After the brief scenes of jubilation in the aftermath of the passing of the election law on November 8th 2009, some predicted that a tough road still lay ahead in Iraq. What many didn’t expect is that that tough road would come merely two weeks later.
The veto of the election law by Sunni Vice President Tariq al-Hashemi, an act followed closely after Kurdish leaders expressed their own strong discontent over the law and threatened to boycott the elections over the distribution of votes, left the election process in disarray and meant an almost certain postponement of the elections past 31st January 2010, voiding a key stipulation of the Iraqi constitution and dampening US hopes of a symbolic withdrawal of troops by August 2010.
It appears likely that the elections will be held a month after the Shiite religious festival of Arbain at the earliest. Any shift from the timelines outlined in the constitution sets a benchmark for future political manipulation, particularly from any strongman intent on “hanging-on” to power in the future.
The latest round of disputes yet again highlights the fragile nature of the Iraqi political mosaic. Whilst the US surge strategy has helped to dramatically improve security, ominously this has not been able to mask the fractured nature of the Iraqi ethnic and sectarian framework with the key goal of national reconciliation appearing as elusive as ever.
Vice Presidential veto
The election veto by al-Hashemi, causing a public stir, was due to what he deemed as an insufficient number of seats reserved for Iraqis living abroad, with al-Hashemi keen to see this increase from 5 to 15, predominantly benefitting Sunnis who were dispersed in large numbers at the height of the insurgency.
al-Hashemi appears anxious to win credibility ahead of the national elections amongst the Sunnis and has dug his heels to seemingly safeguard Sunni interests.
Election law rework
Subsequent rework of the election law by the Iraqi parliament failed to produce a draft that appeased Sunni lawmakers. In contrast, the latest version was backed by the Kurds with an agreement on revising the format for the allocation of additional seats.
Iraqi population increase estimates, which the additional 48 seats in the parliament (from 275 to 323) were based on, used the 2009 ration data from the Iraqi Ministry of Trade.
This led to a strong rebuke from the Kurds, who based on the rationing card system, received only 3 additional seats out of a total of 48, whilst remarkably the province of Nineveh received 12 alone.
The Kurds suspected a conspiracy to undermine their power and issued a strongly-worded statement threatening to boycott the elections.
The stance of the Kurds is understandable. First of all the ration data from the Trade Ministry is widely considered to be corrupt and incorrect. Over the past few years, there has been wide abuse of the rationing system and to compound matters millions of Iraqis have been displaced internally. Furthermore, many Kurds may not necessarily claim rations in the more prosperous north, which has avoided much of the volatility of the south.
A frequent theme of successive Iraqi governments and the US administration has been enticing the disgruntled Sunni population into the political process. Much of the reconciliatory initiatives have been centred on encouraging Sunnis to participate in government via a number of concessions.
After a boycott by Sunnis in the first major election of 2005, when insurgency and Sunni anger was high, the Sunnis have steadily joined the political sphere culminated in much hope that the upcoming elections would finally result in real representation across the Iraqi divide that would prompt progression.
However, the latest round of changes on the election law has failed to attract Sunni support and this has led to a threat by al-Hashemi that he will veto the bill a second time.
While parliament can override a second veto with a three-fifths majority, with Kurds and Shiites able to muster enough of the required votes, this places serious risk of stoking Sunni anger. Sunnis are unlikely to boycott any vote in 2010 as this would yet again deprive them of political clout, however, this pushes national reconciliation further away and ominously sets a dangerous precedence to force other legislation at the expense of other parties at a later date.
In addition to the changes on the distribution of additional seats in parliament based on population growth, the election law was also amended so that Iraqis living abroad will have votes count towards their province of origin, rather than allocation of specified seats for voters outside Iraq as requested by al-Hashemi.
Sunni lawmakers deemed the latest round of amendments as unconstitutional. However, by the same token one must acknowledge that allocating 3 seats out of 48 to the Kurds, whilst Sunni-dominated provinces were to receive 24, was hardly constitutional.
Under the original proposal to allocate the additional parliamentary seats, Kurds would have competed for only 38 seats of a total of 323, in stark contracts to 2005 when they had 57 seats, seriously diminishing their power in Baghdad.
Moreover, how can Sunni seats increase so dramatically in line with population figures if 2 millions Sunnis fled abroad in the same time period? There were obvious signs of some sides aiming to increase Sunni influence at the next elections.
Fair and equitable
The problem in Iraq is that parties often refuse compromise on a fair and equitable basis. For example, while Sunnis are happy to deprive Kurds of political influence in the Nineveh provincial council, the same lawmakers demand a fixed quota of seats in the Kirkuk council.
Reaching out to all groups via concessions and compromise is an important and natural part of democracy but this must be as fair as possible.
In Iraq, even when the elections are successfully held in 2010, parties will still refuse to succumb to the will of the majority vote. For example, the Sunnis will still expect a large share of the Iraqi cake and with the US and Shiites keen to keep the current stability in Iraq it makes a policy of appeasement difficult to avoid.
Difficult road ahead
Ironically, if Iraqis can not agree on an election law that is meant to be a prelude to the serious political business in parliament then what chance does Baghdad have of political progress once the real contentious issues come to the fore.
The onset of a national hydrocarbon law and resolution of disputed territories will provide a sterner test of Iraq’s political resolve.
At least the problems have not been swept under the political rug quite in the same way as before. It is better to endure delays, anger and frustration in the short-term, rather than make progress under foreign pressure, only to leave the problem to fester and grow in years to come.
As the Sunni Vice President refused to back the revised election law, ironically the Iraqi President, Jalal Talabani, expressed his optimism for an election law that he believed catered for all sides.
All this begs the question of why the election process fell apart after only two weeks. Clearly, the original election law which focused on other pressing disputes was rushed through and made guidelines around the distribution of additional seats ambiguous at best.
Ambiguity and democracy in Iraq do not go hand in hand. To win the trust of all factions, every stipulation should be explicitly clear otherwise it would be susceptible to manipulation even before the ink has dried.