For the third time since the 2003 fall of Saddam Hussein, the government of Iraq is considering holding municipal elections. The district and neighborhood councils were created, and largely appointed, by the Americans with some based upon old Ottoman Empire boundaries. Voting for these local boards were supposed to happen in 2005 and 2009, but Baghdad never got around to them. The authorities are once again discussing them because of the protests that have spread across the country, but it’s yet to be seen whether they will finally follow through.
After demonstrations broke out in Iraq in February 2011, Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki began promising new voting. Some protesters blamed their local councils for the lack of services, and demanded that they be replaced or disbanded. The premier then promised that the long-delayed balloting for the councils would be held. At first, June was mentioned, but then that was pushed back to September. That could be a harbinger of further delays.
Plans for the elections have been discussed at the national and governorate level. In March, the regions committee in parliament, held talks with the provincial councils, and the Ministry of Municipalities over the issue. Each province was supposed to do detailed investigations of their districts to determine how many there were, and what their boundaries were. Soon after that discussion was held however, the parliamentary committee complained that Baghdad, Basra, Maysan, and Salahaddin were not collecting any information. That’s especially important because Baghdad and Basra are the two larger governorates in the country. Without their cooperation, no voting can be held. Some local politicians are also afraid that they will be voted out or have their districts disbanded if the balloting ever occurs. That means they may not be cooperating either in the hopes that their bureaucratic obstinacy can hold up the process.
This is the third time that Baghdad has mentioned district balloting. Originally they were supposed to occur after the January 2005 provincial elections, but were never held due to the security situation. They were brought up again in 2009 when Iraq held its next governorate level voting, but the parliament did nothing about them. The delay was indefinite, and might not have come up again if not for the demonstrations.
The Americans put together the local councils after the 2003 invasion. Some were based upon old Ottoman administrative districts. The members were sometimes appointed by U.S. troops, while other times there were caucuses and votes by Iraqis. More were created in 2007 during the Surge. All of them were supposed to create local democracy, based upon America’s experience with city councils and counties, and also provide a connection between U.S. troops and local Iraqis. In Baghdad province for example, there are nine districts and over 100 neighborhood ones. The councils have only limited power. They have a budget to pay their salaries, provide food rations, pensions, and access to ministries, but do not control development projects, and can’t make laws or raise money. In fact, there were worries that many would disappear after the U.S. withdrawal because their main benefactor would be departing. The Baghdad provincial council started disbanding some councils and firing members for being unqualified in early 2009, but they have persisted. Because of their foreign origins and lack of authority, the country’s political parties have largely ignored them, which is another reason why there has been no urgency to hold elections for them.
Premier Maliki has made a number of concessions in recent months in an attempt to stop the demonstrations in his country. One of those was promising local elections, which were originally supposed to happen six years ago. Whether Baghdad is serious about this promise or not is yet to be seen. That’s because the councils occupy something akin to political limbo. They do provide some essential services to the public, but they are also seen as American creations with limited power, and thus of not much interest to the parties. Since so many were never elected, their replacement is long overdue. The government has to find the political will to do so.
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Stone, Andrea, “Iraqi councils shoulder more responsibility,” USA Today, 6/4/08
Al-Wannan, Jaafar, “Committee blames councils for potential delay in municipal elections,” AK News, 3/27/11
- “Iraqi local elections expected in September,” AK News, 4/12/11
Warden, James, “Focus turns to matching old, new Iraqi institutions,” Stars and Stripes, 3/1/09
- “Local leaders are making a comeback in Iraq,” Stars and Stripes, 3/2/09