Iraq's democracy dilemma

Iraq's parliament is stifled by back-room deals and lack of attendance, members say.

The Transitional National Assembly was to be a starting point for Iraq's fledgling democracy, fostering political debate and consensus building.

But in the past nine months since the parliament was elected, decisionmaking has largely taken place not on the assembly floor but behind closed doors, say lawmakers.

The country's most vital decisions - naming a president, picking ministers, and writing the draft constitution - were taken out their hands and given to only a few powerful leaders, say several members from different parties who were interviewed by the Monitor.

Assembly members say that more often than not they are told to go along with what party leaders want, whether they like it or not. This, coupled with the fact that many members rarely attend meetings - some worry about the threat of assassination - has largely neutralized the country's legislative body of any real power.

Some analysts say this is not uncommon in parliaments where the members are elected by being put on a list of candidates compiled by a party leader, indebting them to those leaders.

"I don't think it's a crisis but if it operates the way it has, it probably means if an Iraqi political system does take hold, you will see a government by back-room deal," says Nathan Brown, a constitutional expert at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

Mr. Brown says such a system won't be a disaster "as long as it's consensual ... [but] if the party leaders treat the parliament as they do their own party, with indifference, and expect them to just go along," then there will be problems.

He says the critical question will be whether the party leaders are truly representing their constituencies in those back-room dealings.

According to Iraq's Transitional Administrative Law, the national assembly was supposed to be the key lever to force consensus building and inclusion of minorities. Bringing Sunnis into the fold politically is seen by many analysts as the only long-term solution to undercut support for the Sunni-led insurgency.

Hanan al-Fatlawi, a member of the majority Shiite list, says sometimes decisions made by the assembly's committees never reach the assembly floor for consideration. "The decisions made by the committees of the national assembly, they change it or hide it. Even the way they explain [a proposed] law to us, it is different every time," she says.

She also complains that the parties are often too worried about future political needs, rather than getting work done for the country.

Empowering the assembly rank and file would require a structural change in the way the members are elected, analysts say, but also a change in the political culture that is still strongly tribal, relying on patronage networks to determine who gets on the lists of candidates.

All that is difficult when constant violence keeps members from revealing their names, much less building ties to voters who would hold them accountable.

Being a national assembly member carries prestige but it also carries the threat of assassination by insurgents and a dangerous journey to the fortresslike Green Zone, the only place safe enough to hold the meetings.

Two weeks ago the assembly failed to open a meeting because they couldn't reach quorum. In frustration, deputy assembly speaker Hussein al-Shahristani issued a stinging rebuke to the absent.

"Let the nation see what is happening in the national assembly .... we will register those that aren't here," he said after starting the meeting late then delaying it another half an hour in the hopes more members would show up.

In the end, about 70 members were present, about half of the number needed for quorum and far from the full membership of 275 people.

Assembly member Nowal Jawad Shukur, who was at the cancelled meeting, says the assembly has kept busy since finishing its main work of writing a draft constitution. But, she notes, "A bird has to sing in tune with the rest of the flock."

Ms. Shukur says most list leaders don't meet with their members and rarely attend assembly meetings. Instead, a representative of the leader usually gathers members and tells them how to vote. "Even if we don't want it, we have to vote with the list," she says.

Last month's constitutional debate exposed the gulf between party leaders and assembly members when the law governing the process was essentially thrown out the window. The charter's deadline was delayed twice before leaders declared negotiations were over, presenting a lightly modified earlier draft to the body without holding a vote by the assembly.

All of this has left many Iraqis feeling excluded from a process that was meant to make them, and especially the Sunni minority, feel they had a stake in their own governance. "I feel like this constitution and the whole process is not for the sake of the people. Iran has a big influence within the constitution, [the leaders] are serving their interests these days," says Husham Hezawi, a Sunni.

"In the next election, people will not vote for this government," says Hayder Abbas, a Shiite who owns a construction and supply company. "The new government hasn't done anything for the people."

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