Iraqis are heading towards parliamentary elections early next year where most parties are likely to tout identical messages: “Yes, yes to Unity”, “No, no to Sectarianism”, “No to Division”, “No to Quotas”… Additionally, voters will discover that politicians who for years have been declared enemies now suddenly run on the same lists, forming the most unlikely mega coalitions. Indeed, these days even some of the past architects of Iraq’s partition are likely to employ unity rhetoric. So how can Iraqis be expected to find out who is sincere about their Iraqi nationalism and who is merely posturing?
Well, they could get an excellent opportunity over the next couple of weeks. The reason is very simple: For practical reasons, the Iraqi elections commission has asked the Iraqi parliament to come up with an elections law (or a revised version of the existing one) before 15 October; if they are unable to do so the existing law from 2005 will have to be used if elections are to go ahead on 16 January 2010. In line with this, the Iraqi government has prepared a draft for a revised version of the existing law which incorporates new elements from the legislation for the January 2009 local elections – including a popular open-list system giving voters greater say in deciding which politicians will benefit from their vote, as well as a ban on the use of places of worship and images of religious leaders for election propaganda purposes. Consensus on all these issues has been achieved and only one significant question remains: what to do with Kirkuk, also known as the Tamim governorate.
Why should anything be done about Kirkuk at all? After all, back in 2005 Kirkuk was treated as if it were an ordinary Iraqi governorate. However, the mood in Iraqi politics has shifted a great deal since 2005. When it comes to Kirkuk, Iraqi public opinion has gradually coalesced around the view that Kirkuk is an integral part of the Iraqi state and even constitutes an Iraqi microcosm through its multi-ethnic and multi-sectarian demographic character. In turn, the shift towards stronger Iraqi nationalist currents has led to greater criticism of the post-2003 Kurdish attempts to define Kirkuk as a “disputed territory” and its policies to strengthen the Kurdish population presence in the city centre, which historically had a closer connection to the Iraqi plains and was culturally dominated by Turkmens. (The Kurdish migration to Kirkuk accelerated in earnest only during the 1960s; while some of the post-2003 Kurdish immigration certainly rectified Baathist attempts to manipulate the urban demography in the 1980s and later, it is widely acknowledged that this has now gone far beyond a return to the status quo ante.) According to this logic, doing nothing about Kirkuk would be the same as tacitly recognising all the changes to the area’s demographic and political balance that have taken place since 2003.
Reflecting this greater concern for Kirkuk’s status in Iraq and the perceived need to protest the policies of Kurdification (and specifically the possibility of elections being manipulated), a group of nationalist parties known as the 22 July trend last year secured the insertion into the provincial elections law of special clauses that excepted Kirkuk from the local elections pending agreement on interim arrangements that could ensure a more just procedure for choosing the governorate council. The attempt to find a solution stalled, but the point had been made: For the first time since the fateful mention of Kirkuk as a “disputed territory” in the 2004 Transitional Administrative Law, Iraqi politicians had effectively managed to reverse some of the tendency towards ever greater fragmentation in post-war Iraq.
That’s why the debate on the upcoming elections law is important too: In a similar fashion it can differentiate between those parliamentarians who think Kurdish policies in Kirkuk are perfectly acceptable and those who really disagree with the Kurds on this issue. Of course, an exact replay of 2008 and the provincial elections law is unlikely. That would be deeply unsatisfying to everyone concerned, as no parliamentarians would be elected from Kirkuk at all and it would be somewhat pathetic to put both local and parliamentary elections on hold for an indefinite period. Alternative solutions have been proposed, but so far they have not been particularly inspiring. Unfortunately, several Iraqi nationalist parties (including some with links to the now more scattered 22 July trend) have become hopelessly attached to a proposal for four separate, ethnically defined electoral constituencies – a scheme that would only undermine, and quite fragrantly so, the very Iraqi nationalist ideals these parties say they believe in. The Kurds, for their part, reject any idea of special arrangements and seem prepared to stick to this position even if it would mean that no new legislation is passed at all.
Here the party politics kicks in. In the past, the Kurds have been supported primarily by the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq (ISCI), many of whose members stormed out of parliament alongside the Kurds in protest against the provincial elections law last year. But this time, ISCI is facing a quandary. Its newly formed Iraqi National Alliance, just one month old, includes a strong Sadrist contingent. The Sadrists are arch-nationalists when it comes to Kirkuk, having fronted anti-federalism demonstrations there since early 2004 and even issuing an unusual expression of support for Maliki during his confrontations with the Kurds in neighbouring northern areas last year. As recently as last week, Talib al-Kurayti, a Sadrist from Karbala, told media that the anti-federal position of his movement remains the same as before. Accordingly, by supporting the Kurds once more, ISCI could end up seeing its newly formed coalition being ripped apart less than two months after it came into existence (Ibrahim al-Jaafari, too, has in the past been much more assertive in the Kirkuk question than ISCI) .
Indeed, ISCI politicians seem to worry over this. Hamid Mualla told Al-Hayat over the weekend that he feared a repetition of the quarrel seen last year during the provincial powers law, and expressed his hope that something similar could be avoided this time. But for those who are truly prepared to put action behind their Iraqi nationalist rhetoric, precisely this kind of a repetition would of course be highly desirable. In other words, through forcing a vote on some kind of special arrangements for Kirkuk, Iraqi politicians could make it clear for everyone to see what position different parties take on a highly specific issue, thereby cutting through the crap of empty unity rhetoric. This should be particularly interesting in terms of the ongoing coalition negotiations, because just like the Sadrists, the secular Iraqiyya list – lately reported as being involved in negotiations with ISCI – would normally take an anti-Kurdish position (as they reportedly did on 22 July 2008 as well.) Similarly, the Kurdish issue is one where the Daawa party in the past has held a position which dovetails with many of the Iraqi nationalist parties in the northern parts of the country. It would also be interesting to know the exact stance of the Sunni-dominated Iraqi Islamic Party, whose prominent representative Ayyad al-Samarraie is visiting Iran these days, technically in his capacity as speaker of the Iraqi parliament, but reportedly scheduled to hold talks at pretty high levels (including President Ahmadinejad and the national security chief Said Jalili in addition to Ali Larijani, his Iranian counterpart and apparently an increasingly important figure in Iranian policy-making on Iraq).
Of course, there remains the possibility of a presidential veto by the Kurdish leader Jalal Talabani. Indeed, this kind of veto has been used earlier, back in February 2008, when Talabani and his ISCI counterpart, Vice President Adil Abd al-Mahdi, both felt unease at the prospect of early local elections and threw out the first version of the provincial powers law; in that case both gentlemen promptly changed their minds subsequent to a quick visit by Vice President Dick Cheney. But whilst similar action by Joe Biden over coming months seems both undesirable and unrealistic, this kind of scenario would at least demonstrate clearly to the whole world where the priorities of the Iraqi president lie: Does he favour ethno-nationalist expansion over giving Iraqi voters a more progressive elections law?
Exactly what can be done still remains unclear. Iraqi nationalists will probably stultify themselves if they persevere with the idea of separate electoral constituencies, and a repeat of their initial demand from last year of a governorate-level distribution formula for seats (32+32+32+4 for Kurds, Arabs, Turkmens and Christians) would be a non-starter for the Kurds. There has been talk of a somewhat odd-looking proposal by Abbas al-Bayati (a Turkmen close to Maliki) whereby the political parties would create a single list with agreed quota representation for the various communities; the voters would then apparently vote for this particular list (and none other)! If quotas are to be used in the first place, it would probably be better to set a quota at the governorate level (perhaps with certain adjustments to the previously-proposed formula in order to make it more acceptable to the Kurds) whilst at the same time finding ways to keep voting competitive and potentially cross-sectarian. But even though this would have a certain affinity to the Lebanese system, the Lebanese block vote (voters vote for as many representatives as there are seats) would not be a good option, since in practice it often means majority groups imposing their preferred “minority representatives” without any real proportionality. So perhaps the most promising solution is one that would involve no quotas at all: It has been suggested that a roll of voters prepared back in 2004 enjoys greater legitimacy among Turkmens and Arabs than updated registers from the period since 2005. At the same time, this would involve a compromise on the Turkmen side, where some actually propose going as far back as the 1957 census.
Whilst the best mechanism for handling this remains open to debate, there can be no doubt that it would be enormously clarifying to Iraqi voters and a step forward for a more mature form of politics in Iraq if parliamentarians dared to take an open debate on the issue of Kirkuk’s representation. In the past many such debates have remained behind closed doors in consultations between “political leaders” trying to find a “consensus”, but in this case it would be useful to push the limits a little and force a vote in the parliament, and then leave the consensus issue and the pressure that comes with it to the presidency council.