[Update 31 October 12:25 CET: It has just been reported that the IHEC has extended the deadline for forming coalitions until 4 November 2009]
Today’s brief proceedings in the Iraqi parliament made it clear that it was indeed the objections of the Iraqi elections commission (IHEC), supported by UNAMI and the Kurds (who boycotted), that prevented a vote on the elections law. Meanwhile, the legal committee came up with two more alternatives on Kirkuk.
The first alternative involves holding a vote using the 2009 registers, to be followed by a scrutiny of those registers within one year to find whether there are irregularities amounting to more than 38% “in the registers” (a little unclear what the percentage really refers to, given as واذا كان هناك خلل بنسبة 38% في السجل يتم الغاء نتائج) in which case the annulment of the result will follow.
The second alternative is another creative multi-constituency arrangement. Once more, an explicit ethno-sectarian distribution formula has been avoided, even if three of the four proposed constituencies seem intended to guarantee some kind of minimum communal representation: Hawija, Taza and Shwan will each have three deputies (apparently aimed at Arab, Turkmen and Kurdish constituencies) whereas Kirkuk itself will remain fully competitive with 5 representatives. This seems to over-represent the peripheral constituencies to a certain extent over Kirkuk, but the proposal has the clear advantage of keeping the potential for cross-sectarian voting in Kirkuk alive, while at the same time apparently offering each of the main communities a minimum fallback position in their areas of demographic concentration. In the case of the Turkmens it is particularly easy to sympathise with this approach: As a medium-sized minority they are in many ways the bravest of the Iraqi nationalists since they so far have been competing without guaranteed quotas of the kind offered to the micro-minorities (Shabak, Yazidis, Christians, Sabaeans), and also without a de facto guaranteed minimum vote in bastions of governorate-level territorial concentration (of the kind enjoyed by the Shiite and Sunni Arabs and the Kurds).
All in all, while both of these options do preserve a special status for Kirkuk, the first one seems highly diluted given the high threshold for annulling elections (if correctly specified in the official report from today’s proceedings). One can get the impression that the second one could conceivably have greater appeal to Iraqi nationalists. Be that is at may, the rapidity with which the Iraqi parliament seemed to accept today’s highhanded intervention by the IHEC is quite shocking. The Sadrist Fawzi Ikram Tarazi, himself a Turkmen, has been one of the few parliamentarians to protest to the Iraqi press so far, suggesting that at least some of the non-Kurdish members of the legal committee would be more than happy to see endless procrastination and a reversion to the closed-list system of 2005 by way of timeout. In this they are ably assisted by the Kurds, who appear to receive full support from UNAMI and IHEC in torpedoing any proposal that does not conform one hundred per cent to their own preferences.
A new element in the mix is the release by the US embassy in Baghdad of a somewhat cryptic joint statement by General Ray Odierno and Ambassador Christopher Hill. It goes as follows: “As Iraqi authorities prepare to adopt an elections law, we reiterate our view that the rules, procedures, and decisions adopted for the January elections should apply only to that election. They should not serve as precedents for future elections or for future political settlements related to Article 140, demographic change, disputed boundaries, or other contested issues.”
In the first place, this is a flagrant and remarkably public interference in Iraqi affairs of a kind not seen since the Bush days (and the 2003–2005 period in particular). Secondly, the statement really is quite hard to decipher! The first sentence and the first part of the subsequent one seems to suggest that this election law should be unique to the January 2010 elections, thereby presumably opening space for special treatment of Kirkuk (the Kurds want it to be treated as an ordinary governorate; if that procedure had been acceptable to others and therefore was adopted there would have been no need to restrict the application of the law to 2010 as per the Odierno/Hill recommendation). The second part of the second sentences raises doubts, however. One would expect the logic to continue to flow in a consistent fashion, i.e. a reassurance to the Kurds that any special arrangements arrived at for Kirkuk should not prejudge the outcome of future negotiations over the city (the Kurds want to keep article 140 of the constitution sacred). But is that what is being said? After all, the standard argument by the Kurds and UNAMI has been roughly “the election law should not serve as diversion or substitute for political settlements related to Article 140, demographic change, disputed boundaries, or other contested issues”. But the American statement clearly says “precedents”, which seems to create the exact opposite logic, i.e. a rather indiscreet American initiative to convince the Kurds to be more accommodating. So far, the PUK has published the statement on its website without adding any comment.