Politics & Policy

Political Progress

Constitutional flexibility is a good sign for democracy in Iraq.

This weekend, the Iraqi people will finally have the chance–after months of negotiations, walk-outs, deadlines, extensions, and last-minute deals–to cast votes in a national referendum on their new constitution.

The final version of the document was only completed this past Wednesday, as Shia and Kurdish negotiators scrambled to make concessions to their Sunni counterparts in an effort to win backing for the charter.

Among the changes is a new provision that would make the constitution easier to amend in the first year after it passes. According to the deal, a commission drawn from the next Iraqi parliament–which will be elected in a national vote on December 15–will be authorized to offer amendments to the constitution. If approved by a majority vote in the legislature, such changes will be presented to the Iraqi people in a new national referendum next summer.

The impact of this compromise on the outcome of Saturday’s vote is not yet clear. Since the deal was announced, some influential Sunni groups have announced their support for the document. Others are still opposing the charter. Whichever way Sunnis vote, the constitution retains overwhelming support from Shia and Kurds, and is likely to be approved nationwide.

In any case, the real significance of the deal is not its potential effect on the referendum, but rather its positive implications for Iraq’s political development down the line. By making the constitution easier to amend, the deal will strengthen the political incentives leading Sunnis away from the insurgency and toward peaceful participation in the democratic process.

In this regard, the agreement is the latest and most visible step in a yearlong effort to promote Sunni engagement in Iraq’s emerging political institutions. Last January, Sunnis largely boycotted Iraq’s first set of democratic elections. Ever since then, leaders within the community have sought to reverse the effects of this historic mistake, most notably by participating in the constitutional drafting committee set up by the Iraqi parliament this summer.

Despite their efforts, the Sunni drafters complained loudly of being marginalized in the negotiations. They have sharply criticized the constitution that emerged from the talks, objecting in particular to its embrace of federalism. Sunnis are especially concerned about the proposal of some Shia groups to unite nine provinces in southern Iraq into a single, Shia-dominated federal region.

In truth, the constitution is not nearly as one-sided as the Sunnis have claimed. The Iraqi drafters deliberately chose to make the charter extraordinarily flexible over time. On a host of divisive, hot-button political issues, therefore–including those responsible for Sunni discontent–the constitution defers tough decisions for Iraqi parliaments to decide in the future.

This is especially true in its treatment of federalism. Far from establishing a unified Shia mega-region, the constitution merely recognizes a right of individual provinces to form new regions in the future–but only under “terms and conditions” to be set by future law, and only with the approval of local citizens by referendum. The charter takes a similar flexible approach to other issues, including Supreme Court appointments, the development policy for Iraq’s commonly owned oil resources, the powers of the presidency, and the role of a second legislative chamber.

This week’s last-minute agreement takes the principle of flexibility a step further. Now the entire document is open to revision. With only a majority vote needed to revise the charter, the Sunnis have a real vehicle for making changes to the document.

In this sense, the agreement gives the Sunni community a chance at redemption for its boycott mistake last January. Having long argued that federalism is unpopular among ordinary Iraqis, they can now take their case directly to the people.

This raises the significance of the upcoming December parliamentary elections. In order to take advantage of the constitution’s flexibility, the Sunnis will need to garner as many seats as possible. Political organization, campaigning, and a high voter turnout on election day are now at the core of the Sunni community’s political self-interest. This is a sea change from last January–and a breakthrough with great potential to undermine the insurgency, which rightly sees widespread Sunni political participation as a vital threat to its own existence.

To help their chances in December, Sunnis will need to organize parties and build strong coalitions that cut across sectarian divisions. Ideally, these alliances will reach out to Shia leaders who share Sunni concerns on key issues such as federalism. Over time, such cross-sectarian partnerships will foster the emergence of an Iraqi political system based more on issues and ideas, and less on identity.

Not everyone agrees that constitutional flexibility is a good thing. Ever since the initial draft was made public, critics have argued that by deferring difficult questions to the future, the charter fails to fully meet Iraq’s political needs. No doubt these complaints will intensify with this week’s deal, which leaves the constitution even more open to amendment than before.

In fact, Iraq’s status as a fragile, emerging democracy makes a flexible approach especially worthwhile. The new charter can promote stability and order, yet without setting every decision permanently into stone. Constitutional flexibility will actually strengthen democracy, by allowing internal debate to ripen and reflect the broadest diversity of views. Most importantly, of course, it will speed along the Sunni community’s gradual integration into Iraq’s new democratic order.

For all its historic significance, then, Saturday’s referendum will not mark the last word in Iraq’s political evolution. Once the new constitution passes, the Iraqi political debate will only just be starting to heat up.

Roman Martinez recently served as a political adviser to U.S. Ambassador to Iraq Zalmay Khalilzad, and as director for Iraq at the National Security Council.

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