Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Iraqi Parties Circle Around Election Bill

Most want a system that lets them handpick politicians, but none is prepared to say so out loud.
By Laith Hammoudi

Jasim Mohammed is sick and tired of the current political set-up in Iraq, and is not sure whether he will even bother to vote in next year’s parliamentary election. 

“I will participate in the 2014 election only if someone I trust is standing,” Mohammed, who heads an NGO in Baghdad, told IWPR. “I don’t feel that the people we voted in represent us.”

Mohammed says that if people like him like him carry on backing the same old parties and politicians, they will be opening the way for them to “plunder the nation’s wealth”.

He is not alone in his disillusionment with the democratic process. Ten years after Saddam Hussein was toppled, elected politicians are unable to stop the daily violence or deliver basic services like electricity and water.

Some believe the electoral system itself is to blame and needs to be amended. This month, the Iraqi parliament, the Council of Representatives, is to hold a vote on a revised electoral law. But some commentators fear the proposed changes could make things worse, not better.

The legislation envisages a return to the controversial system employed for polls in 2005 but dropped for the 2010 election. Called the “closed list”, it is a version of proportional representation where voters simply pick the party they favour, and its leader then decides who will take up the seats it has been allocated nationwide. The alternative, “open list” method would allow voters to go for named candidates and avoid anyone they do not like.

The wording is not yet fixed as the various Iraqi parties are still wrangling over fundamental issues.

“We completed the second reading of the Council of Representatives election law on July 27 and began discussing the individual articles, but we haven’t finished,” Ali al-Shilah, a member of parliament from Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki’s State of Law bloc, told IWPR.

Jawad al-Juburi, a parliamentarian from another big Shia-dominated group, the Sadrist Movement, said all the big issues were yet to be agreed.

“Issues like open or closed candidate lists, ‘lost’ votes [cast for parties that fail to pass the threshold to win seats in parliament], and whether Iraq should be a single constituency or divided into many – all of those need further discussion,” Juburi said.

The candidate list issue is the most sensitive, since it decides whether voters get to choose individuals or just parties. The major parties are being coy about their stance on the matter, since none wants to be seen to favour the “closed list”. Many are publicly insisting that they want the open system, and that it is their rivals who want the less transparent model where leaders rather than the electorate select candidates.

Hasan al-Yasiri belongs to the State of Law bloc, which in turn is part of the broader, Shia-led Iraqi United Alliance. He says the alliance supports open lists, and so do the Kurdish parties, in contrast to the main Sunni bloc, Iraqiyah, which he says wants the closed system.

“The Iraqi United Alliance supports the open list, and we regard a return to the closed list as a red line that must not be passed,” he said.

Iraqiyah politician Zeyad al-Therb, however, flatly denies that his group wants the less transparent system. Although some parliamentary party chiefs want that system, Therb is certain the law will be rewritten because the various parties realise how unpopular the closed system is.

Mahmoud Othman, an independent Kurdish member of parliament, is less optimistic. He says the open-list system does not even get a mention in the text of the bill as it currently stands.

“We don’t have open lists in Iraq. We don’t even have half-open lists, because the open mechanism means that candidates should be individually nominated,” he said.

Othman said that in reality, all the major Iraqi parties wanted candidate lists to be selected by their leaders, not the voters, but were reluctant to say so publicly because this would get an adverse reaction from the electorate and from influential senior Muslim clerics.

Abu Yusif, a 48-year-old Baghdad resident, has not voted in any recent election, because he has so little confidence in the parties that populate the political scene.

“I feel it’s a great sin to vote for any of those politicians because none of them thinks about Iraq or the Iraqis,” he said. “All they care about is personal advantage and their parties’ benefit.”

The signs do not look promising for the forthcoming electoral law. There is a danger that more and more voters like Abu Yusif will feel alienated from a process in which real choice is limited.

Nuha al-Dirwish is a civil activist who used to run voter education programmes. These days, she says, she has stopped doing so, because she herself is not even convinced of the importance of voting when the outcome is “already preordained”.

“I was hoping the situation in Iraq would change for the better, but the predominance of corrupt parties has driven me to give up urging people to take part in elections – moreover, it has led me not to take part myself,” Dirwish said.

Laith Hammoudi is IWPR’s editor in Iraq.