Devolution of power without a robust accountability system will weaken Kurdistan Region


Iraq’s 2005 constitution is based on the decentralization of power. The three provinces that form the Kurdistan Region and the remaining Iraqi provinces enjoy different degrees of decentralization. In practice, the experience of decentralization in the country has had a mixed outcome, mostly ineffective in delivering its desired goals.

Decentralization is commonly seen as a channel that improves good governance and promotes downward accountability by placing the fate of local officials in the hands of the local electorate, increasing responsiveness to local needs. In the Kurdistan Region, as in many other developing countries, the principal theoretical factors that are necessary to translate decentration into improved governance and downward accountability or other anticipated goals do not exist, or their effectiveness depends on the dynamic interaction between political forces at play in Kurdistan and Iraq, in general.

Having said that, the recent and, indeed, re-emerging demands for decentralizing administrative and fiscal power in the Kurdistan Region amid persistent political and economic crisis and the recent COVID-19 pandemic once again underlines the need for fundamental political and economic reforms and in the way the region is governed.

At this stage, it is important to respond carefully to any devolution of power, the process and the implementation of the decentralization, and to understand and be prepared for the different challenges such a process might encounter.

Government authorities in Erbil should play an important role in the process and implementation of the potential decentralization. In other words, the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) should actively engage in the transfer of power, authority, and responsibility for fiscal and administrative decision-making to the provincial governments. The KRG should also define the legislative framework within which provincial governments operate, the limits on their powers and discretion, and the intergovernmental system.

Political factions in the region need to cooperate more than ever to finalize and approve the Kurdistan Region’s long-awaited constitution. It would be more legitimate that the constitution sets the decentralization framework. However, in the absence of the Kurdistan Region’s Constitution, one way of legitimizing the potential devolution of power within the region might be through amending the existing legal framework, the Law of the Governorates of the Kurdistan Region (Law 3/2009).

Meanwhile, transferring fiscal and administrative power to local governments or provinces in the Kurdistan Region should start with establishing, reforming, and strengthening institutions of the rule of law and checks and balances within the KRG. It needs to improve and work on ensuring robust local accountability systems in practice on both regional and local levels and that public money is properly used to deliver decentralized services. Otherwise, decentralization can worsen governance outcomes, and lead to a deterioration in public accountability as well as poor delivery of basic public goods and services.

Devolving decision-making authority and extensive revenue-raising power to provincial governments may increase opportunities for corruption by local influential individuals or groups. As such, a tribal leader, a political broker, or even a religious figure might easily control and influence local political and economic decisions as well as seize the power given to local institutions.

There will be at least one or more levels of governance or centres where political power is exercised and accountable alongside the central government. Decentralization can also further weaken public accountability in the region. As local officials will be well aware of the liability of the government in Erbil in any fiscal shortfalls, they might easily overspend public money or engage in corruption, pressuring the KRG for bailouts or even accepting bailouts from the central government in Baghdad or regional powers, which can not only lead to fiscal deficits at the regional level but a possible political crisis and the destabilization of the region. 

Decentralization is a broad and ambiguous term which can be interpreted differently by political parties and elites. At this stage, it is important to establish a clear understanding of the kind of decentralization that political parties are willing to see in the Kurdistan Region. It is not recommended to initiate the process of decentralization amid disagreements over the concept of decentralization that is currently seen in the region from both the people and their leaders. An effective form of decentralization requires a commitment to cooperation by leaders at each level of government that would protect the constitutional statute of the KRG and further unify the region.

Majida S. Ismael holds a Ph.D. in Public Law/Constitutional Law from the University of Liverpool, England.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the position of Kurdistan 24.  

Editing by Karzan Sulaivany