Following a democratic transition, newly elected leaders have limited time and space to make good on campaign platforms. In January 2009, Iraqi men and women were elected to 14 provincial councils, following political campaigns in which candidates took to the streets, met with voters in face to face settings and actively sought the votes of their fellow citizens. The newly-elected members of the provincial councils entered a level of government that was weak in relation to a central authority in Baghdad inclined towards maintaining power. In an October 2009 Report to Congress, the Special Inspector General for Iraq Reconstruction described the scope of power for provincial council members as “ambiguous.”
Rather than wait for power’s devolution from Baghdad to provinces, many council members undertook study and analysis of Law 21, which outlines the power of provincial councils. Previously supported in election campaign training by the HYPERLINK “https://www.iri.org” International Republican Institute (IRI), council members turned again to the Institute for assistance in understanding their new jobs and the scope of their statutory powers. Through 2009, Iraq’s newest class of elected officials lost little time in asserting their rights in local control over budgets, contracts and development projects.
An example of the development of democratic government close to the Iraqi people can be found in Salahaddin, where the council removed the provincial governor for incompetence and lack of integrity. The Salahaddin Provincial Council action was challenged, in court, and the council’s actions were upheld. A similar move, involving censure of the governor, is underway in Babil.
The Babil Provincial Council has gone on to pass revenue enhancement measures such as tourism fees and introduced new regulations and rules on health care licensing. The council in Wassit passed legislation to subsidize better health care for low income people. The Muthanna Provincial Council initiated two major water plant projects to provide clean water to the citizens of their province. IRI governance training has found itself working in “real-time” with Anbar provincial officials on local economic development of its natural gas fields, recommending provincial council members there interact with and draw from the knowledge of Kurdish natural resource civil servants as a guide.
In December 2009, the Basra Council decreed that all contracts for municipal services for more than $2 million would be awarded only to foreign companies, after a spate of embarrassing cases of graft and mismanagement by local municipal companies came to light. The Basra Council entered 2010 with an established process of meeting with outside banking and investment interests in order to develop economic growth opportunities for the province. IRI recently completed training and consultations in the fields of banking reform, investment and international trade in order to create a more hospitable local economic environment.
The other element of representative government involves citizens: IRI conferences for Iraqi civil society partners focuses on government accountability. Training highlights effective government watchdog techniques, identifies challenges and possible solutions, and discusses common issues of concern the civil society organizations can then raise with the council in their own province, as well as with the media.
In Basra’s anti-corruption activities mentioned above, a youth-oriented civil society organization trained by IRI held a series of workshops on government accountability, generating coverage in local media. The story in al-Basra al-Jadeeda highlighted the workshop series, urging local decision-makers to find solutions for problems in the province. It was shortly after the newspaper report, citing issues of corruption with local contractors, that the Basra Provincial Council announced that only foreign firms would be eligible for larger municipal contracts.
One year ago, Iraq’s provincial councils embarked on a path of democratic governance and have quickly worked to deliver on promises made by them (and democracy) to the public. Success of the provincial councils increases the likelihood that systemic reform can move Iraq further along its national path to democracy.