Whilst this election law is a prelude to US withdrawal, it does not necessarily signal the end of a tough road for Iraq
After weeks of protracted debates and intense political wrangling, the Iraqi election law was finally passed after elusive compromise was decisively reached on the hotly-contested province of Kirkuk.
Perhaps no other individual would have breathed a more literal sigh of relief than US Ambassador to Iraq, Christopher Hill, who worked tirelessly running between the main Iraqi factions in the parliament chambers to ensure progress, while his compatriot and US Vice President, Joe Biden, probably had a frequent engaged-tone as he was tied on the phone to Iraqi leaders.
This important election law meant that Iraq could hold elections in 2010 (now scheduled for 21st January) notably under an open candidate list system as many figures had demanded. While Iraqis expressed relief and satisfaction, public hailing a compromise that has often been lacking in Iraq, for US it had far more significant short-term ramifications.
Behind-the-scenes US pressure in Iraqi politics is hardly something new. On numerous occasions, political motions have been passed after direct exertion from the White House with the belated passing of the symbolic Iraqi constitution in 2005 as one such example.
However, this time around the passing of the election law held direct sway to US plans to withdraw all combat troops by August 2010.
Although agreement was finally reached, the much delayed manner of passing the law was an ominous signal of Iraqi appetite for reconciliation and collaboration.
Whilst democratic progress ensues on paper, the election law is another example of where fierce stalemates have been broken for sake of progress at the expense of brushing the real key issues under the political rug.
It is these flashpoints such the resolving the issue of disputed territories, the onset of a national hydrocarbon law and how much power federal regions should be afforded (namely that of the Kurds) that prompt the real health checks for the new Iraq.
While compromise was struck over voting in Kirkuk, it doesn’t deal with the real issue of the long-term status of the city and the much-delayed implementation of article 140 of the Iraqi constitution.
Even as elections will go ahead in Kirkuk inline with the rest of the country, it is still conducted under a “special status”. Although, 2009 voter rolls will be used as demanded by Kurds, the results will essentially be provisional and subject to review if deemed that unusual fluctuations in the voting registrar were apparent.
Crucially, the terms and consequences of this proposed electoral review were vague. With Arabs still determined to ensure that Kirkuk does not fall into the hands of the Kurds, “officially” or otherwise, the election results may yet open another can of worms.
Although, Kirkuk is an Iraqi matter and certainly the most relevant litmus test of Iraqi unity and democracy, regional interference has been a major handicap in implementing constitutional articles. Some parties in negotiations over the election law may have used regional forces as a leverage to ensure Kirkuk status quo.
Fencing-off the Kirkuk conundrum
This leads to the critical issue of the long-term status of Kirkuk. While U.S envoy Hill was adamant that the election law agreement on Kirkuk would not be used as “a leg up” in negotiations over its future jurisdiction, in reality it is not so easy to fence-off the holding of elections in Kirkuk from the debate over the long-term status of Kirkuk.
If elections highlight a strong Kurdish majority then Arab and Turkmen parties may well use the voter review clause to dampen Kurdish gains with view to ensuring that any subsequent Kurdish claim on Kirkuk is not so clear-cut.
By the same token, inevitably a Kurdish majority in the January elections will simply highlight a certain Kurdish majority if any referendum is held in Kirkuk as per article 140. In other words, whilst Baghdad may dig its heels even further, the Kurds will see their legal overtures towards the oil-rich province add vital momentum.
Next phase of democracy
Regardless of any successful elections in January 2010, this will certainly not mark the end of friction between the Kurdish administration and Baghdad. The developments of the election law may be promising but the hard-work is all to do in 2010.
Although, the Kurds may well find themselves in the role of kingmakers again, the future makeup of alliances in the Iraqi National Assembly will make interesting analysis. With the Sunnis likely to turn out in much larger numbers this time around, political jockeying will be as delicate as ever.
The Kurds will choose there alliance wisely, likely forming a coalition with sides that may incline to succumb to their demands in return for gaining more power and influence in Baghdad. A stronger Sunni-Shiite bond capitalising on Arab nationalist sentiment at the expense of Kurdish aspirations can not be discounted. If such Arab unity can be established then tensions over Kirkuk may well increase to the next level.
As much as the election is an important milestone, it can only be termed in such a way as a means to an ends. With the crucial absence of agreed federal borders, dispute over how natural resources will be shared and long-term power balance in Baghdad and the security forces, the real milestones are yet to be achieved.
Add to the mix ubiquitous calls for amendments to the Iraqi constitution and the recipe for future strife is evident. While a one-off revision to the 2005 constitution is probable, how this will be administered is a massive test of how far Iraq has come since 2003 and possibly how far it will go in years to come.
Cross-faction agreement on changing constitutional articles will be difficult and any significant change at the expense of other parties is a dangerous prelude. Although, the formation of any review committee may well be based on the proportion of votes at the elections, such voting principles do not always hold water in Iraq.
Regardless of election results, sides will not succumb to the rule of the majority, so ironically compensatory seats in one form or another is an inevitable feature of democracy in Iraq. A good example is enticing the Sunni elite into the political makeup, although Sunnis form a minority in Iraq, they will still demand fundamental power and influence in Baghdad as well as within the security forces.