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Voting Laws:
Making Up The Rules As They Go Along, In Time For Next Elections

Mustafa Habib
Even though Iraq is unlikely to hold any elections this year, local politicians are getting ready to fight for votes, starting by trying to amend electoral legislation – all in their own favour of course.
31.05.2017  |  Baghdad
Iraqi MPs in Parliament in Baghdad.
Iraqi MPs in Parliament in Baghdad.

It is almost certain now that Iraqi voters won’t be asked to make any choices this year: Provincial elections, slated to be held in September, look likely to be postponed until 2018. This is due to the ongoing security crisis in the country, caused by the extremist group known as the Islamic State. Instead the provincial elections will be held at the same time as general elections in early 2018.

But that has not stopped Iraqi politicians from drafting a range of new legislation around voting and election requirements. As with any other country in the world, the various parties try to tailor new laws to ensure their own success in elections.

The process for passing any amendments is long and complicated. Last Thursday, during the final session of this first sitting of Iraq’s Parliament, MPs voted on the first draft of a new electoral law. But there will also be a second reading, during which many MPs will go on to object and debate the new rules. The final vote takes place during a third reading and will decide whether the law is enacted.  

In the end there will be a law that benefits the bigger parties, a civil society activist predicts.

Last week, three proposals were submitted that would amend the laws around elections. One came from the country’s president, Kurdish politician Fuad Masum. Another was submitted by the Ahrar bloc, the political arm of the movement known as the Sadrists, led by cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, and a third came from an independent MP, Abdul-Hadi al-Hakim, who is mostly affiliated with religious authorities in Najaf.

Additionally, there were some other proposals for amendments submitted but these remained private and were not publicly discussed.

As one MP told NIQASH, it was important to have these laws ready, in case the schedules for the elections changed again.

On a number of points, the three different amendments were similar. They more or less agreed on the number of MPs in Parliament – that is, 328 – the fact that 10 seats should be distributed among Iraq’s minority politicians – the Christians, Sabaeans and Yazidis – that candidates should be aged over 25 and that a quarter of Iraqi MPs should be female.

But there were some big differences around more sensitive issues. Most importantly, the following were of concern: Preventing any politician with two nationalities from running for office, how many electoral districts there should be, how seats should be fairly distributed, how to count votes and when results of elections should be announced.

Two of these topics are considered the most controversial.

Ever since elections were held in Iraq after 2003 there has been debate about how many voter districts there should be. After starting off with one main block, Iraq eventually split into 18 different electoral districts in 2010, that corresponded roughly to the country’s provinces.

The Ahrar bloc wants to see more electoral districts created. “Everyone knows there is a problem with representation for voters,” Mohammed Jabbar, an MP for the Ahrar bloc, told NIQASH. “A candidate can stand for office in Basra even though they come from Baghdad. So those entering Parliament may not really be representing the wishes of voters. Dividing the provinces further into voting districts will ensure that candidates represent the voters. A candidate will be held more responsible for what they do.”

The problem with this, according to other MPs, is that Iraq lacks any recent or reliable census information. Nobody really knows how many voters are living in certain towns or districts, and what their demographic make-up might be. Jabbar doesn’t think this is a reasonable excuse; he believes a version of a census could be taken if ration card data belonging to the government is utilized.

 

 

 

Meanwhile the proposed amendments submitted by the independent MP al-Hakeem suggest that there should be 17 electoral districts in Iraq and that the capital, Baghdad, should be split into two districts.

The most fought over topic though is the timing of the announcement of election results. Usually the country’s electoral authorities announce who won about four weeks after the election. But many politicians worry that this allows far too much time for possible manipulation or subversion of the results.

The Ahrar bloc wants the results announced within just five days while al-Hakeem says there should be two rounds of announcements. The first could be based on digital results and the second could be based on manual counting, he has suggested. The proposal for amendments from the country’s president, Masum, didn’t mention this topic.

Negotiations are ongoing on these issues and others, and the results will doubtless depend on the alliances that the bigger parties eventually form. In the end there will be a law that benefits the bigger parties, civil society activist Faris Abdul-Kareem predicts.

“The only thing many of the larger parties agree upon is that the electoral legislation must change,” Abdul-Kareem says. “In the end they will try and ensure that the smaller parties are prevented from taking office and that the law is tailored to their preferences.”

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