Does the Kurdistan Region of Iraq need decentralization?

3 years agoJournals

By Sardar Aziz

‘Decentralization’ has swiftly entered common vocabulary; however, this article will show that there is yet no agreement on this term, meaning both theoretically and practically. Decentralization is not the result of our thoughts or actions but a deeply rooted system. We in the Kurdistan Region of Iraq are only hoping to replicate or install this system. This article will attempt to lay out the necessary steps to implement a decentralized system in the Kurdistan Region of Iraq.

Problems with the concept:
The question of changing the Kurdistan Region of Iraq into a decentralized political system is revealing.  It indicates that the region is administratively, politically, economically and identity-wise multi-layered. However, before we can discuss these issues, we have significant problems with the concept of "decentralization". It is an imported and complicated concept, which at present, it is being utilized as a tool to serve a power rivalry; hence, we must be cautious about its limited and short-term meanings. As with all other concepts, when one uses the term decentralization, the same understanding, image and aims are not shared between the users of the term. This difficulty forces the question; what does decentralization mean in the Kurdistan Region of Iraq today? To answer this question, we must first have an academic understanding of the term. 
Theoretically, the concept of decentralization is a part of the broader transfer of knowledge from one location to another, in particular from the western world to the east.
The transfer of concepts is a regular historical occurrence. German thinker Reinhart Koselleck has dedicated much time to the issue of 'concepts'. If we use his method, then we must understand 'decentralization' as something that will be used at a specific moment, with a particular aim, as a result of a power struggle. (1)

Based on this, 'decentralization' as a concept must be dealt with carefully. Concepts are different; they have unique histories, and one cannot understand them through their simple definition alone.  Therefore, linking the concept's simple definition and its history provides a better understanding of 'decentralization' and its current meaning in the Kurdistan Region of Iraq.
Decentralization is not merely a name or word. It is instead a concept that represents several complicated processes within a governing system covering a range of areas including geopolitics, justice, globalization, neoliberalism, and the nation-state. However, the trouble with the concept, as with all others, is that it is not ready for universal use and lacks meaning for local cultures and traditions. Hence, we cant discuss 'decentralization' methodologically to reach a general understanding of the concept. Prominent German linguist and historian, Reinhart Koselleck, has developed a method for the history of concepts called "Begriffsgeschichte". According to this method, we can use, what Reinhart terms the 'deep established diachronic', on concepts, which means,  when we take into account the path of conceptual development over time; how a concept separates from its simple definition and starts a lineage that has layered the meaning of the concept continuously.

In light of this, we can discuss the history of the concept but are unable to do this to a great extent in Kurdish literature. The history of the concept of decentralization has two distinct branches; before the arrival of the united states and after their arrival.

The second problem with the concept is that it suffers from a  lack of meaning. Iranian thinker Mahmoud Saroolqalam explains that all religious leaders understand each other better when they speak; in contrast, when intellectuals and politicians converse they do not understand one another. (2)
The reason for this is that religious leaders often have a collective background. In contrast, intellectuals and politicians do not have a similar collective history and thus do not have a mutual understanding of terms and concepts that they use. The same problem exists for us and can be applied to the concept of 'decentralization'.

'Decentralization' has several sources and meanings in history; an academic source and a source in governance. This requires a quick explanation so that we can better present the history and background of the concept. The process of forming a nation-state has historically required the existence of a centre where power and symbolism are concentrated.   Göran Therborn explains that capital cities provide a considerable part of state identity. (3)
The process of State and nation-building is focused around the capital city. As a result, most nations around the world have a centre in which power is amassed. France is one of the most centralized states, where one can see centralized power in all aspects of life and civilization. In France all train lines go to Paris, the political system places the majority of power in the hands of the president with parliament and local government generally weak. Some argue that it was this centralized power structure in France that led to the yellow vest protestors. (4)
Therefore, the emergence of decentralization is directly related to processes originating from the State, the nation, the political system, identity, type of civilization and security. As a consequence, the State becomes an organism, or a leviathan, that maintains complete control of power and prevents other power centres from emerging within it.
This centralized model of State gradually changed in the 20th century, in particular as a result of several events and phenomena. For this article, we will only discuss two of these phenomena; neoliberalism and globalization.
One of the founders of neoliberalism is the Austrian philosopher and economist Friedrich Hague. Hague emerged as a prominent neo-liberal thinker in the 1980s. What is interesting for us in Hague's theory is his aversion to the idea of central planning. The origins of Hagues argument against central planning can be traced back to the conflict between socialism and capitalism. Socialism, for example, is known for its centralized model, which requires long term planning, among other features. (5)
In contrast, a feature of liberalism is that it views the State as an impediment to economic growth. The State is bureaucratic, slow, obstructive to market competition, and expensive among other negative features. This State was suited to the emergence and growth of globalization, a phenomenon that worked to organize human society around the globe. Globalization is a far-reaching phenomenon; however, for our purposes, globalization has worked to combine markets and decentralized governance at the heart of the nation-state. (6)
The consequence of decentralized power was the growth of localism. The drivers behind localism are many; for example, the gradual development of urbanism, the rise of international markets, and the shrinking of the globe due to technology and travel.
It can be argued that these causes shifted the widely used centralized model of nation-states into a more decentralized model. In short, the reasons behind the rise of localism can be summed up in the following points:

First, the ability of the nation-state to confront multinational corporations was limited.
Second, the cities became international units. Originally there were city-states, which were subsequently swallowed by states; however, today, cities, especially metropolitan cities, are once again returning to dominance.
Third, those states that have failed to assimilate the different identities in their jurisdiction now find that the age of assimilation and ethnic cleansing hs passed. This is particularly the case for a state like Iraq and the current situation of the Middle East's Kurds. In this new age that has allowed for increased awareness of identity, group interest and the strange notion of State, the age of attempting to change the identity of groups, as some Iraqis are calling for, has passed.
Fourth, in the age of globalization, businesses and non-governmental organizations are increasingly calling for the dismantling of border restrictions that prevent the distribution of products across the world. US, Canadian and other international organizations in Iraq, such as US Aid, Canadian OIG and the world bank, are all supporters of Iraqi decentralization.
Based on this principle and as a result of all its international supporters, a new question as entered international discourse; how do residents of a particular place, location, region or city wish to be governed? This question forces us to ask several other sub-questions; Does governance require moral, economic, political, social, identity or philosophical principles? Furthermore, we can ask how can these principles be met? And to what extent does centralized or decentralized governance assist in this regard.
When we ask these questions, we are forced to view the problems in the context of a political system. If the nation-state is a system of unity, foundation and the breaking down of differences, then decentralization means restricting the process of assimilation and maintaining a limited theatre that recognizes the difference.

Decentralization in Iraq: 

The new Iraq is post-dictatorship Iraq. Dictatorship is the highest form of centralized governance where all powers of the state are concentrated in the hands of a single person. Since 2003, the United States has been working on building a new Iraq. Since the Second World War, the method of the United States when attempting regime change in foreign states has been to replace dictatorships with political and administrative systems that make the concentration of power by a single individual difficult. Hence, why we see federal models of governance in Germany, Austria and other places.
The same reason is behind the establishment of a federal model in Iraq following the collapse of its dictatorship. Regardless, Iraq remains, to a great extent a centralized state and a significant proportion of the country's political sides view federalism and decentralization as a threat and not as a suitable and required form of governance. (7)

As a result, Iraqi regions increasingly use decentralization as a threat. The centre responds by opposing it at all means, for example, in the case of Basra. 
On the state level in Iraq, there is much talk of decentralization. Experts across the world believe decentralization to be a solution to Iraq's problems; however, within the country, there is great fear around the idea of a decentralized system. As a result, there is much internal opposition to all forms of decentralization including; federalism increased provincial powers and any other kind that weakens the centre. While the Iraqi constitution has laid the foundations for power to be centralized, in reality, Iraq is a structurally centralized state. The Iraqi state fears that it will not withstand the pressures of decentralization and will fail and break up. However, this paper argues that the Iraqi state's obstructions to decentralization will in the end only work to motivate demands for it. This is clear in the case of Basra and the Iraqi Sunni population, among others. 
Here, it is necessary to briefly reference that fearful nation-states or nation-states that harbour fearful psychologies are often the states that are most prepared to use violence to confront issues of identity. The most prominent example of this is Sevres syndrome in Turkey. 
Therefore, as was explained above, if governance requires an underlying principle then for Iraq injustice, inequality, the division of the country's natural resource, and differences in identity, culture and nationality prevent a single governing motive from existing. 
Does the Kurdistan Region of Iraq require decentralized governance? 
In 2019, MERI, an Erbil based think tank, divided the question of decentralization in the Kurdistan Region of Iraq into two stages. First, the establishment of centralized governance was a response to the requirement to provide security and stability for the region. However, since achieving these two things, the Kurdistan Region of Iraq has now reached the stage that requires developing decentralized systems of governance. This is of particular relevance as centralization has weakened governance in the region. (8)
For over 50 years, the Kurdish community in southern Kurdistan have been governed by two polar administrations. These two administrations have not only seen their respective zones of influence diverge in many areas; including shared customs and history but have also become adversarial to one another. A fact that was documented by a CIA agent who held meetings separately with the PUK and KDP in the run-up to the Iraq War. The agent noted that each side had to be approached as you would separate nation-states.
However, the two sides in the Kurdistan Region of Iraq are also similar in many respects. 
Can this division be a basis for implementing decentralized governance in the Kurdistan Region of Iraq? Before answering this question, we must first understand what decentralization is. In short, decentralization does not mean increasing the centres of power in a given state. For example, if a given jurisdiction divides into two or three centres of power, this does not mean that decentralization has been achieved. From this perspective, decentralization is a way of thinking. When a powerful individual or group wants to accrue power, and another competing powerful individual or group wants to divide power with it, this does not translate as decentralization. Instead, this approach works to increase the centres of power, which ultimately serves centralization and weakens decentralization. 

Decentralization does not mean the removal of the centre. Instead, it means the reorganization and redistribution of power between central government, local government, and the regions. If what is meant by decentralization in the Kurdistan Region of Iraq is the creation of another power centre away from Erbil, then this is not decentralization. This is an idea that I have noticed in other articles about decentralization in the Kurdistan Region of Iraq. Especially when the old Kurdish Emirates is referenced to justify the establishment of decentralization in the Kurdistan Region of Iraq. This is a misunderstanding of decentralization. 
Decentralization does not mean the existence of multiple centres; instead, it means the removal of centralized administration, finance, politics and decision-making. However, it must be understood that without a centre there is a significant risk that local administrations will become disconnected from one another. In the 21st century, we live in a connected world. This is the principle behind China's one belt one road policy. 
For further clarity, I will provide a summary of several features of decentralization. it can be implemented in several areas; administrative decentralization, political decentralization, financial decentralization, economic and market decentralization. Based on this, decentralization does not occur in the security, military, diplomacy or intelligence fields. If these areas become subject to decentralized administration, then there is a crisis of governance in the jurisdiction. Each of the four fields where decentralization can occur have several features. For example, administrative decentralization is considered the foundational element of decentralization (a reference to the importance of decentralization as an administrative principle). Therefore, the underlying meaning of decentralization is improving administration. 
The purpose of administrative decentralization is deconcentration, delegation and devolution, which allow for decision-making to be carried out locally. (10)
Deconcentration consists of the process dividing government between different geographies instead of concentrating power in one location as referenced by Sayar. (11)
This process can occur on several other levels, such as decentralized management, the transfer of the work of government from central to local units or local governments.
The process of devolution, which can be understood as the granting of permissions, consists of the transfer of a part of the government's responsibilities to an agent or location outside of government. It also includes the transfer of the rights and ownership from central governments to local governments. 
The process of delegation can occur in numerous areas, especially the transfer of administrative responsibility. Further to this, working with private enterprise and privatization can be understood as forms of decentralization. Also, the process is known as PPP, which sees the private and public sector work together under a specific law. The draft law to allow this has already been prepared in the Iraqi parliament. 

Therefore, in the Kurdistan Region of Iraq, it remains unclear what decentralization is and what it can present to the region's current state of affairs. As is clear Nawshirwan Mustafa was one of the most prominent voices in demanding decentralized governance in the region. When Mustafa formed the Gorran Movement, he had a clear philosophy for the form of governance that the movement would work to achieve. Mustafa wanted to see a loosening of Kurdish central governance. Here, an explanation is required for the term "loosening". In his Communist Manifesto Karl Marx explains "all fixed, fast-frozen relations, with their train of ancient and venerable prejudices and opinions, are swept away, all new-formed ones become antiquated before they can ossify. All that is solid melts into air". Therefore, what is meant by the term "loosening" is the removal of solid obstacles, the removal of barriers to change, and withdrawal of all excuses for continuous power. "Loosening" is not fixed and does not have a final form. Instead, a loose government continuously changes to meet the needs of the people. Mustafa was against the political rivalries that existed between party politburos and tribes and championed a parliamentary political system that could continuously renew itself. He believed that a government could only take the form required by its people when that government could be close to the people it governs and listen and respond to their demands. Based on this, Mustafa believed decentralization was a necessity for the Kurdistan Region of Iraq. 
If we return to the MERI discussion, then now is the time for the implementation of decentralization in the Kurdistan Region of Iraq; however, it is not yet being implemented. The issue of decentralization is being treated as a short-term phenomenon, and traditionalists are not being given the space it requires to develop, custom and interests. The question of decentralization is not an occurrence that will come about through a set number of stages but is a comprehensive multi-level process. 
As mentioned above, there is still no single understanding of the term decentralization. Therefore, what is initially required is the publication of green and white academic articles by the government, so that its knowledge of decentralization can be made clear.
The second stage, is that several areas need to be centralized, especially the military and security fields, before the process of decentralization can begin.
The third stage requires that a realistic timeframe is set in place for the implementation of decentralization and steps set out for the application of each of the four areas outlined above. 
The fourth stage required that the electoral system in the Kurdistan Region of Iraq changes to a mixed electoral system. Half of the officials should be elected by the people while the other half can be chosen by the political parties. This will allow for technocrats to enter into government as technocrats usually find it difficult to get elected through a direct vote. 

Decentralization Stage

It is essential also to reference the view in the Kurdistan Region of Iraq that fears decentralization. However, before we discuss fear, we must first discuss 'against'. It is perfectly reasonable for there to be a view that is against the process of decentralization in the Kurdistan Region of Iraq. One of the prominent groups in the region that oppose decentralization is the Kurdish nationalists. This group is reminiscent of the European Nationalists of 19th century Europe who believed in centralization, unification and unity among other beliefs driven by nationalism. 
This group feels pessimistic as the Kurdistan Regional Government does not work on principles of nationalism. For example, when observing Kurdistan's infrastructure, information systems, education, economy and culture, there is little work being done in these areas to unite the region into one unit. Inaction in this respect puts the existence of the region under threat, especially if China's project in Iraq is achieved. 
From this perspective, as unity has not been achieved in the Kurdistan Region of Iraq, then in the same way as in Iraq, the lack of a single-centre may cause the region to break up. This fear is justified as the principle underlining the unity of the Kurdistan Region of Iraq was a government at the centre that distributed salaries across its jurisdiction. As this centre falls into crisis, so too does the unity it achieved. Of course, the existence of this thinking does not mean that decentralization in Kurdistan should not exist. In reality, before decentralization can be implemented in any area, thought and cultural conditioning must first take place. Kurdish thinking and culture still dictate that power should be concentrated around a single leader. Such an approach only leads to a centralized power structure that may work successfully in families, tribes and political parties, but struggles on the government and state level. Centralization of government works against the principles of speed, democracy, and local decision making, among other things. Another feature of centralization is that it creates large states. Leopold Kohr explains that difficulty arises for states when they are too big. (12)

How can Sulaimani become decentralized? 
This question is the centre of much discussion in Kurdistan today. In truth, this question is wrong. Sulaimani will only become decentralized when the Kurdistan region of Iraq becomes decentralized. For if Sulaimani alone becomes decentralized then what will come about is not administrative, political and economic decentralization in the region but a dual centralized model of governance. This model will usher in a bipolar system of administration which, like any bipolar system, will be backed through the use of force. This will become a form of power balance similar to that which is seen in the international order. It is important to remember that it was this system that existed in the Kurdistan Region of Iraq before the Kurdish uprisings and did not provide any advantage to the people of the region.

Moreover, this power balance developed a dual administration model of governance. In the region, this dual administration saw the existence of mirror administrations that only differed on cosmetic issues. This balance of power only caused problems for the Kurdistan Region of Iraq. It has allowed great strides to be taken towards a system of hegemony, where one side is stronger, more valued and dominant. 

This side then uses both the carrot and stick method to maintain its hegemony. This state is still in its early stages if it continues, it will gradually become culturally accepted, as argued by Gamsci. (13)

If the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan aims to become the same as the Kurdistan Democratic Party, then its first step is to create power. By power, we do not merely mean the 70th force and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan's other military units. Instead, we mean the fundamentals of power in Kurdistan, like in other places where the existence of power is based on several fixed and non-fixed principles. 

Currently, the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan's aims appears to be for it to be a counterbalance to the Kurdistan Democratic Party. If this is the aim in any move towards decentralization, then in truth this is not decentralization. It is merely an attempt to divide power in the Kurdistan Region of Iraq between the Kurdistan Democratic Party and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan.  

For the Kurdistan Region of Iraq to become genuinely decentralized then the following steps should be taken:

Change the political, administrative and electoral system in the Kurdistan Region of Iraq. The political system should be inclusive and genuinely parliamentary. This will allow the talent within each political party or movement to come out and will enable political parties to come together to form alliances. 

Regarding the economic system, the region must end its monopolization approach. Monopolization is a direct obstacle to decentralization. If the central principle of decentralization means sharing, then monopolization is a barrier to sharing. 
Regarding the electoral system, the Kurdistan Region of Iraq must move away from its single constituency approach and adopt a multi constituency one. This would allow voters to identify who their representative is.
Military and security forces must become independent of politics.
The centre must renew itself on the principle of centralization. The centre must become the unit that ties all other decentralized units together. In a decentralized political system, the centre cannot be divided as it is today. 
A culture of individual city identity must be promoted so that citizens and cities can become more connected, which allows for the development of a more substantial national identity to develop. 

Decentralization is understood globally as a term or system of management. The rise of neoliberalism, markets and globalization has allowed decentralization's influence to grow. The age of centralized power structures in which matters of state are decided on without due regard for the desires or needs of citizens. Decentralization occurs on several levels, but in general, it consists of the devolution of power and eradication of a concentration of power in the centre.
At the same time decentralization has geopolitical dimensions. After the arrival of the United States in Iraq, decentralization has become a central Iraqi value, which the country regularly takes steps towards. However, Iraq remains unprepared on many levels for decentralization. 
In recent years, a debate has erupted in the Kurdistan Region of Iraq around the idea of decentralization for the regions political system. However, the theoretical, civil, and policy work that would allow for its implementation remains lacking. This short article has attempted to define decentralization, identify the most advantageous form of decentralization for Kurdistan Region of Iraq and recognize the most damaging form of decentralization for the region. With this, the Kurdistan Region of Iraq is stepping into a new stage in its national development.

1-         Reinhart Koselleck, Introduction [Einleitung], in: Otto Brunner/Werner Conze/Reinhart Koselleck (eds.), Geschichtliche Grundbegriffe. Historisches Lexikon zur politisch-sozialen Sprache in Deutschland, Volume 1, Stuttgart: Klett-Cotta, 1972, pp. XIIIf./XXIIf.
2-         محمود سریع القلم  ٢٠٢٠ لماذا لا تصبح مجتمعاتنا ديمقراطية؟
3-         Göran Therborn ٢٠٠٦ Capitals and National Identity، European Variants، ECPR،
4-         Andre Sapir 2019 France’s institutional system favours rebellion against its leader,
5-         Machan Tobor 1988 Beyond Hayek: A Critique of Central Planning, FEE,
6-         Geoffrey Garrett 2001 Globalization and Fiscal Decentralization?
7-         Ali Al-Mawlawi ٢٠١٩ Exploring the Rationale for Decentralization in Iraq and its Constraints،
8-         Meri, 2019 Decentralisation in the KRI: A Policy Roundtable
9-         Faddis, Sam 2020 The CIA War in Kurdistan: The Untold Story of the Northern Front in the Iraq War.
10-       Sylvain H. Boko  ٢٠٠٢ Decentralization and Reform in Africa،SPRINGER SCIENCE+BUSINESS MEDIA
11-       Sayer, J.A., Elliott, C., Barrow, E., Gretzinger, S., Maginnis, S., McShane, T., and Shepherd, G. The Implications for Biodiversity Conservation of Decentralized Forest Resources Management
12-       Kohr, Leopold, 1986 The Breakdown of Nations, Routledge
13-       Gramsci, A. (1971). Selections from the prison notebooks. New York, NY: International.

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