Iraq’s New Electoral Law: Old Powers Adapting to Change

In December 2019, the Iraqi parliament approved a new electoral law following demonstrations calling for fundamental political change. However, it took over 11 months for the president to ratify it as Iraq’s political parties fought over the shape of electoral districts. This article examines the disputes that surrounded the adoption of the law and the compromises that led to diluting its potential for reform. It concludes that while the new law represents a small step in the right direction, it ultimately is insufficient to respond to the aspirations of protestors looking for an overhaul of their political representation.

Iraqi protesters chant slogans and carry placards reading in Arabic 'The people want to bring down the election law' during protests at Tahrir square in central Baghdad, Iraq, 26 October 2019. According to media reports, at least 40 people died during violence between security forces and people protesting against the government in Baghdad and southern Iraqi cities. © EPA-EFE/AHMED JALIL

On 24 December 2019, the Iraqi parliament approved a new electoral law. However, it took over 11 months for President Barham Salih to ratify it as parliament fought over an annex to the law defining Iraq’s electoral districts.

The law, which the president finally ratified with reservation (hyperlink in Arabic) in early November 2020, is a complete departure from those passed since 2003 and which were used to organize four parliamentary elections between 2005 and 2018. Instead of adopting one electoral district as in the 2005 elections – the first after the 2003 Iraq invasion – or designating each of Iraq’s 18 governorates as a single district like in the three subsequent elections, this new law divides Iraq into 83 electoral districts. These districts are based on the number of quota seats set aside for women in parliament, as the Constitution requires that 25% of the parliament’s 329 seats be designated for women.

The law emerged following pressure from demonstrations, the largest in Iraq’s recent history, demanding comprehensive political and economic reforms. Foremost among their central demands was the adoption of a just electoral law that would reduce the monopoly of parties in the parliament and allow for the entrance of independents and small and newly established parties. The Shiite Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, who holds significant religious power in the country, supported the demonstrations and its demands, thereby helping accelerate the law’s adoption. However, the new electoral law will maintain the influence of several well-established political forces and ensure their victory in upcoming elections.

This article examines the course of the new electoral law and the disputes that surrounded its adoption. It argues that while the law was adopted in response to demonstrations calling for fundamental change in Iraq’s political make-up, it is unlikely to lead to any meaningful change – change that thousands of Iraqi men and women called for and for which, many were injured and killed during protests.

Electoral laws limiting access to parliament

After the establishment of the post-occupation political regime, the Iraqi parliament appeared inaccessible to independent candidates and small political parties. The electoral laws and systems that governed past elections allowed large and medium-sized parties and coalitions to win at the expense of independent candidates and others outside the circles of established political elites.

The new electoral law tries to respond to protestors’ central demands for a more open system by increasing electoral districts and adopting individual nomination procedures for candidates – a demand first raised during the 2016 demonstrations and reiterated in 2019.

While the impetus for the new law came from protests, many in the ruling political forces saw a benefit in issuing a new law in a bid to regain their political legitimacy (hyperlink in Arabic) which was undermined in the 2018 parliamentary elections that saw a high level of voter apathy (hyperlink in Arabic) and widespread ballot-rigging.

The law’s adoption is not only about regaining political legitimacy, but also an attempt to mitigate the impact of the shifting political dynamics that take place within political forces themselves. After each electoral cycle, political powers in Iraq experience internal schisms between parties and coalitions. For example, the Shiite political forces entered into a single electoral coalition during the 2005 parliamentary elections but have since reorganized themselves into different coalitions. During the 2018 elections, it was not only the coalitions that changed, the parties themselves experienced significant internal fractures. The Islamic Dawa party, which controlled the office of the prime minister (PM) between 2005 and 2018, formed two electoral blocks led by the two previous PMs, Nouri al-Maliki (the State of Law Coalition) and Haidar al-Abadi (Victory Alliance). Meanwhile, Ammar al-Hakim broke from the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq and founded the National Wisdom Movement, just as many political powers were also forming new coalitions and alliances. Some officials have noted that these internal schisms are not based on ideological motives or differences of opinion on foreign and domestic policy, but rather result from fundamental disputes over the distribution of government posts (hyperlink in Arabic) and independent institutions. After each election, prominent political forces share government positions according to the number of seats they won.

In addition to the electoral struggles between large- and medium-sized political actors, it has been difficult for smaller and independent forces to access parliament due to the complicated calculations used in arranging past elections, such as Sainte-Laguë 1.6 and Sainte-Laguë 1.9,1The Sainte-Laguë method is a way of distributing parliamentary seats based on proportional representation. Initially, a coalition’s votes are divided by 1.4 and upward, allowing for smaller coalitions to win. However, as the number increases – as has happened in Iraq – the chances of smaller bodies to win decreases, while the seats of larger ones increase in number. the use of closed and semi-open lists, and determining the denominator of votes and the electoral threshold for victory.

The course of the new electoral law: the parliament weakening the initial draft

The new electoral law has undergone several changes since it was first proposed and its approval was ultimately dependent on the stipulations of a large number of political actors. Initially, President Barham Salih took up the task of drafting the law with the help of several advisors and civil society organizations. He sent the first copy (hyperlink in Arabic) to the office of the prime minister on 11 November 2019 for approval. The first draft brought together three important electoral dimensions: the general parliamentary elections, local elections (i.e., for governorate councils), and the organization of the Independent High Electoral Commission that oversees the electoral process.

Facing calls for his removal, the prime minister separated the draft (hyperlink in Arabic) into three components without proposing any substantial changes: a draft law on parliamentary elections, a separate draft law on the Independent High Electoral Commission, and an amendment to the existing law on local elections (yet to be adopted).2Iraq last held local council elections in 2013, but political forces continued to delay local elections to ensure that there was no local control over governors belonging to their parties. Once the draft law was transferred to parliament, various disputes among political actors arose – particularly regarding the formation and distribution of electoral districts.

In the end, the parliament approved the parliamentary electoral law after introducing a number of amendments to the initial draft sent by the prime minister, but MPs continued to argue over the distribution of electoral districts for an additional 11 months until they finally reached an agreement which they presented in a separate annexe to the law. They relied on an artificial division of electoral districts that neglected the demands of protesters and accommodated the distribution of political actors’ influence. Note that initially the annexe on the distribution of electoral districts was not part of the draft law, but its formulation was expected to be entrusted to the Independent High Electoral Commission.

The parliament’s amendments to the president’s draft law removed provisions that took into account the protesters’ demands. For example, the president’s draft suggested that there should be a district for each electoral seat, as the protesters had called for. The final adopted annexe to the law artificially divides electoral districts without relying on any existing administrative jurisdiction, but based the number of electoral districts upon the existing women’s quota in parliament,3The distribution of the number of electoral districts in each governorate relies on the number of quota seats for women multiplied by 3 or 5 seats for the electoral district depending on the governate’s population size. which is set at 83 parliamentary seats. This division relies on the distribution of seats according to the population size in each governorate. This proved impractical and did not rely on clear geographical delimitations. The MPs have justified the division based on women’s quota seats for its computational ease and the fact that Iraq’s most recent census dates back to 1997, which makes it difficult to draw new electoral districts based on population size.4The last census in Iraq took place in 1997. Subsequent Iraqi governments postponed any future census in order to avoid political repercussions due to the disputed territories between Baghdad and the Kurdistan Region of Iraq, as well as to dispersed natural resources between governorates. Another justification was the absence of administrative boundaries for districts and sub-districts that could determine their belonging to a specific governorate, especially in the disputed territories.

In addition, the president’s draft had set the minimum age for candidacy at 25, which the parliament later raised to 28. Raising the age for candidacy appears in contradiction with the number of young people in Iraqi society, most of whom led demonstrations in 11 governorates in October 2019. Six hundred of them were killed, and 20,000 injured because of the security forces’ use of excessive force. The refusal of the dominant powers in parliament to lower the age for candidacy highlights their unwillingness to allow for a younger generation of leaders to emerge.

The copy of the law that the president forwarded for approval also stipulated that candidates must have a diploma or bachelor’s degree. The final law, however, accepts as a minimum requirement the completion of lower secondary school, which allows less educated candidates access to parliament and their subsequent exploitation by the dominant political forces. The parliamentary election law also generalized the nomination for cities, specifying that a candidate should come originally from the governorate whereas the president’s draft required that a potential candidate must have lived within the governorate for at least five years.

In its current form, the new law has many issues (hyperlink in Arabic). The division of electoral districts approved by the parliament appears to have officially “formalized” the administrative sectarian borders established through continuing civil strife since 2005 across a mix of such governorates as Baghdad, Nineveh, Kirkuk, and Diyala. It has also brought together into single electoral districts members of different clans that were previously separated geographically. Such a distribution may be workable in a homogeneous and stable country that does not suffer from internal divisions and crises and regional and national polarization. In countries like Iraq, these electoral districts could cause further divisions by encouraging competition between different sectarian, ethnic, and national groups and even spark new tribal and regional tensions to emerge.

The intervention of political powers in dividing the electoral districts is clear in areas where they are guaranteed influence among the population. For example, the delineation of districts in al-Anbar (hyperlink in Arabic) governorate combined regions 320km apart into one district in order to join members of the same clan and ultimately guarantee their votes will go to a specific candidate or party. The same applies to Kirkuk, which is divided between Arabs, Kurds and Turkmen, and to Diyala and Baghdad, which are both divided along sectarian lines.

Predicting the impact of the law

The new law is a departure from the past in the way it tallies votes and determines the winning candidate. The winner is determined by the greatest number of votes, instead of relying on complicated mathematical methods that make the entrance of independents to the parliament nearly impossible. Moreover, unlike past electoral laws where votes went to lists, the votes wil now go directly to the candidate. The additional votes that a candidate receives are not distributed between a party or electoral list, which in the past facilitated the election of MPs who ultimately represent their party but not the interest of the constituencies where they serve.

As a result, the parliament may see some new faces in the coming electoral cycle. These MPs, however, promise neither an overhaul of the run-down political process nor a different representation. The biggest winners are likely going to be local trial and religious leaders as well as Muaqtada Sadr’s Movement. Indeed, the activity of the current political forces has already started to focus on selecting candidates with tribal (hyperlink in Arabic) and even religious backgrounds because they hold social capital within their regions. These social groups are considered to be strong allies of the ruling political forces and have in the past been instrumental in the victory of party candidates in return for privileges. As such, the new electoral law is likely to replace some existing party candidates by their local tribal or religious backers, but this will not lead to any substantial change in the political reality of the country.

In addition, competition over electoral districts will push a great number of political leaders not to run for parliament or limit their numbers if they risk going to the polls. This is a positive outcome as it will deprive them of parliamentary immunity. When the governorate formed a single district, political leaders were able to ensure their wins by counting on the extra votes obtained under the electoral list and distributed between its members. This is a result of adopting a semi-open list system. This meant, then, that the votes for the party leader guaranteed him not one, but multiple seats. These leaders came to dominate (hyperlink in Arabic) around 3.3% of parliamentary seats in the last four elections and were mostly nominated in the governorate of Baghdad, given its greatest population density, its higher seats compared to any governorate, and its being the most developed in terms of the level of services available. With smaller electoral districts, however, most of these leaders no longer hold influence in any single electoral district in Baghdad. This means either that they will not have sweeping victories or that their share of votes will decrease as they lose the prestige they previously amassed, whether among the people or within political backrooms.

The new electoral law might have served as an important lever for independent candidates and smaller actors in a normal political and security situation as it grants them momentum and support through grass-roots bases. However, in practice, it is likely that it will be the existing parties with strong local presence and ability to influence, such as the Sadrist Movement led by Muqtada al-Sadr, that are likely to benefit the most.

The Sadrist Movement has long dreamt of a law that divides Iraq into small districts. Such a law is ideal for the party, allowing it to mobilize  its strong support across rural areas and poor, popular and densely populated regions. The Movement also benefits from a strong network of small offices run by clerics who implement and circulate information and directions from al-Sadr. Politicians and MPs (hyperlink in Arabic) have repeated that the biggest winner of the new law is the Sadrist Movement. A group of secularists, who aligned themselves with al-Sadr in the last parliamentary elections, have privately repeated that al-Sadr had an important role to play in imposing the law within the demonstrations, taking advantage of the protesters’ lack of knowledge of electoral laws.5Phone conversation with a leader of the Iraqi Communist Party and president of the secular alliance who prefers to remain anonymous. Indeed, al-Sadr began to prepare to run for the elections a few days after the law was passed, and he did not refrain from announcing (hyperlink in Arabic) his desire to get the office of the prime minister, set aside for Shiites according to the sectarian division which allots leading state positions with the presidency reserved for Kurds, the office of the prime minister for Shi’ites, and the speaker of the parliament for Sunnis. This sect-based division is not supported by society at large. Indeed, one of the protesters’ central demands was the elimination of the sectarian apportionment (Muhasasa Ta’ifia) in designating government positions.

Unresolved questions: of guns and corruption

The chances of independents and emergent political actors to succeed seem slim. Shortly after the adoption of the law in November, a number of them called for a boycott of the elections (hyperlink in Arabic). The law is not the only factor that has stirred up their anger; the difficulty of implementing it and guaranteeing fair competition between all political forces has also played a major role.

These actors have expressed their fear of unregulated weapons that the government seem incapable of controlling or ensuring they will not be used to influence election results. Some of those involved in the protests are also reluctant to announce their candidacy, fearful of being threatened or eliminated by armed factions like their companions before them. The biggest example of the intrusion of weapons into politics is their use at the hands of the two biggest blocs in parliament: Muqtada al-Sadr’s Alliance toward Reforms (Saairun) and the Fatah Alliance, which is the political section of the armed groups operating under the Popular Mobilization Units. These parties’ ownership of weapons violates the law on political parties that prohibits the formation of armed factions. There is no indication that these parties will refrain from using them to influence election outcomes.

In addition, the new law does not require the use of the biometric ballot that can limit fraud and restrict proxy voting. This means that a wide range of voters will vote using the electronic ballot, one of the main reasons for fraud in the 2018 election (hyperlink in Arabic). MPs have reiterated that some political forces have between three to four (hyperlinks in Arabic) million electronic ballots for use on election day, which could lead to one of the greatest cases of fraud. Political money, exploiting official government resources, and offering bribes have been some of the most common ways to influence voters over the past years in Iraq. This does not appear to be changing ahead of the next elections.

The international election monitoring which protestors called for might limit the impact of illegal means on the election process, and subsequently, on the results. However, the government and the Iraqi parliament’s acceptance of international monitoring is unlikely given that leading political forces in Iraq continue to reject it.

The new law certainly represents a small improvement compared to previous electoral laws. Nevertheless, it is an insufficient response to the protesters’ demands. The demonstrations and emergent actors called for an electoral district for each seat, in other words, a system of direct representation. They also called for the regulation of weapons, a proper and safe electoral environment, and holding to account those that rely on illegal ways to influence voters – none of which the government seems capable of ensuring. Despite the forthcoming elections, the change thousands of Iraqi men and women called for seems elusive.

Footnotes

1 The Sainte-Laguë method is a way of distributing parliamentary seats based on proportional representation. Initially, a coalition’s votes are divided by 1.4 and upward, allowing for smaller coalitions to win. However, as the number increases – as has happened in Iraq – the chances of smaller bodies to win decreases, while the seats of larger ones increase in number.
2 Iraq last held local council elections in 2013, but political forces continued to delay local elections to ensure that there was no local control over governors belonging to their parties.
3 The distribution of the number of electoral districts in each governorate relies on the number of quota seats for women multiplied by 3 or 5 seats for the electoral district depending on the governate’s population size.
4 The last census in Iraq took place in 1997. Subsequent Iraqi governments postponed any future census in order to avoid political repercussions due to the disputed territories between Baghdad and the Kurdistan Region of Iraq, as well as to dispersed natural resources between governorates.
5 Phone conversation with a leader of the Iraqi Communist Party and president of the secular alliance who prefers to remain anonymous.