The December 2008 issue of the Arab Reform Bulletin had an article by Michael Knights on the importance of the upcoming Iraqi provincial elections. Knights is a Middle East specialist from England that works for the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. Knights’ main argument was that while the elections will not be perfect, they are an important sign of progress for Iraq’s political system. They will give a sense of how popular Iraq’s parties are, show that the government is committed to democracy, but Knights’ point may be undermined by the fact that actual governance might not improve.
Iraq’s elections are due at the end of January 2009. They will occur in fourteen of the country’s eighteen provinces. The Kurdish Regional Government will decide when the three Kurdish provinces of Dohuk, Irbil, and Sulaymaniyah will hold their vote. Tamim, home of the disputed city of Kirkuk, will have its polling delayed as well until a committee can come up with a power sharing agreement, and a separate election law is drafted for it. The committee is supposed to finish their work by March 31, 2009. Even with these exceptions around 75% of the Iraqi public will still be voting.
The election law this time is more open than 2005, but still has limits. The new voting system is an open list, proportional one. In 2005 Iraq had a closed list vote. People picked from coalitions of parties, and then those parties decided what politicians would fill the provincial council seats. Many of these people were unqualified as the parties relied upon cronies, family ties, and patronage to dole out the seats. The new system will allow Iraqis to pick from individuals, parties or coalitions. The votes will be tallied to see how much each individual or party gets across the entire province, and then positions on the council will be given by the percentage each received. The top vote getters for each list will receive the actual seats, meaning the parties will not get to pick them as happened in 2005. This method favors the large parties that are better organized, funded, and already control the councils because they can operate across the entire province, which is necessary to win seats. There are also no campaign financing rules, which will allow rich individuals and foreign countries to also play a role in influencing the outcome. In November for example, an Iranian agent was arrested in Wasit hiding in a fuel truck carrying forged Iraqi IDs. An Iraqi source believed the Iranian was planning to use them in the elections to fake votes. The election law also sets aside a quota for women candidates with the top vote getting women getting every 3rd seat on the councils. The councils in turn pick the governors of each province and the provincial police chiefs. They also get to control the provincial budgets and local reconstruction projects.
The January elections will also be different from the 2005 one because of who’s running and how. In the 2005 provincial elections, the major Shiite parties the Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council (SIIC) and the Dawa ran together as part of the United Iraqi Alliance. This time they will be running against each other. Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki has already made his move to improve his situation vis-a-vis the much larger SIIC that already controls most of the southern provinces by creating Tribal Support Councils aimed at gathering votes from sheikhs and their followers in rural areas. The Sunnis and Sadrists also largely boycotted the first 2005 elections. On the Sunni side, only the Iraqi Islamic Party ran, which now controls Anbar, while the Sadrists only really competed in Maysan, which they have sway over. The tribal Awakening forces in Anbar are hoping to unseat the Islamic Party, while the larger Iraqi Accordance Front coalition is looking to gain seats in central and northern Iraq. The Sadrists on the other hand, are handicapped by the series of government crackdowns that began in March 2008. Sadr said his followers would run with smaller parties. As reported earlier, this probably means they will not do well. Dozens of independents and individuals are going to run as well, even though their chances of victory are slim due to the voting system. The head of Iraq’s Election Commission announced that there were 14,800 individuals, 36 coalitions, and 366 political parties running for office this time.
In the end, Knights believes that the elections will only shuffle the seats between the current ruling parties. He predicts that the Shiite south will be evenly divided between the Dawa and SIIC after the election, with independents being the swing votes as to who is named governors. The Anbar tribes will split the vote with the Islamic Party, and the Accordance Front could take Salahaddin, which is currently ruled by the Kurds. The Sunnis might also gain seats in Diyala and Baghdad, while the Kurds could retain control of Ninewa, which has the disputed city of Mosul. Knights warns that violence and fraud might also influence the vote, both real and imagined. There have already been several reports of an uptake in assassinations and the use of sticky bombs to kill officials that could be linked to the elections.
When the election is over, the new councils may face opportunities and difficulties as well. The new governors could have more power as the provincial powers act gives them wide ranging authority. They could also be severely limited by two factors as well. First, the change in ruling parties could also hamper the local government as bureaucrats are likely to be replaced with a brand new set of family members and cronies that have little to no experience running anything. Second, Baghdad is planning on slashing the provincial budgets in half because of the drop in oil prices. Much of Iraq lives in poverty, and many citizens are cynical about the political system that has failed to improve their lot even as violence has declined in the last year. Because of these experiences and financial constraints, the new provincial governments may be no better than their predecessors in delivering on any of their election promises.
Despite all of these faults, Knights still believes that the elections are important. Iraq is still formulating its political system after years of dictatorial rule. The same parties may end up in power, just with different positions vis-à-vis each other, and they may not be able to improve the provinces’ lot much, but Knights argues the vote will be significant symbolically. He thinks that Baghdad needs to instill in the public the fact that there will be regular elections, and the people will have a say in who rules the country. Of course, if it leads to the same type of incompetent and corrupt governance couldn’t that corrode the populace’s belief in democracy just as much? There are plenty of developing countries that have regular votes, but little changes. Ultimately, simply carrying out balloting is not enough to transform a nation. Elections need to be more than symbolic victories. They need to lead to real substantive changes as well.
For more on the upcoming provincial elections see:
Controversy Could Be Growing Over Ban On Using Religious Symbols During Provincial Elections
Iraqi Al-Amal Association and Baghdad University’s Public Opinion Poll On Poverty In Iraq
Maliki’s Tribal Support Councils Appear To Be Paying Off
Iraq Center for Research & Strategic Studies’ Survey Of Iraqis
Maliki Responds To His Critics On Tribal Support Councils
Disputes Over Tribal Support Councils
Iraq’s Displaced Not Excitied About Election
Iraq’s New Voting System
Election Law Passed, Now To Get People To Vote
Aswat al-Iraq, “Iranian with forged Iraqi IDs arrested in Wassit,” 11/22/08
- “Next year elections made by Iraqis – IHEC,” 12/4/08
- “No decrease in salaries because of oil prices – planning minister,” 12/19/08
Fadel, Leila, “Assassinations replacing car bombs in Iraq,” McClatchy Newspapers, 10/9/08
Goode, Erica, “Iraq Passes Provincial Elections Law,” New York Times, 9/25/08
Institute for the Study of War, “Fact Sheet on Iraq’s Major Shi’a Political Parties and Militia Groups,” April 2008
Knights, Michael, “Significance of the Provincial Elections,” Arab Reform Bulletin, December, 2008
Middle East Reference.org, “Governorate elections held in Iraq on 31 January 2005”
Parker, Sam, “not so open,” Abu Muqawama Blog, 9/25/08