BAGHDAD — Iraq’s central government announced April 9 its intention to launch a comprehensive census in the country in late 2020. This constitutes the first step toward ending several chronic economic and political problems caused by a lack of accurate official statistics since 1997.
While there have been several previous attempts to take a comprehensive census, such attempts have failed to come to fruition either due to the lack of sufficient funding or because of the absence of a political consensus.
Article 140 of the 2005 Iraqi Constitution stipulates that a census was to be taken before 2007 so that a referendum could be held in disputed areas, including oil-rich Kirkuk province, in order to determine the will of the people and whether they want their area to turn into its own region or want to join the Kurdistan region.
This year, it seems significant that a body called the Supreme Commission for the Comprehensive Population and Housing Census of 2020 has been formed.
A Ministry of Planning statement says this body includes “the head of the National Population Policy Committee, the head of the Central Bureau of Statistics, two representatives of the Kurdistan Regional Government, a representative of the House of Representatives, and the undersecretaries of ministries related to security and services and representatives of the Sunni and Shiite endowments, among other religions.”
The mission of this body is to “approve the census’ comprehensive plan and sub-plans based on their stages, time frames and material and human requirements. The body also determines the methods of funding disbursement as well as the work progress supervision and follow-up methods throughout the preparatory stages. It adopts the census form’s final version and defines the counting process, among other issues it may deem important and necessary.”
This reflects the seriousness of the government in the implementation of the comprehensive census.
Abdul-Zahra al-Hindawi, a spokesman for the census, told Al-Monitor, “The comprehensive population and housing census will be taken at the end of next year, and the United Nations along with some friendly countries will provide assistance and advice to organize this important event.”
Regarding the relationship between the census and Article 140 of the Iraqi Constitution, Hindawi, who also heads the Central Bureau of Statistics, said, “The census has nothing to do with Article 140 of the constitution and the disputed areas."
He added, "While the constitution stipulates the organization of a census for those areas specifically in order to determine the number of each component therein before a referendum is held, the census in question is only developmental, and citizens have the option not to specify their national and religious affiliations when filling out the form.”
He said, “Political differences over whether or not the census has anything to do with the disputed areas were behind the postponement of the census, which was scheduled to take place in 2010. The census that is being prepared now will have nothing to do with [the fate of] Kirkuk or any other disputed area.”
According to the Ministry of Planning, the debate over the future of the disputed areas will linger, especially considering that the parliamentary blocs that form the government had approved a government program that includes a population census.
Riad al-Masoudi, a member of parliament from the Sairoon coalition led by Muqtada al-Sadr, stressed that “the census will make no mention of religious, doctrinal and national affiliations, although some parliamentary blocs are trying to have these details mentioned in the questionnaire.”
He said, “There is a prevailing view to have doctrinal and national affiliations specified at a later stage so that no developmental plans are disrupted due to political differences.”
Dylan Ghafour, a member of parliament for the Kurdistan Democratic Party, told Al-Monitor that from now until the fourth quarter of next year, which is when the census is to be taken, the Kurdish side will be working on having national affiliations specified in the census so that the latter is used in the application of Article 140 of the Iraqi Constitution.
“The government program stipulates ending the dispute over the disputed areas, and the census should under no circumstances refrain from including national and religious affiliations. Otherwise, it would be useless,” she added.
Ghafour hoped that “political blocs would end the dispute over Kirkuk by constitutional means through the census and popular referendum. It is such disputes that allowed the Islamic State organization, among other terrorist groups, to infiltrate and control large areas of the country.”
The last official population census taken in Iraq was in 1997, and it did not include the Kurdistan region. According to that census, the population of the country amounted to 19,184,543 people, and since 2003 until now, the Iraqi government has been relying on data from the Ministry of Trading, which administers the ration cards held by most Iraqis, to determine the size of the population and organize elections.
On Oct. 1, the Ministry of Planning estimated the population of Iraq at 38,124,182 — 19,261,253 of whom were male, accounting for 51% of the population, while 18,862,929 were female, accounting for 49%..
The debate over the population census is not confined to the disputed areas, but also includes sectarian diversity and the quotas for each ethnic and national minority. Each group believes that its share in the federal parliament and local councils is unfair and has been manipulated to serve other groups. However, striking the religion and sect category from the census form would necessarily lead a prolonged debate over the real size of Iraq's various communities, especially considering that the political system has relied since 2003 on sectarian and ethnic quotas for the distribution of positions and privileges.
The census will contribute to more targeted economic and human development plans as it will more accurately determine, as opposed to relying on estimates, the real electoral size of each province and the share each administrative unit should get from the public budget.
As Kurds and Turkmens object to the census' timing and meaning for the future of Kirkuk on the one hand, and some groups insist on the need for citizens to specify their religious affiliation on the other, this census might end up getting postponed once again.