Guest Editorial Myerson On Iraqi

Guest Editorial: Myerson on Iraqi Constitution

“Federalism and the Iraqi Constitution”

by Roger B. Myerson

The draft Iraqi constitution deserves much more public discussion in America as well as in Iraq. As an economist who analyzes democratic constitutional structures, I’d like to offer a few comments.

In most of the text, the constitution seems to establish a reasonably standard parliamentary system, with a unicameral legislature, a Prime Minister who heads the cabinet, and a weak ceremonial President. But there are two nonstandard provisions in the constitution that deserve much more analysis: the provision for creating regional governments (Articles 113-121), and the amendment in Article 135 that establishes the Presidential Council.

The specific procedures for uniting provinces into larger regions are left to be defined by an act of the legislature in its first session. But the constitution encourages provinces to merge themselves into such regions by offering guarantees of greater constitutional autonomy to merged regional governments. Carried to America, these regional-merger provisions would allow the southern states, or the northern blue states, to combine themselves into a great regional mega-state.

Near the end of the draft constitution, Article 135 abruptly announces that the President previously described will be replaced by a three-person Presidential Council, which must be elected by a 2/3 majority of the legislature. Any legislation that is not unanimously approved by the Presidential Council will be effectively vetoed unless it gets 3/5 approval in the legislature. This extraordinary provision, presented at the end of the constitution almost as an afterthought, seems designed to create deadlock in the central government, perhaps to guarantee that the real business of government will be done only at the regional level.

In 2002, the Iraqi authors of the “Final Report on the Transition to Democracy in Iraq” argued persuasively that a successful establishment of democracy in Iraq would require some form of federalism. But I fear that the regional-government and presidential-council provisions of this draft constitution may be aimed at creating, not a federal balance of power between central and local governments, but a system of effectively unitary governments in the regions of Iraq.

When we evaluate the constitutional provisions for creating regional governments, we should compare them to the alternative of simply offering the same guarantees of constitutional autonomy to the 18 existing provinces of Iraq. Compared to such a provincial federalist system, it is hard to see who would benefit from the creation of these larger regional governments, except for the politicians who hope to lead them.

Merging provinces into larger regions cannot increase the ability of local governments to adapt to local conditions. In the American federal system with its 50 states, the leaders of southern and northern states already have the ability to adapt their local administrative practices to their local variations of our southern and northern subcultures. Merging our state governments into larger regional mega-states could only decrease local adaptability. But such mergers could also seriously increase the possibility of secession. The leader of a regional mega-state that included a large fraction of America’s population and resources would perceive more benefits and fewer risks in contemplating secession from the Union than any state governor would today.

In a well-designed federal system, the existence of small autonomous local governments can improve the performance of national democracy, because politicians in a federal democracy can prove their credentials for national leadership by serving successfully as leaders of autonomous local governments. Americans have regularly found strong candidates for president among our state governors. This effect of federalism on national elections may be particularly important for new democracies, where candidates with good reputations for responsible democratic service are likely to be scarce. For example, the PRI’s long grip on national power in Mexico was broken by an independent state governor.

From this perspective, an ideal federal system would grant substantial autonomous power to local governments that are relatively small but are just large enough that successful management of a local government can demonstrate strong qualifications for national leadership. Given provinces that have this minimal size, the effects of merging provinces would be to decrease the number of such independent local leaders and to increase the chances of regional secession. So the principal beneficiaries of such mergers would be the politicians who expect to become leaders of the separate regions.

Roger B. Myerson
W.C.Norby Professor of Economics
Department of Economics
University of Chicago
1126 East 59th Street Chicago, IL 60637

N.B. This discussion is based on the Associated Press’s English translation of the draft Iraqi constitution, published by the New York Times on August 28, 2005

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