The Hashemi Veto
Posted by Reidar Visser on Wednesday, 18 November 2009 12:11
Observers of political developments in Iraq are at odds to explain the background of today’s veto by the Iraqi presidency council, through Vice-President Tariq al-Hashemi, of the recently-passed Iraqi election law.
On the face of it, the justification of the veto seems clear. It is related not to the controversial issue of Kirkuk but to the quota of seats reserved for the exiled voters. The law adopted on 8 November set aside 5 per cent of the seats in total for so-called “national” and “compensatory” seats. Since this quota will also cater for out-of-country voting and minority seats (and because of the particular distribution mechanism adopted), it will in practice involve a minimum of “compensation” (in the sense of enhancing proportionality lost due to the discrepancies between a theoretical single constituency and the 18 constituencies that will be used across Iraq). And since the minority seats make up half the quota, the remainder of 8 seats leaves the exiled Iraqis – who are estimated at as many as 3 million according to some sources – with a very poor level of representation compared to the domestic ratio of representation and the constitutional standard of 1 deputy per 100,000 Iraqis. Hashemi wants a quota of 15 per cent instead.
The politics of all of this is harder to understand. It is true that Hashemi for a while assumed a nationalist posture, first over Kirkuk, but more pronouncedly later on in the name of the exiled voters with reference to the quota adopted on 8 November. Also, Hashemi this autumn finally left the Sunni-dominated Tawafuq to form his own party and reportedly remains in negotiations with the nationalist Allawi/Mutlak alliance – which in turn has also focused on the quota for exiles as being too low and cited it as a possible objection to the law. Also some other Iraqi nationalists, like Mahmud al-Mashhadani, have welcomed the move by Hashemi. But at the same time, however, certain Iraqi media outlets dominated by exiled nationalists tend to dismiss the attempt by Hashemi to speak in their name, portraying him instead as someone who has worked loyally within the post-2003 system of government in Iraq and with Maliki since 2006, serving as vice-president in a role designed as a “Sunni” figurehead. There are even whispers of him being favoured by Turkey, whose government for the past year or so has spent more energy investing in Iraqi Kurdistan than on making noise about Kirkuk (whose transformation to a standalone federal entity Ankara reportedly sees as a viable solution).
Moreover, it is interesting that the focus of the veto by Hashemi relates to one of the few points in the election bill where the Kurdish parties disagreed with the mainly Shiite parties of the old UIA that helped secured a parliamentary majority. The vote on the size of the “national seats” quota was a split one, with the Kurds originally favouring a 15% quota over the 5% that was adopted by the majority of the assembly. Also, like in 2008, the Kurds wanted more minority seats – a phenomenon that relates to local politics in the Nineveh governorate where the Kurds hope that greater quotas will enable them to promote pro-Kurdish politicians among the Shabak and the Yazidi communities, whose most popular leaders in some cases are anti-Kurdish (especially true with regard to the Shabak), but where bigger slices might create space for pro-Kurdish representatives as well. Additionally, the Kurdish calculation may be that there is still a considerable Kurdish exiled vote. By way of contrast, both Sadrists and members of Maliki’s alliance have criticised the veto today, reflecting perhaps a feeling that the net rate of return to Iraq since 2005 has been greater among Shiites.
What we are seeing in practice is thus a gamble in which Hashemi is basically adopting the Kurdish position, as articulated during the first vote on the bill on 8 November. It is unclear whether this will endear him to the Iraqi nationalist voters in whose name he is seeking to speak (who would probably have been more impressed by a firmer position on Kirkuk). True, an enlargement of the quota to 15% would mean around 45 seats in total and an effective increase of the quota that includes the exiled vote by perhaps some 20 representatives, depending on how the minority quota fares. But the transparency of the exiled vote will be particularly difficult to guarantee given the continued dominance of the ethno-religious parties that won the 2005 elections at many Iraqi diplomatic missions abroad, plus the general confusion about the true number of Iraqi exiles. As for President Jalal Talabani, he first said he had no objections to the law but later expressed sympathy for Hashemi alongside other Kurdish politicians; it is now Hashemi rather than Talabani that will become the focus of the anticipated American displeasure.
Also, this is a gamble in the sense that the spectre of a return to the 2005 election law with closed list (or a constitutional crisis) looms in the background. The bill will now go back to parliament, and although the veto relates to a particular clause, it seems unclear whether debate in parliament will be restricted to that individual item, and whether reaching a decision on that point is going to be particularly easy. Some Kurds have already signalled a preference for an 18 per cent quota, suggesting they see an increase of the “national seats” as being in their own interest. Additionally, the veto comes at a time when the Kurds have protested the distribution of seats between governorates – which is governed by a reference to statistics from the trade ministry rather than by the law as such, and which could open up a can of worms in case it should become the subject of parliamentary debate. This all makes it hard to isolate today’s decision from the conspiracy theory that circulated prior to the adoption of the law to the effect that the Iraqi establishment that won seats back in 2005 are prepared to make any step to defend their own privileges from the danger of enhanced competition that would accompany an open list system.
The bill now goes back to parliament for further discussion. It can be vetoed by the presidency council for a second time, after which point a three-fifths majority in parliament would secure its passage into law.
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