Friday, August 27, 2010

In defense of Federalism - a case for Iran

Recently, there was an article that appeared in the PBS-sponsored Tehran Bureau in which a city-centric democracy is introduced as a possible system of governance in a future Iran. The writer opens his arguments with a short introduction about the inefficiencies of a centralized system and the present issues that have arisen in Iran's modern history in such a state structure. The writer proceeds to discuss two alternatives, namely, a city-centric system and the better-known federal democracy. The latter is a case that is less-favored by this writer, but his arguments against a federal democracy are weak and fail to acknowledge that there are several variations of this type of system that could successfully be applied to any country irrespective of its ethnic makeup or resource distribution. The writer puts all federal systems in the same category rather than identifying possible scenarios to avoid when constructing such a system. Furthermore, he fails to acknowledge the importance of the representation at the national level that is offered by a federal system.

The writer, Ali Mostashari, opens up his argument by identifying the problems with the current centralized system in place in Iran:

Under both the Pahlavi regime and the Islamic Republic, investment in border areas such as Kurdistan, Khuzestan, and Baluchistan has been minimal and local authority over resources and decision making on sociocultural issues has been close to nonexistent. Understandably, the resulting disenfranchisement of minority groups can result in a desire for more autonomy.

The regions he points out have economically been among the poorest in Iran. Unsurprisingly, they are also often the most problematic for the central government in terms of ethnic conflict and political dissent. In both Kurdistan and Baluchistan, social unrest has escalated to violence and militancy that has been difficult to quell because of the support for such reactions in those regions. Thus, the disenfranchisement as a result of the centralized system, he implies, is a major cause of ethnic conflict.

The weak turn taken by Mostashari as he tries to win his readers' favor of a city-centric Iran is his argument against a federal system. Surprisingly, he appears to attempt to recycle his arguments against the centralized system to discredit the prospects of a successful federal democracy. Mostashari argues that a decentralized federal system would heighten "nationalist sentiments" and result in a "total territorial disintegration". He makes his case by comparing Iran with states such as the former Yugoslavia and the new Iraq without taking into account the vast historical differences between Iran and these other two countries. Yugoslavia has been used as an example by several opponents of the federal system. However, such opponents (whether unwittingly or intentionally) overlook the antidemocratic measures of dictator, Josip Broz Tito, that truly led to the further fragmentation of his country. The powers held and exercised between Tito and the main leaders of his party were a total hindrance for a true representative democracy in Yugoslavia. Furthermore, in order to maintain an authoritarian-style of rule, Tito relied on the further fragmentation Yugoslavia and did not pursue policies to prevent such a scenario from emerging, and in fact, pursued policies that would further erode the country's unity. The various republics in Yugoslavia also did not fully correspond with the ethnic territories and peaceful attempts in the last century to correct these conditions were suppressed by Tito. When Tito died, nationalist leaders emerged and attempted to fill the void and take control of everything just as Tito's Communist Party had done before. The ethnic divisions, essentially nourished by Tito's rule, were the cause of the inevitable break-up of Yugoslavia.

Using these unequal examples, Mostashari also makes a very general and false assumption that a federal system tends not to "take any considerations for an effective government" without providing any examples as to why this is the case. Without this false assumption, his entire argument against federalism would fall apart. Mostashari only barely points to the Kurdistan Region, a federal region in Iraq, as an example of why a federal system is created before concluding that such a system is ineffective. Contrary to his argument, the federal region of Kurdistan has been Iraq's greatest example of success in the country's postwar era. The region's growing economy in an otherwise war-torn country, and the once-secessionist Kurdish parties' (that fought former dictatorships in Iraq for total independence) participation in Iraq's central government is testament to the fact that a federal system can work if the right methods of democracy and negotiation are in place to resolve regional or ethnic disputes. Furthermore, this system has served as a major unifying factor between the Kurds and Arabs, the two major ethnic groups in Iraq. By creating a division of power between central and local authorities and granting regions some limited autonomy, the possibilities of disenfranchisement are drastically reduced, and thus, ethnic conflict is reduced as well.

Mostashari spends a great deal of the remainder of his article discussing economic strategies under a city-centric system. Before proceeding to discuss these points, he makes one final point against a federal system about regional wealth and its implications. Again, he discusses a federal democracy as if the system leaves no room to remedy possible problems that could arise. Mostashari argues that the "geographic distribution of resources is asymmetric" and highlights this as a problem in a federal system. Unfortunately, he fails to consider fair practices and laws under such a system that would mandate an even distribution of the revenue from natural resources to all the different federal regions based on their populations. Such a law has been precisely the type of fair oil plan negotiators in Iraq have proposed in order to accommodate oil-poor Sunni regions and ensure that people in those regions receive their fair shares of the national profits.

Strangely enough, Mostashari does think distributing national resource revenues would work in his city-centric system. He writes that local city government budgets would be funded by "national resource revenues based on their respective populations". While this sounds very similar to the federal distribution plan that Iraqis are implementing, it is far from it. Only a federal system can enhance representation by allowing citizens to elect representatives in their region to exert pressure at a national level. Multiple governments in such a system also allow citizens to gain access to multiple points of political power, and thus, prevent any single government from gaining a monopoly on power, which has certainly been an issue in countries like Iran. In a city-centric governmental system, decisions such as the distribution of national resource revenues are still made at the national level and the role of citizens in such decisions remain limited.

Finally, an item that Mostashari fails to acknowledge as a point of dispute in Iran is the debate surrounding linguistic and cultural freedoms and privileges. While economic disparities will always remain the most important issue and will undoubtedly exacerbate the ethnic tensions more than linguistic and cultural discrimination, the linguistic and cultural questions will still remain a fault line between ethnic disputes and disagreements. The city-centric governmental system does nothing to resolve this issue as there would be no way to guarantee equal opportunities in schooling in other languages in every single county and it would be difficult to draft legislation at the national level to guarantee translations of public works for all the counties. In a federal system, this could be primarily be the job of the governments of each federal region.

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