Voting in the three provinces comprising the Kurdistan Regional Government -- Irbil, Dahuk, and Sulaymaniyah -- will take place later this year. Voting in the disputed province of Tamim (Kirkuk) is postponed indefinitely.
Throughout the rest of the country, some 14,400 candidates representing over 400 political entities are contesting 440 provincial council seats. Each provincial council will comprise 25 seats plus one additional seat per 200,000 people in the province.
The largest province by population, Baghdad, will have 57 council members. The other 13 participating provinces will have an average number of 30 council members. Unlike Iraq’s previous provincial elections in January 2005, the candidates are no longer faceless. They are reaching out to the grassroots, holding rallies and candidate forums, and responding to constituent demands for jobs and the provision of essential services. Public anger over perceived corruption and mismanagement by Baghdad’s ruling parties is expected to drive high voter turnout to the polls. Yet despite such public perceptions and desire for new leadership, the ruling parties are expected to perform well.
Voter registration reached 4.6 million before the Independent High Electoral Commission of Iraq (IHEC) decided to allow anyone over the age of 18 to vote. Thus as many as 17.2 million eligible voters could potentially turn out to the polls (although actual turnout will likely be closer to 10 million).
The IHEC is working to ensure voting rights for an estimated 2.7 million internally displaced persons (IDPs), establishing special polling stations throughout the country. Even in Iraqi Kurdistan where provincial elections are not scheduled to take place until later this year, 41 special polling stations have been set up for IDPs.
The IHEC has opened a total of 42,000 polling stations -- approximately one polling station for every 400 eligible voters -- in almost 7,000 locations. To reduce the incidence of fraud, each voter will be assigned to only one polling station. The IHEC has launched a voter education campaign, set up a toll-free information hotline, and posted a "poll station locater" on their website to help voters find their designated polling station.
Saturday will be the most observed elections to ever take place in Iraq. The National Democratic Institute (NDI) and the International Republican Institute (IRI) have trained 20,000 election observers (twice as many as with previous elections), and the IHEC website reports that it expects to accredit more than 100,000 independent and cross-party observers.
Will the year of the ballot lead to a year of change in Iraq? Indeed, most Iraqis are dissatisfied with Iraq’s ruling parties. Common complaints include sectarian bias, corruption, and underperformance. According to a January 2009 nationwide poll of Iraqis conducted by NDI, only 34% of respondents expressed positive feelings toward the Council of Representatives. Another measure of public support for change: more than 75% of the 14,000-plus candidates and 400-plus political parties registered by the IHEC are new.
FROM CLOSED PARTY LISTS TO PARTIAL OPEN PARTY LISTS & CANDIDATES
Each provincial council will comprise 25 seats plus one additional seat per 200,000 people in the province. The largest province by population, Baghdad, will have 57 council members. The other 13 participating provinces will have an average number of 30 council members.
In January 2005, a closed-list system was used in the provincial elections. That meant that voters cast ballots for party lists, not candidates. The parties then decided which of their own candidates would fill the seats they had won. In the midst of growing violence, many Iraqis voted for the list that represented their ethnic or religious identity, contributing to an institutionalization of sectarian divisions. This time both party lists and individual candidates are listed, and issue politics are ascendant over sectarianism. Moreover, thanks to improving security in some areas of Iraq, candidates are less afraid of being publicly visible. Their faces can be seen on campaign posters covering blast walls and buildings, and they are reaching out directly to would-be constituents (see “This Time, Iraqis Hear and See Candidates” by Timothy Williams and Suadad al-Salhy, New York Times, 1/6/09).
Responding to a public backlash against the sectarianism that nearly tore the country apart in 2006 and 2007, most political parties and candidates are not defining themselves in sectarian terms. Aamer Madhani of USA Today reports: “The election campaign that is coming to a close in Iraq might be most notable for the relative absence of two words: 'Shiite' and 'Sunni.'” Instead, candidates are focusing on constituent demands for jobs, improved public services, and solutions to other issues. Kim Gamel and Hamza Hendawi of the Scotsman report: “Candidates in this month's Iraqi provincial elections are answering questions from voters and debating issues ranging from housing shortages to the need for foreign investment. This style of campaigning is new to Iraq, where candidates for the first time feel safe enough to canvass for votes and focus on grass-roots issues.”
REASONS FOR CONCERN
During the year of the ballot box, addressing the following concerns will help further a consolidation of Iraq’s democracy rather than it’s unraveling.
First, although less of a factor than in previous elections, political violence remains a wild card. Since late December, five candidates and one campaign manager have been assassinated. In late December, Mowaffaq al-Hamdani, a candidate with the Sunni Arab "Iraq for Us" party list, was shot dead in a café in the northern city of Mosul. On January 16th, Haitham al-Husseini, a leading candidate of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s Dawa party, was killed by armed gunmen in Babil province. On January 18th in Qayara south of Mosul, a suicide bomber killed Sheikh Hassan Zaidan al-Luhaibi, the campaign manager of Saleh al-Mutlaq’s National Dialogue Front in the northern provinces of Nineveh and Salahuddin. Rival political parties are suspected in all three of these attacks, yet no one has been charged with a crime.
[Updated on 1/30/09] On Thursday, three candidates running for provincial council seats were assassinated (see "Three Sunni Candidates Slain Days Before Elections" by Zaid Sabah and Qais Mizher, Washington Post, 1/30/09). In Mosul (Ninewa), gunmen killed Hazim Salim al-Zaidi, a former Iraqi army officer who was running on the "National Unity List" of independent Sunni candidates in Mosul, near his home. In the town of Mandali in Diyala province, Abbas Farhan, a candidate with the secular “National Movement of Reform and Development” party, was seized by armed assailants along with his brother and a cousin. Their bodies were later found nearby riddled with bullets. In Baghdad's Amiriyah neighborhood, Omar Farouq al-Ani, a candidate with the Iraqi Islamic Party led by Vice President Tariq al-Hashimi, was killed in a drive-by shooting as he stepped from his home.
Second, there are no provisions for Iraqi refugees who remain outside Iraq to vote. Beth Ferris of Brookings writes: “This means that close to 10% of Iraq’s population will be disenfranchised.”
Third, without strong independent oversight, we could see a recurrence of voter intimidation and voting irregularities in some areas, especially in the Ninevah Plain region of Ninewa province (to the north and west of the city Mosul). The Ninevah Plain is home to large communities of Assyrian, Yezidi, Shabak, and Turkoman minorities. The U.S. Department of State's 2005 Human Rights Country Report for Iraq states: In the January (2005) elections, many of the mostly non-Muslim residents on the Nineveh Plain were unable to vote. Some polling places did not open, ballot boxes were not delivered, and incidents of voter fraud and intimidation occurred. These problems resulted from administrative breakdowns on voting day and the refusal of Kurdish security forces to allow ballot boxes to pass to predominantly Christian villages.
Fourth, without a political party law, there are no restrictions on foreign funding. In fact, candidates and parties are not even required to divulge their funding sources. Given Iraq’s geography and what’s a stake -- both economically and geo-politically -- money is pouring in from Iran, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, the United States, and other foreign governments. The Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq (ISCI) led by Sayyed Abdul Aziz al-Hakim was founded in Tehran in 1982 (under a different name) and continues to receive considerable funding from Iran. The Iraqi National Accord of Ayad Allawi has received support from Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states, as well as covert assistance from Western intelligence agencies. The Iraqi Islamic Party of Iraqi Vice President Tariq al-Hashimi reportedly receives funding from Turkey, suggested by al-Hashimi’s regular trips to Istanbul. The U.S. military has funded tribal leaders who are running for office (see "Iraq Election Highlights Ascendancy of Tribes" by Anthony Shadid, Washington Post, 1/25/09).
Ideally, elections ought to be determined by “one person, one vote” and the candidate’s ability to mobilize volunteers and generate financial contributions from the electorate. In turn, that can strengthen the ties that bind elected officials to their constituents, enhancing the legitimacy and accountability of the government. Foreign funding can distort election outcomes to reflect the will of foreign capitols rather than the will of the people, and make elected officials answerable to foreign interests rather than their own constituents. As noted by Musings On Iraq, it can also create an unfair playing field for aspiring leaders: “While it’s often been repeated that over 14,000 candidates are running in the upcoming election, few of these newcomers can compete with the [Islamic] Supreme Council’s two satellite TV channels, dozens of local channels and newspapers, five women’s organization, three student groups, and over 1,000 offices in the south.”
Fifth, there have been scattered reports of vote-buying and other campaign violations. Common allegations and reported incidences include: promising land and jobs in exchange for votes; using gifts (phone cards being a popular choice) and cash payments to buy votes; arresting and intimidating opponents; posting campaign posters on government buildings; using religious figures to promote a candidate or party; and the use of Iraqi government money by Iraqi officials to campaign.
Finally and perhaps most significant, the current one-time provincial elections law favors Baghdad-backed big parties over newer, smaller ones. This might discourage voter turnout among Iraqis who are afraid their votes won't count.
Under a unique 'open-list proportional representation' system to be used for the first time in Iraq, a voter can choose to cast their ballot for either an individual candidate or a party list. However, if a voter chooses to cast a ballot for an individual candidate, they must correctly mark the candidate’s corresponding party “list” affiliation or the ballot is considered invalid.
The formula for awarding seats also favors large, established parties over smaller newcomers. According to a Council on Foreign Relations backgrounder, here's how it works:
Under Iraq's revised open-list structure, votes will be tallied and awarded according to the percentage of the votes a candidate receives. "If there are forty seats at stake, you have to get one-fortieth of the votes" in a given province to win one seat, Sam Parker [an Iraq analyst with the United States Institute of Peace] explains. This threshold of votes is known as the "electoral divider" in the provincial elections law. The rub, Parker says, is that if a candidate does not reach the electoral divider threshold, "you don't get a seat, period." And because of the disorganized and fractious nature of the emerging political landscape in Iraq, Parker says there are likely to be "a whole lot of wasted votes, people [in small or unknown parties] who don't reach the threshold and don't get seats."Aamer Madhani of USA Today reports: “Bahaa al-Araji, a Shiite legislator who is overseeing two lists, estimates that 1 million Iraqis will not see any of the candidates they vote for get a legislative seat. That could result in some unrest, al-Araji said. "After the election, it could be a very dark time in Iraq."”
After the initial votes are tallied, some seats could be unfilled because larger parties might not tally 100 percent of the vote and smaller parties might not win enough votes to push them over the election threshold. These unfilled seats will be doled out on a proportional basis to the parties that won seats during the initial allocation. If, for instance, Prime Minister Maliki's Dawa Party wins 40 percent of the seats in the initial round of vote counting in Basra, Dawa will then be awarded 40 percent of the empty seats. While legal, Parker says the result "is going to look unfair" to smaller parties that might claim they didn't have enough time, or resources, to properly campaign for votes [READ MORE].
THE BOTTOM LINE
The outcome of this week’s provincial elections will favor large, well-established parties over smaller newcomers, while helping to boost representation of Sunni Arabs who had largely boycotted Iraq's previous provincial elections in 2005.
Later this year, Iraq’s citizens will have additional opportunities to decide their future and promote new leaders from the local to national level. Within six months of voting for provincial councils, Iraqis will return to the ballot box to vote for municipal and district councils. A national referendum on the security agreement with the United States is scheduled for July. The three provinces comprising the Kurdistan Regional Government -- Irbil, Dahuk, and Sulaymaniyah -- will hold provincial elections later this year. And finally, national parliamentary elections are scheduled for December.
While ballots are chosen over bullets and politics shift from sectarian divisions to real issues like jobs and the provision of essential services, the U.S. and international community should not take these developments for granted. Improvements in security remain fragile and reversible. Beyond elections, enormous challenges remain from resolving conflict in Kirkuk to increasing Iraqi government capacity for meetings the needs of the population. But with appropriate support -- especially through the UN Assistance Mission in Iraq (UNAMI) and other civilian agencies -- the Obama administration has an opportunity to help consolidate Iraq’s democracy and long-term stability.