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Real Democracy?
Iraqi Politicians Debate Changing System That Kept Parliament Peaceful For Years

Mustafa Habib
Iraq’s democracy doesn’t work like others. It's based on a quota system that says offices will be distributed between sectors of the population. Politicians are debating whether it’s time for a real change.
The quota in action, from left to right: Shiite PM, Kurdish president, Sunni speaker of the house.
The quota in action, from left to right: Shiite PM, Kurdish president, Sunni speaker of the house.

As the elections near, the debate about whether to do away with Iraq’s unofficial quota system for representation has surfaced yet again.

In mid-March, the Iraqi prime minister, Haider al-Abadi, said during a speech in Baghdad that he would prefer that the quota system was used and consensus built in that way. On the same day, his fellow party member and still a rival for the job of prime minister, Nouri al-Maliki, told a meeting of tribal leaders that he would prefer to do away with the quota system. He preferred that decisions be made about who governs the country, and how top jobs are given out, by whomever the majority voted for.

in Iraq people don’t consider themselves Iraqis. They identify first as part of a certain religious sect or ethnic group. 

Although it has never been written into Iraqi law, the country has been run according to the quota system for years now. It involves a system that was created by US administrators as they set up the country’s new government after the 2003 US-led invasion that toppled Iraqi leader, Saddam Hussein. In order to avoid sectarian infighting among politicians, the US administrators, led by Paul Bremer, thought it best to split the most important positions in Iraq’s new Parliament between the three major ethnic and sectarian groups in the country; that is, the Sunni Muslims, Shiite Muslims and Iraqi Kurdish.

Traditionally this has meant that the Kurds always get the post of Iraqi president, the Shiite Muslims always get the prime minister’s job and the Sunni Muslims get the Speaker of Parliament position.

Over time though, many analysts believe this practice has come to hamper Iraqi democracy, with leaders being picked for their sect or ethnicity, rather than on merit.

This debate is not just one being contested by al-Abadi and his rival, former prime minister, al-Maliki.

“We should be clear. The quota system has been a failure for ruling this country,” Mansour al-Baiji, an MP for the major Shiite coalition, told NIQASH. “Everyone knows that corruption spreads under this system, because parliament can never question any corrupt individuals, because all the different groups are participating in parliament.”

By this, he means that if anyone is ever indicted, their party will protect them.

A system where those who got the most votes, got the plum jobs, would be the best solution, al-Baiji argues. The political scene in Iraq has evolved over the past few years and could now handle a system not informed by sectarian or ethnic divisions, he suggests.  

There are several senior figures who support the idea of moving away from the quotas. This includes cleric and political leader, Ammar al-Hakim, who recently formed a new party and wants a fresh start for Iraqi politics, as well as Sunni Muslim leader, Osama al-Nujaifi.

Meanwhile al-Abadi also has powerful allies who prefer to stick with the quota system, including the cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, who came out in favour of it last Thursday.

Al-Maliki may have been the first senior politician to speak in favour of abolishing the quota system though. In 2010, he talked about it a lot but then when another politician, Ayad Allawi, won two more seats than his own party, he was forced to return to the quota system and the other Shiite Muslim parties in order to ensure he ran the government.



After 2014 elections, al-Maliki’s party did win more seats than all the others, with 100 MPs voted in. However due to criticism of his leadership style from all quarters, al-Maliki was replaced as prime minister by Haider al-Abadi.

One of the main problems with wanting to exit the quota system is already apparent. Even though in the past, all the Shiite parties together have won over 170 seats, it is very difficult for any party to win more than half of the parliament’s 328 seats and establish an absolute majority, that means they won’t need to consult with anybody else to make decisions. Most Iraqis tend to vote along long-established sectarian and ethnic lines – that is, Kurds vote for Kurds and Shiites vote for Shiites and so on – which means parliament is always split more evenly, in the same way the population is.

As Iraqi Kurdish political analyst, Kifah Mahmoud Karim, explains, in Iraq people don’t consider themselves Iraqis. They identify first as part of a certain religious sect or ethnic group. Which makes it difficult to do away with the quota system. If one party, and therefore one ethnicity or sect, gained control over the government, all of the other groups – who also make up a sizeable portion of Iraq’s population – would feel side-lined. Historically having one group control the other groups has not ended well for the country.  

Past experience in Iraq shows that joining the government is the best idea for any party that wants a voice. It is far too easy to ignore the opposition.

Having said that, Iraqi politics does appear to be moving away from two or three monolithic alliances. Within the different parties that identify as either Shiite, Sunni or Kurdish, there are now some serious divisions. Many Iraqi politicians no longer espouse exactly the same political objectives as colleagues of the same ethnicity or sect.

This will most likely result in two things, post-election. No single party will win a large number of votes and, as a result, negotiations to form a government will take much longer than usual – and often in Iraq, this is already a lengthy process.

The politicians who like the idea of letting the quota system go have reasoned that no one group will be able to monopolize power and a number of different forces will be able to form a government – possibly not related by sect or ethnicity – while the other parties will be in opposition.  

And that’s another reason why this isn’t going to work, argues another senior Shiite politician, Rahim al-Darraji.  It’s just a useful slogan for some parties, he says referring to the calls to end the quota system. “But it will never happen because of the nature of the Iraqi political system,” al-Darraji explains. “Political parties will refuse to go into opposition. After the elections, everyone wants to have a job in power.”

Past experience in Iraq shows that joining the government is the best idea for any party that wants a voice. It is far too easy to ignore the opposition, if they don’t have a ministry or a senior job or any other bargaining chip.  

The way that Iraqi parliamentarians wanted to call former prime minister, al-Maliki, in for questioning in 2013 is the perfect example. MPs made dozens of calls for al-Maliki to come in and answer some tough questions. But he managed to easily just ignore them all, because he had ensured that he held much of the power.