idea of ‘at large’ elections for provincial council might be in theory, the lack of districting only removes the possibility of geographical constituencies; it leaves ideological constituencies intact and more than likely gives them outsized influence. The result is even more fractious politics at the provincial level than might be expected as national party squabbles are replayed by provincial politicians, all of them more attentive to their party bosses, wherever they sit, than the neighbors who ostensibly elected them. Already, this lack of attention to the interests of the entire province has discredited much of the potential of elected government and explains some of the continual erosion of powers given in Law 21. Although politics is always going to be a contest over scarce resources, governance in the provinces will continue to grow less responsive as it grows less representative.

The imposition of geographical constituencies would break the power of those parties that draw disproportionate strength from rural, poor and very religious voters. Because most of the population in the provinces resides in the provincial capitals, districting based on population would break the back of these populists in robes and put better educated, more professional and more pragmatic officials into office. That, in turn would increase the confidence of both the central government and outside investors that greater investment in the provinces would truly be used for the common good. And better strategic development and a more rapid improvement in the quality of life for all would diminish the appeal of outside groups (and homegrown zealots) who offer promises of heaven on earth but make it hell for everyone else who disagrees with them.

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