A Spanish lesson for Iraq on how to make federalism work


WASHINGTON -- America's debate over Iraq is focused on the redeployment of U.S. troops, but the discussion needs to broaden to include Iraq's political transition and how the United States and other countries can help.

The issue of federalism, in particular, has been a stumbling block to consolidating democracy in Iraq, which could learn a lesson in federalism from recent events in Catalonia in northeastern Spain.

One of Spain's richest regions, Catalonia long has wanted to play a more assertive role over decisions in Madrid pertaining to Catalonian affairs. Regional leaders demanded new provisions to give the regional government more autonomy in taxation, justice and immigration, and that was granted by Spanish Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero and eventually ratified in a local referendum last month.

Mr. Zapatero's support for a flexible federalist response to difficult issues in Catalonia continues efforts by other Spanish leaders since dictator Francisco Franco to give Spain's many regions greater autonomy. That's especially true in the Basque country, a culturally unique region of northern Spain that since 1977 has been granted autonomy to express its culture. That increasing federalism - coupled with understandable popular discontent with the heinous practices of ETA, a Basque terrorist movement that espouses independence from Spain - undercut separatists' claims and legitimacy.

Spain's federal system provides for autonomous and self-governing regions. The rights and authorities of each region are negotiated between representatives of the provinces in concert with parliament so as to reflect the collective desires of the regions and the national government.

Most important, the constitution does not force a one-size-fits-all requirement on every region but allows for "asymmetric federalism," in which each region can choose the degree of autonomy it desires.

This regional autonomy, however, also comes with special responsibilities to the Spanish government and to the other regions. The constitution makes clear that the interests of Spain supersede those of each autonomous community.

Iraq has failed to appropriately implement federalism, and the central government in Baghdad has been criticized for it by the provinces and the Kurds. Worse, it is not clear whether Sunni Arabs will be willing to participate in the federal system, particularly with concerns over distribution of oil revenue.

The best lesson Iraq could take from Spain is its implementation of an asymmetric federalism that has allowed it to please the more autonomous parts of the country. Such a move in Iraq would allow Kurds, Shiites and Sunnis to negotiate with the federal government the degree of autonomy they desire.

The United States should focus on diplomatic efforts to re-engage the issue of federalism with the 18 Iraqi provinces and Baghdad. Particular attention must be paid to bringing Sunnis into the discussion and educating citizens on the merits of federalism. In this case, the Spanish example would be particularly useful to show the merits of autonomous communities and how best to negotiate interregional concerns.

If Iraqi democracy is one of the benchmarks for U.S. redeployment, then certainly a concentrated effort at aiding the implementation of Iraqi federalism ought to be a top diplomatic priority.

Denis McDonough is a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress. Keith Hernandez, a student at Columbia University, is an intern at the center. Their e-mails are dmcdonough@americanprogress.org and khernandez@americanprogress.org.

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