Friday, October 11, 2013

Iraq’s Political Showdown over Elections Law: Iraq Update #37

The date for Iraq’s national parliamentary elections has been set for April 30, 2014. However, the law governing the conduct of these elections has not yet been passed. Debate over this law provides a venue for major political groups to establish conditions that will favor them in the upcoming elections. The debate also has the potential to cause tensions between the Iraqi Arabs and Iraqi Kurds. If these tensions become too heated, they risk providing an opening for Al-Qaeda in Iraq.

On October 7, the Iraqi parliament, known as the Council of Representatives (CoR), votedto set April 30, 2014 as the latest date to hold the 2014 national parliamentary elections, which will determine who is the next prime minister. This vote came after several rounds of delays in voting on a law that will govern the conduct of the elections. In its statement, the CoR indicated that if an elections law is not passed by October 30, 2013 it will initiate “legislative measures” to amend a previous elections law.

The passage of an elections law in Iraq is an opportune moment for Iraq’s various political groups to establish conditions that will favor them in the upcoming contest. The process normally takes extensive negotiations and attempts to build consensus among the various factions. The negotiations over the 2014 elections law will follow a similar process. However, they are shaped by theaftermath of the 2013 provincial elections and are currently characterized by renewed political tensions between the Iraqi Arabs and Iraqi Kurds.

Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s State of Law Alliance (SLA) underperformed in the provincial elections and has since been reachingout to the Iraqi Kurds. Thus, the debate over the elections law is a test for the rapprochement between Baghdad and Irbil. Meanwhile, the Iraqi Sunni electorate was fragmentedin ways that benefited the Iraqi Kurds, especially in Ninewa province.  At the moment, Iraqi Sunnis view the elections law debate as an opportunity to regain unity on important issues such as elections in Kirkuk.

The aftermath of provincial elections in the elections law debate has manifested itself in the behavior of the major political groups as well. They are seeking to marginalize the smaller political groups by changing the seat-allocation system which was used in the last elections. Meanwhile, the Iraqi Kurds are testing Maliki, who was likely motivated to rebuild relations with them after the SLA’s disappointing performance in the provincial elections.

As the political groups posture for the next round of negotiations, setting an elections date is an important milestone. The overwhelming vote to do so indicates political fears that the poor security environment could lead to postponing the elections. The prospect of postponing elections will be damaging, as it will cause further citizen distrust in the political system and undermine the legitimacy of the government.


Drafts of the elections law in its different, proposed versions have not been officially released. Nonetheless, the issues under contention are widely reported. The CoR’s debate is centered on amending the elections law of 2005.  First, there was a discussion about whether to use an open-list system or closed-list system in the elections. The open-list system, which was used starting in the 2009 provincial elections, allows the voter the opportunity to elect candidates they recognize since the vote can be given to a specific candidate. In the closed-list system, on the other hand, the votes go to the candidates according to their ordering on the electoral list, which is determined by list leaders. This dynamic gives political leaders greater leverage since they will be able to choose who gets to be higher on the list and thus receive more votes. The open-list system takes away that power. It is in the interest of the political groups’ leaders to legislate a closed-list system.   

According to a leakeddraft of the law, the open-list system will again be used in the 2014 elections. This is likely accurate given the success of the open-list system in elections since 2009. Voters would likely not accept a closed –list system and any political group pushing for it may be electorally punished.

There is also debate over how votes should be counted. Iraqi Kurds are advocatingfor  the country to be treated as a single electoral district whereby the votes for any political group nation-wide will be counted towards the total number of seats. Practically, a single-district system will be beneficial for the Iraqi Kurds since it will allow them to gain seats through the votes of the Iraqi Kurds who live in provinces other than Iraqi Kurdistan.   The alternative is a multi-district system which counts every province in Iraq as a separate constituency and the votes in that province will be limited to the province. On October 6, Iraqi Kurdistan President Masoud Barzani calledfor establishing a single-district system and added that the Iraqi Kurds were subject to “injustice in the 2010 elections” when the multi-district system was adopted. Barzani threatened a boycott by Iraqi Kurds if a single-district system is not adopted. Member of Maliki’s SLA, Ammar al-Shebli, statedthat the boycott threat by Barzani is a maneuver in order to gain leverage on other issues pertaining to the elections.

Other important issues for the Iraqi Kurds are elections in Kirkuk and the issue of compensatory seats.

For the Iraqi Kurds, elections in Kirkuk are important especially in light of the recent Supreme Court decision that cancelled the governance power-sharing provisions in Article 23 of the 2009 provincial elections law.  Article 23 was voted on in 2008 despite objectionsfrom the Iraqi Kurds and was meant to address Arab and Turkmen grievances with regards to local governance. The article statedthat local elections in Kirkuk should be held after senior provincial posts are equally divided among the province’s ethnic groups.

As the debate on the elections law continues, there are attempts by Iraqi Arab and Iraqi Turkmen parties to reintroduce power-sharing mechanisms pertaining to Kirkuk in the national elections law. The Iraqi Kurds have voicedobjections to those attempts and viewthem as a vehicle to extract concessions from the Iraqi Kurds. The attempts to raise the issue of Article 23 concern the results of the provincial Kirkuk elections, but efforts by Iraqi Arab and Iraqi Turkmen parties indicates the linkage between national elections and issues arising from the provincial elections.      

It is important to note that the partial cancelation of Article 23 was likely the result of a political deal between the Iraqi Kurds and Maliki, who had been weakened after the provincial elections. As a quid pro quo, the Iraqi Kurdish ministers returned to the cabinet after an earlier boycott, and the Kurdistan Regional Government has even offered to assist Maliki by deployingthe Peshmerga alongside the Iraqi Security Forces.

In addition to the provincial parliamentary seats, political groups can secure seats based on their votes from what are known as national compensatory seats. These seats provide a pool for all parties to draw upon after the elections. Iraqi Kurds are demanding that 75 compensatory seats be provided, while the all-Iraqi Shi‘a National Alliance is consideringthe allocation of 32 seats total. Iraqi Kurds – who have 57 seats in the incumbent parliament – are seeking to maximize their electoral fortunes as the negotiations over the law continue.

Finally, major political groups including the SLA, the Iraqi Kurds, and Iraqiyya appear to be attempting to change the seat-allocation system. The system used during the provincial electionsallowed smaller political groups to benefit and secure seats at the expense of the major groups. Therefore, major groups are pushing for a new system that will change that dynamic, making it easier to exclude minor political groups. Accordingto the leaked draft of the law, a new system favoring the major groups is likely to be adopted.   

The Politics of the Negotiations  

Accordingto Prime Minister Maliki, the elections should be held at their scheduled time with a law that adopts an open-list and multi-district systems. This stance is the likely result of pressure from the religious authorities in Najaf (Marji‘a) which has reportedly been pushingfor elections to be held on time. However, Maliki may be trying to appear as an Arab nationalist, supporting a unified Iraqi Arab call for a multi-district system in opposition to the Iraqi Kurds. Evidence of this can be seen in a reportedclosed meeting that excluded the Iraqi Kurds between the predominantly Iraqi Sunni Iraqiyya and the National Alliance, which includes Maliki’s SLA, to discuss the elections law.

The Iraqi Kurds reacted to this possible development by warningthat an attempt to pass the elections law without the Iraqi Kurds would have repercussions on Baghdad-Irbil relations as did the vote on the 2013 budget debate, during which Iraqiyya and Iraqi Shi‘a parties voted on the budget without the Iraqi Kurds. The Iraqi Kurds reacted to the budget vote by withdrawing their ministers from the federal cabinet. SLA member Abbas al-Bayati stated that this possibility is unlikely this time because the SLA would seek to have a consensus vote including the Iraqi Kurds.


The discussions over the law will continue and it will be important to watch whether it would lead to delaying the elections despite the newly-set date. Additionally, it will be critical to watch if heated rhetoric between the Iraqi Arabs and Iraqi Kurds over Kirkuk leads to changes on the ground – including a military confrontation between the Iraqi Security Forces and the Iraqi Kurdish Peshmerga. 

The current tenor of the elections law debate is a political showdown between the Iraqi Arabs and the Iraqi Kurds. This discussion will help mobilize the electoral bases for both groups. However, it has the potential to escalate due to the stakes involved in the elections. By resurfacing the discussion of Kirkuk, the Iraqi Arabs and Iraqi Turkmen are using the debate to strike back against the Maliki-Iraqi Kurdish rapprochement which has so far been beneficial for the Iraqi Kurds. The Iraqi Sunnis are, for now, seeking to regroup, and emphasizing the Kirkuk issue may provide them with a boost. On October 7, CoR members of Iraqiyya criticizedthe Iraqi Kurds for their electoral stance and emphasized the significance of Kirkuk for the Iraqi Arabs. This eliciteda rebuke from Kirkuk’s Iraqi Kurdish CoR Member, Khalid Shwani.

An Iraqi Arab-Iraqi Kurdish escalation will be advantageous for al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI). AQI is resurgent and has in the past capitalizedon the Baghdad-Irbil tensions to gather strength. It will, therefore, be imperative for the Iraqi political groups to tone down the rhetoric with regards to Kirkuk and agree upon a law taking into account the concerns of the various groups involved. Not doing so could lead to further deterioration in security. 

Ahmed Aliis senior Iraq research analyst and the Iraq Team Lead at the Institute for the Study of War