Iraq’s parliament has never met a deadline it couldn’t miss. The body had until October 15, 2009 to pass a new election law, but that date came and went with no new legislation. The stated reason for the delay was the inability to decide on how to conduct elections in Tamim, the home to the disputed city of Kirkuk. Another issue is whether to have an open or closed list voting system.
With regards to Kirkuk, the major problem is that the parties can’t separate the need to have voting in the province, with the desire to determine its ultimate status. The Kurds want to annex the city, while the local Arabs and Turkmen want to keep it under the control of the central government or give it special standing. At first, the local Arabs and Turkmen were demanding voting quotas to preserve their position in Tamim, an implicit admission that the Kurds are now the majority there. That idea has apparently been dropped. Now the debate has shifted to who can and cannot vote. The Arabs and Turkmen claim that the Kurdistan Regional Government has changed the demographics of the governorate since the 2003 invasion by moving in thousands of people. The Kurds claim these are simply returnees going back to their homes after Saddam forced them out. The two proposals are to either use the 2004 voter lists that were used in the January 2005 election, or set up a committee to go through existing voter roles to determine who is eligible or not.
The other major sticking point is the voting system, should it be open or closed list. In 2005 Iraq used a closed list system, which allows voters only to vote for coalitions, while the parties pick the actual candidates. In the January 2009 provincial elections, the country switched to an open list where people could pick, a list, a party, or an individual. Most of the major parties supported a closed list until Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani came out for the open system. That led most of the major Arab parties to scramble to publicly proclaim that they too supported the open list, but that might be all for show. The Iraqi Election Commission was supposed to revert to the old 2005 voting system if a new election law wasn’t passed by October 15, so politicians may putting up a public façade of support for the idea, while secretly delaying so that the closed list will be imposed. There are plenty of signs that this might be the case. For example, after the parliament took a long break for Ramadan, they went on another short vacation from October 6 to 13, leaving only two days to resolve the election law. Sessions have only lasted a few hours, and half the politicians haven’t shown up as well.
This is all reminiscent of the debate over the 2009 provincial election law. That vote was originally supposed to occur in October 2008, but arguments over Kirkuk led to the first version of the law to be vetoed by the Presidential Council. An acceptable bill was finally agreed upon, but that delayed the elections until January 2009, and nothing substantive ever happened with Kirkuk. In fact, Tamim has never held provincial elections as a result. Something very similar is likely to occur with the national vote. This will complicate the U.S. withdrawal from Iraq, which is timed to begin in earnest after the election is completed. It will also frustrate Iraqis, who already have a negative opinion of many of their politicians. In a nascent democracy one of the worst things that can happen is to undermine the public’s support for the process, and that continues to happen in Iraq. It’s ironic that disputes over voting are contributing to this.
Chon, Gina, “Iraqis Miss Target Date on Election,” Wall Street Journal, 10/16/09
International Crisis Group, “Iraq and the Kurds: Trouble Along the Trigger Line,” 7/8/09
Knights, Michael, “Critical moments lie ahead in Kurdish-Arab relations in Iraq,” Daily Star, 10/12/09
Visser, Reidar, “A Closed Assembly Will Produce a Closed List,” Iraq And Gulf Analysis, 10/16/09
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