Iraq’s new electoral law: Who will win, the parties or the people?

02-11-2020 07:08
A girl casts her ballot during the Kurdistan Region's parliamentary elections, Sept. 30, 2018. (Photo: Peregraf)

Peregraf- Rasti Hama Amin

The influence of protestors and people on Iraq’s new electoral law are apparent. Everyone is watching to see who the winner of the game will be – the people or the major political parties.

Iraq’s Council of Representatives passed the electoral law on December 12, 2019 under pressure from protesters in Baghdad’s Tahrir Square. The law consists of 50 articles. Early this week, parliament decided upon the delineation of electoral districts. Iraq’s 18 constituencies have been subdivided into 83 districts, with 83 seats allocated to the female quota.

Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa Al-Kadhimi has designated June 6, 2021 as the date for Iraq’s early parliamentary election.

What are the changes to the law?

The new electoral law contains several critical amendments that experts say might change Iraq’s political map.

Aram Jamal, director of Kurdish Institute for Elections, told Peregraf: “This law eliminates electoral lists and in the next election, there will not be party lists but individual candidates. Therefore, a political party no longer can have a list of 100 candidates to gain votes for the top three of the list, but any candidate who can win most votes would be the first.”

As Aram Jamal says that in the previous elections, a party leader or prominent political figure would nominate himself only to collect votes for the party but would not ultimately sit in parliament. But the new law puts an end to this practice. “A candidate can no longer win 100 thousand votes and take five other candidates with him to parliament; everyone will gain what one deserves.”

According to the law, anyone within a district who is over the age of 25, meets the constitutional qualifications, and is a resident and a voter from the same district can nominate his or herself.

In the next election, voters do not vote for lists but directly for candidates within their constituency.

As Saeed Kakaye, former member of Council of Commissioners of Iraq Commission, explained to Peregraf, there are two essential changes to the electoral system in this law: “First, the proportional representation system was eliminated and changed to a majoritarian system, which means the winner is the one who gains most votes within the district. Second, it became a system of multiple constituencies.”

Can the new electoral commission hold the election?

According to one prevalent viewpoint, the main problem for next election is that the electoral commission consists of judges who have no previous experience of managing an election.

Hawzhin Omer, advisor to the President of Iraq, told Peregraf: “The inefficiency of electoral commission and leaving problems with it unresolved would harm the success and integrity of the electoral process.”

The advisor to the President also mentioned that the next election will be highly contentious and competitive because the aim is to change Iraq’s political map. If those responsible for coordinating elections do not succeed in administering the process, deeper crises may emerge in Iraq that could lead to civil war and conflict.

The electoral commission is comprised of 7 judges and two legal counselors. Saed Kakaye holds a different view from that of Omer and thinks that the commissioners have rich experience in legislation, as well as in respecting, implementing, and executing the law – all desirable qualities in an electoral commissioner. They only lack experience with technical and logistical parts of the process and have acquired a good experience over the ten months since they began their work.

The Iraqi government will need to spend 250 to 300 million USD to hold a nationwide election. It is not yet clear if it can provide that amount to the commission while also making budget cuts.

The new electoral law was passed in the Iraqi Parliament in late 2019. The membership of the commission has changed four times since the Baath Regime fell in 2003.

Will people find hope in the process?

Election after election, the rate of participation decreases – a serious threat to the electoral process.

In the fifth round of Kurdistan Region parliamentary elections in 2018, the rate of participation was 58% in Erbil, 61% in Duhok, 53% in Sulaymaniyah and 60% in Halabja with a total of about 53%.

Hogr Chato, coordinator of Shams Network for Observing Elections, believes that every change increases participation in elections.

Chato explained to Peregraf that there are three ways to increase participation in elections and to promote popular confidence in the electoral process.

First, the High Electoral Commission should guarantee that the election will be clean and free of manipulation.

The second point relates to the conduct of campaigns. Candidates on the ballot should have a clean record and a history of good service to inspire trust in them.

Third, there should be a broad-based campaign to encourage citizens to participate in the election. For this purpose, a national campaign in cooperation with United Nations should be conducted through media agencies, NGOs, religious figures, tribal leaders, and those with social influence to increase participation in the election.

Political games and citizens’ lives in the balance

The main purpose behind protesters’ demands for change in the electoral law was to prevent ruling parties from forming a list and carrying the vote of an entire governorate.

Although people had participated actively in the electoral process since 2003, they have continued to suffer from the numerous problems and crises facing the nation.

Never has an electoral law, or the timing of elections, been so responsive to the demands of the public. But a shadow lingers over the realization of citizens’ expectations.

In Aram Jamal’s view, if this new law is implemented as is, it will be a good step forward for democracy. If wealthy, armed groups with foreign connections do not mar the process through cheating and tampering with ballots, they would serve democracy and inspire participation.

The law and the parties

There is a widely shared, popular view that the big parties will be the primary beneficiaries of the new law. It has been said that when this law is implemented, only two or three parties will remain in the political arena while the others are eliminated.

Aram Jamal says, “this law favors well-disciplined parties that have supporters who will vote for whichever candidate that the party campaigns for.”

“The parties that [currently] have one seat will not win that seat [in the next election], but the parties that have two seats or more will be able to win seats if they try hard and know where their supporters are. And they should choose candidates that are liked by the people and not just those who are favored by members of political and presidential bureaus,” said Aram Jamal.

According to Hogr Chato, although the new system has not been tested and the results are not yet known, he “ believe[s] this law favors big parties.”

Kurdish party votes in disputed areas

The Kurdish parties did not support the new electoral system and initially, they unanimously supported keeping the previous system of 18 governorate-based districts. But their efforts did not bear fruit. The parties argued that the new law was designed to dilute Kurdish votes in disputed territories and they feared that the Kurds might lose half of their seats in those areas. The Kurdish parties hold the majority of seats in Kirkuk and carry a significant number of votes in Mosul, Salahaddin and Diyala.

The Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) and Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) could not agree on how Kirkuk’s electoral districts should be divided.

Based on his experience, Saeed Kakaye predicts that in the governorates of Kirkuk, Diyala, and Nineveh, the number of seats carried by Kurdish parties will increase by 2 to 4 seats, but he did not explain how.

Aram Jamal of the Kurdish Institute for Elections says that the Kurdish parties will be forced to align in the disputed areas to prevent the Kurdish vote from being diluted and ensure that they win seats.

He added, “the Kurds in disputed areas face the same disadvantages as the Arabs and Turkmans. If the Kurds cannot field mutually agreeable candidates and mobilize the voters to vote for them, then sure, the outcome will be bad for them. The same is true for Turkmens.”

Fraud: the enemy of the electoral process

Fraud is a hot topic in every election. In the previous Iraqi general elections, the opposition parties claimed that electronic fraud was conducted. They claim that in the elections held on May 12, 2018 the hacking of voting machines caused their votes to be counted for the PUK in Green Zone and for the KDP in the Yellow Zone.

In Iraq, many lists and coalitions contested the results, including then Prime Minister Haidar al-Abadi’s list, Al-Nasser. Al-Abadi believed he would have gained significantly more votes if not for fraud.

Aram Jamal says that if biometric voting is used in the election, cheating will decrease to a great extent. Aram’s institute prepared a proposal suggesting that Iraq implement a unified system which will indicate whether a person has voted twice by matching duplicate fingerprints.

According to statistics from Saeed Kakaye, the rate of fraud has steadily decreased in Iraq. The rate was 40% in the 2010 elections, 35% in 2014 elections, and 25% in 2018 elections. Therefore, cheating has decreased with the implementation of necessary regulations and the use of using machines.

Electoral constituencies in the Kurdistan Region will be organized in accordance with the new electoral law, and voters can only vote for candidates running in their district.

Sulaymaniyah governorate has 18 seats and is divided into 5 electoral districts

1. Neighborhoods in northern Sulaymaniyah with Sharbazher and Mawat districts form a constituency comprised of 4 seats, with one reserved for women.

2. Neighborhoods in the south of Sulaymaniyah with Qaradagh and Bazyan areas forms a constituency of 3 seats, with one reserved for women.

3. Halabja with Said Sadiq, Sharazoor and Penjwen districts form a constituency comprised of 3 seats, with one reserved for women.

4. Ranya with Qaladze and Dukan districts form a constituency of 4 seats, with one reserved for women.

5. Garmian, with Kalar, Chamchamal, Darbandixan, and Kifri districts forms a constituency of 4 seats, with one reserved for women.

Erbil governorate has 15 seats and is divided into 4 electoral districts

  1. Neighborhoods in eastern Erbil form a constituency of 4 seats, with one reserved for women.

  2. Neighborhoods in western Erbil form a constituency of 3 seats, with one reserved for women.

  3. Districts of Khabat with sub-districts around Erbil form a constituency of 4 seats, with one reserved for women.

  4. Districts of Soran, Rawanduz, Shaqlawa, Mergasur and Choman form a constituency of 4 seats, with one is reserved for women.

Duhok governorate has 11 seats and is divided into 3 electoral districts

  1. Downtown Duhok and Amedi form a constituency of 4 seats, with one reserved for women.

  2. Zakho and Semel form a constituency of 3 seats, with one reserved for women.

  3. Akre, Shekhan, and Barderash form a constituency of 4 seats, with one reserved for women.

Kirkuk governorate has 12 seats and is divided into 3 electoral districts.

  1. The eastern part of Kirkuk’s central district forms a constituency of 4 seats, with one reserved for women. it includes northern Kirkuk, areas such as Rahimawa, Arafa, Shorija, Musalla, Aiskan, Qadisia, Hurrya, Prde, Laylan and some areas of Daqoq district.

  2. The middle of Kirkuk’s central district forms a constituency of 4 seats, with one reserved for women. It includes areas such as Taseen, Qorya, Wast, Qadsya 2, Taza-Rashad, some areas of Musalla, Hay Askary, Khasa, and some areas of Ryaz, Yaychy, and Prde.
  1. Hawija and Ryaz form a constituency of 3 seats, with one reserved for women. It includes areas such as Hawija, Abasi, Zab, Rashad, Dubz.

This investigative report was written by Rasti Hama Amin for Peregraf as part of the Intensive Journalism Workshop funded by the German Foreign Office.