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The Waiting Game:
Iraq’s Many Problems Threaten Postponement Of 2017 Elections

Mustafa Habib
Political conflicts, war with extremists and millions of displaced: All these threaten to see Iraq’s next elections postponed, despite the fact that many say they will be the country’s most important in over a decade.
22.09.2016  |  Baghdad
Iraqis vote in the 2014 elections. Source: IHEC (photo: موقع مفوضية الانتخابات)
Iraqis vote in the 2014 elections. Source: IHEC (photo: موقع مفوضية الانتخابات)

Under Iraqi rules, the next provincial elections are due to be held in the country next April. And everyone seems to agree that these elections will be some of the most important the country has held since 2003 when the political landscape changed so radically – even though the federal elections are not until 2018, the provincial elections will be conducted in turbulent conditions, with the voting being the first to happen since the extremist group known as the Islamic State caused such chaos here. There are also a number of new entrants to the political race: The various militias that have been fighting the extremists, who have become increasingly powerful and politically ambitious. Competition will be fierce.  

The Independent High Electoral Commission, the body tasked with overseeing elections in the country, started preparing for the elections around two months ago and has opened hundreds of offices around the country to update voter records and install new technology to prevent electoral fraud.

More than 600 polling stations have opened around the country over the last few weeks. Electoral rolls will be updated there, then the locations for polling booths will be chosen and funds will be made available for purchase of supplies and wages of employees. Following that, campaigning can begin.

More than 1.5 million Iraqis will not be able to participate in the 2017 elections. 

Despite this preparation though, many are now saying that the provincial elections should be postponed because there are a number of problems, both logistical and political, in the way.

Former Iraqi Prime Minister Ayad Allawi is one of the strongest advocates of postponement. A statement issued by his party called the postponement of the provincial elections “a necessity - because of the current state of the county. It is the only way to ensure the biggest number of voters participate,” the statement continued.

And last week Allawi said that most of the political parties in Iraq have agreed to the postponement in principal.

Clearly one of the most problematic issues is the ongoing security crisis. The extremist Islamic State, or IS, group is still in control of many towns and cities in the provinces of Anbar, Salahaddin and Ninawa and literally millions of Iraqis live under the group’s control. They will obviously not be able to take part in any elections.

The cities from which the IS group has been pushed out are also far from ready to hold elections. Many of the residents were displaced and continue to live in other parts of the country, or in camps. Many of the cities have been badly damaged by fighting between the IS group and pro-government forces and reconstruction is some way off.

The United Nations estimates that around 3.3 million people have been displaced by the security crisis in Iraq and Iraq’s Independent High Electoral Commission suggests that there are more than 1.5 million who will not be able to participate in elections.

“It is difficult to hold provincial elections while the IS group holds important cities like Mosul,” argues Abdul Rahman al-Luwaizi, the MP for Ninawa province, of which Mosul is the capital. “We should respond to this. Elections could be postponed until the extremists are eliminated and the displaced can return to their homes.”

One of the ideas that has been discussed behind closed doors is holding the provincial elections at the same time as the federal elections, slated for 2018, and it seems there is widespread support for this idea.


An Iraqi man votes in 2014. Source: IHEC


“Combining the local and the national elections would reduce the expense of holding elections,” explains Nahla al-Hababi, an MP for the Iraqi Prime Minister’s State of Law party. “Thanks to low oil prices Iraq is experiencing a financial crisis. Additionally, postponing the provincial elections for one year would give security forces a chance to completely push the IS group out of the areas they still control.”

The other major issue is the deployment of militia and military groups in cities around Iraq. Whether Sunni Muslim, Shiite Muslim or Iraqi Kurdish, the various armed groups will doubtless have an impact on how ordinary civilians vote.

There are a number of other technical and logistical issues that could also prevent the provincial elections from taking place.

Elections are supposed to take place in the semi-autonomous northern region of Iraqi Kurdistan at the same time, but, according to a 2010 agreement, the date of the election should only be set by the Iraqi Kurdish government itself and it has yet to do this. The disputed province of Kirkuk is supposed to participate in elections after the Iraqi government passes a special law and this has not happened either.

Another issue involves election rules. Over the past few weeks some political parties have been calling for further fundamental changes to the provincial election laws. The most recent laws saw the provincial elections calculated on the basis of a mathematical formula called the Sainte-Laguë formula, which determines how to count votes and ascertain representation. The Sainte-Laguë system stops larger parties from gobbling up the votes smaller parties have won, if the smaller parties haven’t won enough votes to pass a certain threshold.

The result of using the formula previously has meant that there are many more parties holding seats on provincial councils than before. Previously only two or three large parties ran the councils. Conflicts, rivalries and the unwillingness to work together has meant that the provincial councils have had difficulty doing their work. This legal problem will also need to be resolved before elections can be held.

The recent political manoeuvrings and defections from established political blocs are also going to make holding the provincial elections more difficult. These have resulted in the – some say illegal – recent dismissals of senior politicians like Iraq’s Minister of Finance, senior Iraqi Kurdish politician Hoshyar Zebari. This is all some distance away from provincial politics, but the political conflicts at the top mean that, once again, it’s going to be more difficult for provincial politicians to form coalitions and alliances.

Finally, one of the major roadblocks for provincial elections is the IHEC itself.

Politicians have been calling for a change of personnel on the IHEC. According to the Iraqi Constitution it is supposed to be an independent body. But instead its appointees have been given their jobs according to Iraq’s unofficial quota system, which sees senior positons divvied up between Sunni, Shiite and Kurdish parties.

In July 2016, 100 MPs signed a petition demanding this change.

“We are an executive body and we apply the law without being influenced by political difference,” insists Safaa al-Musawi, IHEC’s spokesperson. “Parliament has not voted on any new election laws so we will continue to use the existing one. Additionally, changing the members of IHEC would require months of negotiations between the different political blocs. And,” he noted, “up until now we haven’t had any formal request from Parliament to postpone the elections so we will continue with preparations for April 2017.”

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