David Romano: Dear Baghdad – here’s a lesson in Federalism



This week Iraqi Kurdistan held a parliamentary election. The emerging result is similar to what Kurdish parties gathered in the Iraqi national election last spring, with the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) winning the most votes, the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) coming in a distant second – due to party infighting – and splinter parties collecting smaller portions of the vote.

This is despite the election being run by different bodies, multiple claims of fraud, and one election using electronic voting while the latest depended on paper ballots. In other words, whatever fraud occurred probably changed little – especially given the result is pretty much what everyone expected.

The KDP and PUK led last year’s referendum on Kurdistani independence, of course. Despite their subsequent loss of Kirkuk and other disputed territories in October 2017, these two parties remain the preferred candidates of the vast majority of voters in South Kurdistan.

Authorities in Baghdad and Tehran were undoubtedly hoping to see a better outcome for parties like New Generation, led by a wealthy Baghdadi Kurd who favors remaining part of Iraq indefinitely. Kurdistani public opinion remains solidly in favor of independence, however, no matter the obstacles thrown up by Baghdad and Kurdistan’s neighbors. Last year’s referendum garnered over 93 percent of votes in favor of independence.

Another election took place this week – on the other side of the world. The Canadian province of Quebec held provincial elections on October 1. For the first time in decades, the main Quebecois political party calling for Quebec’s independence – the Parti Québécois (PQ) – failed to get enough votes to even maintain official party status.

The threshold for official party status in Quebec is 20 percent. The PQ garnered just 18 percent on Monday.

The other long-dominant Quebecois political party – the Liberal Party of Quebec – likewise fared poorly in the election. Instead, a new party – the Coalition Avenir Québec – won the election. The CAQ says it has no interest in holding a new referendum on Quebec’s independence, but may if necessary push for more autonomy within Canada.

The election result is testament to a remarkable decline in support for Quebecois independence. This columnist is from Montreal, Quebec’s largest city, and believes the explanation for the decline in support for Quebecois sovereignty remains fairly simple: Things in Canada are not so bad at all, and people in Quebec simply have other priorities these days. They want better government, lower taxes, and better individual lives. Quebec’s autonomous powers within the Canadian federation are generally well respected by the federal government in Ottawa, and the economy as well as French language and culture are thriving in the province. This was in fact the first Quebecois election in decades in which the issue of independence did not figure prominently in the electoral campaign.

Now of course Iraq is not Canada, and Baghdad will not likely deliver a level of competent governance anywhere close to that coming out of Ottawa any time soon. There nonetheless remains a lesson here for Baghdad.

The people of Quebec have few real obstacles to their secession from Canada should they choose to pursue it – holding referendums on independence is legal in Canada, the federal government in Ottawa will not send the Canadian army to repress Quebec, and neighboring states will not embargo or threaten a Quebec that votes for independence.

The cost-risk-benefit calculus for Quebecois independence thus involves virtually no physical risk, with the only costs relating to potential economic losses from instability akin to Brexit. Yet the majority in Quebec lost interest in independence because they simply don’t really need it in a Canadian federation that works.

The Kurds in Iraq, by contrast, face serious threats and potentially very large costs should they choose to secede from Iraq, as we all witnessed last year. Yet they still chose to hold a referendum on independence, which garnered overwhelming support. That in itself is a testament to just how bad governance in Baghdad is these days, and how poorly authorities in Baghdad understand or try to implement federalism in Iraq.

The federal government in Baghdad does not have to magically become Ottawa to sufficiently reconcile its Kurdish population. If leaders in Baghdad wish to affect the Kurdish cost-benefit-risk calculus regarding independence in Iraq’s favor, they could start by not making the risks and costs of remaining within Iraq seem so high. They could actually respect the articles of their own Iraqi constitution regarding federalism, treating Iraq’s regions and governorates as partners rather than subjects, sharing authority over oil and gas resources, distributing budgets fairly, respecting Kurdish language rights, and so forth. Then the distance between Iraq and Canada might not seem so vast.





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