It’s almost four years since Iraq’s general elections of 2010 and new elections are scheduled for early 2014. Iraq wouldn’t be Iraq if there wasn’t some kind of problem on the political horizon, and this time it consists of changes to the electoral law that need to be done in time in order that the electoral commission (IHEC) can starts its technical preparations for the ballot. The Iraqi parliament has given itself until 30 October to adopt the changes, and the debate is scheduled to start this coming week of 21 October.
The immediate reason there has to be changes to the election law is simple. A federal supreme court ruling from June 2010 decided that the current system of seat distribution using the largest remainder principle in a proportional system of 18 multi-member constituencies was “unconstitutional” and that a more proportional system would need to be adopted. In line with this, the Iraqi parliament made changes to the local elections law before the provincial elections earlier this year, by introducing the Sainte Lague method for distributing seats.
The reason the current law was deemed unconstitutional was that its use of the largest remainder principle was found by the supreme court to be in conflict with one of the basic axioms of the Iraqi constitution, which says that no law that contradicts the principles of democracy can be adopted. This conclusion by the court is both esoteric and astonishing. In what amounted to a mutual ball-gag between the Shiite Islamists and Kurds that crafted the new Iraqi constitution in 2005, “principles of democracy” as well as the “basic tenets of Islam” were given status as the unalienable main points of reference for all Iraqi legislation. This arrangement was useful there and then since the political process got moving (and quite a few American academics waxed lyrical about it); however, it was probably never intended to be taken very literally given the abstract nature of the concepts referred to. And it seems truly wild for the supreme court to extrapolate from the very general “principles of democracy” – whatever those may be – to a level of detail where it is suggested that the Sainte Lague method for distributing seats is somehow “democratic” whereas the largest remainder method isn’t. One can only wonder what the Iraqi supreme court members think of such abhorrent practices as those found in countries with a Westminster-inspired model of politics where winners typically take all in single-seat constituencies, and where the gap between the popular vote and the levels of party representation in national assemblies can be quite enormous as a consequence.
So far, it is mainly the State of Law coalition of Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki that has voiced a bit of scepticism to the proposed change – it lost a considerable number of seats in the last provincial elections and at least some of them can be attributed to the new distribution mechanism. Most other Iraqi politicians seem to be happy with the change from largest remainder to Sainte Lague as such, and could in theory adopt that change without needing Maliki’s votes.
Unsurprisingly, however, once the election-law can had been opened earlier this year, other worms came out as well, with interested parties soon showing enthusiasm for more wide-ranging changes that have complicated the discussion of the election law changes in parliament. In particular, this relates to the Kurdish desire to go back to a single, nationwide electoral constituency, as was practised in the elections to the constituent assembly in January 2005. Whereas that kind of move could perhaps be seen as a logical continuation of the supreme court’s insistence on hyper-proportionality, it is also the case that this kind of electoral system was widely discredited as one of the main factors behind the ethno-sectarian voting patterns seen in the first Iraqi elections. Besides, if carried out with reference to the “principles of democracy” it would also imply that Israel, the Netherlands and Slovakia are among the the only incarnations of true democracy with their past and present examples of nationwide constituencies!
The Kurdish goal is obviously to pick up minority Kurdish votes in places where they are unlikely to win seats in other ways, especially in Baghdad. The small Iraqi communist party, which has limited numbers of enthusiastic adherents spread across the country is also in favour of this kind of arrangement – it was them who brought the initial challenge to the current system before the supreme court in 2010. In an interesting reflection of the unpopularity of the single constituency outside the Kurdish camp, the secular but increasingly Sunni-dominated Iraqiyya has voiced opposition to the Kurdish proposal. That is noteworthy since Iraqiyya might well have gained something from a more proportional system in which they could pick up a little bit more points from scattered Sunni and secular minorities south of Baghdad.
If that wasn’t enough, though, other problems are lurking too. Back in 2009 there was a huge debate about special arrangements for the disputed city of Kirkuk. Eventually, a highly theoretical method for scrutinizing the result was adopted, but it was never put into practice because the contesting parties – Kurds and Iraqiyya – seemed happy with the outcome (it was the Iraqiyya camp that had introduced the idea of a special status for Kirkuk as it was assumed the Kurds would dominate the process there). However, the issue could easily come up again, possibly in combination with the other contentious issue of minority seats, if the conflict over other parts of the election law persists.
Iraqiyya and the Shiite Islamists have enough votes to trump the Kurds on constituency size unless they start quarreling internally over Sainte Lague versus the largest remainder distribution mechanism. Another question is to what extent the regional sectarian climate will influence the Iraqi decision on these matters. Lately, events in Syria have brought Iraq’s Shiite Islamists and Kurds closer together again, presenting them with a considerable dilemma and the prospect of regional side effects from any major quarrel in the Iraqi parliament. The president of the Kurdish federal region, Masud Barzani, has already threatened to boycott the next parliamentary elections if Kurdish interests aren’t safeguarded in the electoral arrangements. Barzani is himself under pressure because of his loyalties to Turkey (which supports the Syrian opposition) and his relations to other Iraqi Kurds (some of whom are more favourably inclined towards the Assad regime). Hopefully, though, Iraqis will use the election law debate as a means to build political bridges domestically instead of importing ever more problems from abroad.