New electoral law raises controversy in Iraq

Some Iraqi political parties are complaining that the new elections law passed by the parliament is unfair and unworkable without a census; protesters — who essentially caused legislators to pass the law — also are dissatisfied.

al-monitor The opening session of the Iraqi parliament is held in Baghdad, Sept. 3, 2018. Photo by Haydar Karaalp/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images.

Jan 3, 2020

BAGHDAD — Iraq's new elections law, passed by parliament in response to the ongoing protests that began in October, has raised major controversy among various political groups.

The new law gives voters the freedom to choose individual candidates rather than political parties and lists.

It also organizes the elections in single-winner districts that consist of 100,000 people. This means the candidates cannot compete as part of a national or provincial list under a proportional representation system but instead must run in a specific district; each electoral constituency is to have one deputy in parliament. Consequently, some of the large political blocs that have managed to come to power through list-based voting and large constituencies in Iraqi provinces could disintegrate.

Previous elections in Iraq have taken place in a semi-closed list system, with each province considered an electoral constituency, and the Sainte-Lague method was used to allocate seats to various parties in a proportional representation system.

Although the new system could end the domination of conventional political parties such as the Hikma movement, the Dawa party and the Sunni Islamic party, it could increase the power of populist groupings such as the Sadrist movement and some political organizations that are part of the Popular Mobilization Units such as Asaib Ahl al-Haq. Moreover, these latter groups have strong military and financial positions whose power and spending could give them a major advantage over other parties and blocs. Some political groupings, especially the Kurds, are seeking amendments that would allow fairer competition between various political forces.

The protesters also have issues with the new law and say the winner of each district should get more than 50% of the vote, not just a plurality. In the protesters' proposal, if no one receives above 50%, runoff elections would be held. Protesters also say the new law has been written to guarantee the victory of existing political parties. 

Under the old system, many seats were allocated along sectarian and ethnic lines. Some Sunni and Kurdish parties boycotted the vote on the new law in protest against the adoption of the district system, given that the parties would lose many of the seats they won previously. Kurdish blocs said they will lose parliamentary seats in areas disputed between Arabs, Turkmens and Kurds, especially in areas with a Shiite majority. Kurdish representatives said Dec. 26 during a press conference that the vote on the new law was illegal due to an incomplete quorum and because no electronic vote count was taken in parliament on the provisions of the law.

Among the most prominent objections to the new law is its adoption of electronic counting and sorting, which raised fears of the possibility that elections could be rigged. Many are opposed that the law does not exclude dual citizens as candidates, as protesters demand.

The biggest problem remains how to determine and draw electoral districts. The law leaves this task to parliament, meaning that the parliamentary blocs will likely negotiate and make political deals to determine the number of electoral districts and how to configure them. 

Parliament’s legal committee said the voting districts that currently exist — the custom has been for each province to be considered as an electoral constituency — have widely varying numbers of people and cannot be considered electoral districts in legal terms, as the constitution stipulates that there should be only one deputy for every 100,000 citizens. But figuring out to reconfigure the districts will be difficult because of the absence of a census. 

Najm al-Kassab, who heads the Al-Mawrid center for political studies, told Al-Monitor, “Groups organizing the protests have presented ideas regarding the election law, most notably that the election be completely based on individual candidates [as opposed to lists or parties] and that the candidate who gets the most votes wins.”

“The new law fulfills only some parts of the protesters' demands,” said Kassab, who added that he has attended many protests and held a number of seminars regarding past and current Iraqi electoral law.

“But there is no unified opinion in this regard and there is no draft proposed by the protesters, yet they are all against closed lists, which do not allow the voter to amend or exclude some candidates from them, because such a system brought undesirable figures to power in the past and they reject any other system that allows for the nomination of parties,” Kassab added.

This approach is close to the position of Shiite leader Muqtada al-Sadr and his Sairoon (Alliance Toward Reforms) bloc regarding the election law. On his Facebook page, where he uses the name Salih Mohammad al-Iraqi, Sadr said elections “must be in multiple constituencies with 100% of the nominations being for individuals [as opposed to lists or parties], and votes from abroad must be canceled, even if just temporarily, or they need to be properly audited, or those outside the country must be helped to come back to vote inside Iraq as much as possible." He also said the law should have strict conditions when it comes to the votes of people involved in the security establishment, because of fears that the vote of soldiers and others could be manipulated.

After the law passed, Sadr congratulated the Iraqi people, saying the legislation will wipe out all corrupt parties. 

Kurdish parties, led by the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP), demanded that Iraq allow proportional representation at the national level, allowing the aggregation of Kurdish votes in all areas of the country as opposed to their votes being lost where they are a minority in single-winner districts, KDP deputy Rebin Salam told Al-Monitor.

He said Kurds rejected the idea of not allowing votes from those living abroad because this would deprive millions of Iraqis of their right to choose their representatives in parliament. He also said there are “great difficulties” in mapping out the single-winner districts because of the absence of a census and because there is a large disparity in the number of citizens in current districts.

The National Coalition led by former Vice President Ayad Allawi said the new law will prolong the transitional period to new elections because the process of forming electoral districts will take a lot of time. His grouping said in a statement, "The recently passed election law is full of complications and difficulties that will abort the dream of early elections. They should be characterized by a high degree of transparency and integrity, but the new law is vague and full of obstacles."

Additionally, while the new law will certainly change the political class in the parliament, it remains to be seen whether methods can be developed to prevent tribes and militias in various areas from unfairly interfering in the elections.

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