Reforming Iraqi Elections

Former Iraqi Prime Minister Ayad Allawi has a well-written argument for changing Iraq’s electoral laws to reduce sectarian tensions. He argues that the system used in 2005—which had Iraqis voting on party lists rather than individual candidates is the cause of the current political paralysis in Baghdad:

Yet due largely to political pressure from the international community, the elections went ahead in January 2005, under a misguided “closed party list” system. Rather than choosing a specific candidate, voters across the country chose from among rival lists of candidates backed and organized by political parties. This system was entirely unsuitable given the security situation, the lack of accurate census figures, heavy intimidation from ethnic and religious militias, gross interventions by Iran, dismantled state institutions, and the use of religious symbols by parties to influence voters.

Accordingly, the vast majority of the electorate based their choices on sectarian and ethnic affiliations, not on genuine political platforms. Because many electoral lists weren’t made public until just before the voting, the competing candidates were simply unknown to ordinary Iraqis. This gave rise to our sectarian Parliament, controlled by party leaders rather than by the genuine representatives of the people. They have assembled a government unaccountable and unanswerable to its people.

That criticism seems accurate to me. One of the problems with the current Iraqi government is that it’s essentially sectarian. There are Sunni parties, Shi’ite parties, Iranian-backed Shi’ite parties, and Kurdish parties. There isn’t an Iraqi party which represents a wide base of Iraqi society but a whole host of squabbling parties which represent only their narrow interests. The reason why nothing gets done in the Iraqi government is because the people in the Parliament are more beholden to the party leaders than to the people.

However, Dr. Allawi does have a proposed solution to these problems:

I propose that a new electoral law be devised to move Iraq toward a completely district-based electoral system, like the American Congress, or a “mixed party list” system like that in Germany, in which some representatives are directly elected and other seats are allotted based on the parties’ overall showing. In either case, the candidates must be announced well in advance of the election, and they must be chosen to represent the people in their locality.

Furthermore, a new law should ban the use of religious symbols and rhetoric by candidates and parties — these have no place in democratic elections. In order to prevent interference from militias and to ensure transparency, the United Nations must supervise all these elections district by district. And these reforms should be supplemented by other preconditions of national reconciliation, like general amnesty to all those who have not engaged in terrorism.

On the first point, Dr. Allawi’s plan is exactly what Iraq needs. The most important part of democratic development is that the government be responsive to the people. The biggest mistake we’ve made in terms of guiding Iraq’s political development is not doing enough to foster grass-roots development and civil society. The foundation of democratic government is civil society. You can build a democracy with most intelligently crafted structure and institutions, but if there’s no civil society that government will collapse. There is some civil society in Iraq, but the government doesn’t reflect those developments. Changing the system for electing the Iraqi Parliament won’t help develop civil society, but it will make the government more responsive to the independent development of civil society. Instead of Shi’ite candidates and Kurdish candidates you would have a Member of Parliament from Um Qasr who was directly responsible to the people of Um Qasr, not the head of some party list. You would have a Member of Parliament from a district of Baghdad whose job it was to represent the people of that district. Good government is government that is responsive to the people and has a direct interest in making the standard of life better for their constituency.

I’m less sure about a ban on religious expression in campaigns. Yes, religious sectarianism is harmful to democracy. At the same time, one cannot discount the fact that religious issues are important to the people. Would it strengthen American democracy if our candidates couldn’t speak about religion? There has to be a line between religious appeals and overt religious sectarianism in government. If we want a stable and democratic Iraq we have to acknowledge that Islam is part and parcel of the makeup of Iraq. It seems better to me that Iraq have freedom of expression than to try and bottle up the religious aspect of Iraq life in Iraqi politics. What is key is to ensure that all members of Iraq’s society be given the same freedom, be they Sunni, Shi’a, Assyrian Christian, Yazidi, or otherwise.

Iraqi is developing politically, and ultimately the Awakening movements in places like al-Anbar and Diyala will likely have a great influence on Iraqi politics as Iraqi Sunnis become more involved in national politics. Ensuring that Iraq’s political culture remains responsive to the people is crucial for Iraq’s future development. At the same time, Iraqi politics need to have checks and balances to avoid the mob mentality from destroying Iraq’s democratic principles. Getting that balance right takes time and experimentation, and Iraq is at the Articles of Confederation stage of development in which a new Constitution may develop to fix the shortcomings of the old. When that happens, electoral reform will need to be one of the top issues, and Dr. Allawi’s changes would help make Iraqi government more accountable and ensure that democracy in Iraq lasts for the long term.

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