As Maliki Visits Washington, the Iraqi Parliament Seeks Electoral System Compromise
Posted by Reidar Visser on Friday, 1 November 2013 12:36
As Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki visits Washington, highly polarized narratives about the nature of his rule in Iraq compete for attention. Maliki himself focuses on reintegration in the Arab world, growth in oil production, and a modicum of internal stability that is only disturbed by the situation in Syria. Some American senators see things very differently, accusing him of authoritarianism and a failure to create a truly inclusive government. In the most extreme iteration of this point of view, Maliki is seen as contributing to the problems in Syria because of the ways Iran is allowed to use Iraqi territory in their efforts to bolster the Assad regime.
It may be worthwhile to use current developments on the Iraqi political scene – unfolding day by day as Maliki visits Washington – as a yardstick for evaluating these very different interpretations of his premiership. These days, Iraqi politicians are busying themselves with amendments to the country’s electoral system. They are trying to pass a brand new election law that will incorporate changes to the current law from 2005 following criticisms from the federal supreme court. If this fails, they will simply make yet another amendment to the existing one – but the independent electoral commission IHEC has warned that it needs to do so fast in order that technical preparations can be completed before elections can go ahead in April 2014.
The optics of this aren’t entirely unfortunate for Maliki. Far from intervening in the squabbles in the Iraqi parliament which began this week and continue on Saturday, he is far away in Washington, not at all fitting the description of him as a paranoid, control-freak autocrat that is terrified of challenges to his rule. The debate about the election law itself has also degenerated into basic haggling over seat allocations to the various provinces, quite similar to what we saw in the autumn of 2009. Initially, there had been prospects for more radical changes to the districting system, but what we are seeing now is a replay of disputes that are four years old, and that mainly relate to the preference of the Kurdish parties to use the population statistics from the ministry of planning rather than those of the ministry of trade. Using the planning ministry figures would increase the number of seats in parliament from 325 to 351, which the Shiite Islamists in parliament have opposed in particular. Most likely a solution will eventually be found, and most likely it will involve some kind of opaque compromise in which statistics will be subordinated to the horse-trading efforts of Iraqi parliamentarians.
There is however one important caveat here that ultimately also relates to the evaluation of the current state of Maliki’s Iraq. What has failed to receive much attention is the fact that the law that is currently being considered by the Iraqi parliament is a brand new law proposal, rather than amendments to the existing law. As a “proposal” or muqtarah it has not been approved by the cabinet, and the most recent trend has been for the Iraqi supreme court to strike down this kind of proposals as incomplete legislative acts – something it has done in particular when new laws have been to the disadvantage of Maliki. Moreover, since the current iteration of the election law from 2005 has also been deemed unconstitutional because of its seat distribution formula, there is a theoretical possibility that Iraq will be without a valid election law if anyone challenges the new law proposal. Maliki might do so if he wishes to delay the elections, although there would be a highly ironic twist to this in that Maliki’s allies are the ones who favour the seat distribution key of the 2005 law that has since been deemed unconstitutional by the supreme court and is the reason the law is being revised in the first place. At any rate, if this kind of scenario should materialize, it would clearly support the interpretation that Maliki is unafraid of the Iraqi parliament because he chooses to ignore it, relying instead on rulings by the supreme court that consistently strengthen his hold on power.
The reality, as ever, is of course somewhere between these extreme, black and white interpretations. And the parliamentary elections of 2014 will in many ways decide which of the two scenarios prevails in the long term. Instead of seeking to impose particular preferences regarding Iraq’s electoral system or fetishizing the question of a third term for Maliki, Washington should use the visit of the Iraqi PM to provide the him with a gentle reminder that Iraq’s problems cannot be reduced to spillover from Syria alone. Whilst there is nothing in the Iraqi constitution or democratic theory more broadly that stands in the way of a third term for Maliki, a failure on his part to build a broader and more inclusive electoral alliance could prevent him from succeeding for the third time. This is not the same as saying that any new government should be a power-sharing one (as opposed to a political-majority government). It just implies that Maliki’s State of Law coalition in its current configuration looks very far from being capable of securing a majority in the next Iraqi national assembly, quite regardless of which method is adopted to count the votes and how many seats are allotted to each of the provinces.
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