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Avoiding Elections at Any Cost in Iraq

Author: Rachel Schneller, International Affairs Fellow
December 3, 2009

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On November 8, Iraq's governing council passed a law revising national election procedures. Ten days later, Iraq's Sunni Vice President Tariq al-Hashemi announced he was vetoing the law, and preparations for elections were suspended. National elections could still take place in January 2010, but this is far from certain given the Iraqi government's tendency to delay taking action on nearly every issue of importance. Adding to concerns over new political roadblocks: The drawdown of roughly one hundred and thirty thousand U.S. troops is predicated on elections taking place.

But the derailing of the election law may not be as bad as it sounds. The version approved by the governing council actually could have triggered greater instability in Iraq. Not only could corruption and fraud call the results and a new Iraqi government into question--even if Iraqi elections are free, fair, and uncontested--the new election law could lead to troubling divisions over oil revenues. The law has created conditions for even greater Kurdish control over Kirkuk and oil resources in northern Iraq. Other oil-rich regions of Iraq, such as the largely Shia south, will also have a basis to agitate for oil revenues to flow to regional governments. With the Iraqi central government still relying on oil for more than 90 percent of its national budget, the long-term viability of the country is called into question even if elections signal short-term success. The Sunni minority in Iraq, facing ever more desperate political and economic conditions in Iraq, is likely to resort to increasingly desperate measures to ensure survival as they face another round of elections where they could lose further seats in parliament.

The new election law expands the seats of the governing council from 275 to 323, but Iraqi Kurds and Sunnis dispute the allocation of the forty-eight new seats, saying Shias are overrepresented. [It is impossible to know for certain what the ethnic and sectarian demographics of Iraq are today. The last official census was taken in 1957; large numbers of Iraqis have fled the county as refugees; and even more Iraqis have been displaced from one province to another]. Adding to the confusion is the election law itself, which is so complex many Iraqi officials on the governing council apparently did not understand the implications of the law, which they voted for while under pressure from the United States to keep January 2010 elections on schedule.

There is every likelihood that 2010 elections will also result in a slow government formation process, leaving a protracted period when no one in the Iraqi government will be making decisions on security or reconstruction, or be able to take on the mammoth tasks of revising Iraq's constitution and oil laws.

Elections should not be used as benchmarks of progress in fragile countries like Iraq, when they can just as easily signal periods of increased instability. After the December 2005 parliamentary elections, Iraq remained volatile and the lengthy formation of a new government led to an explosion of unchecked sectarian violence. There is every likelihood that 2010 elections will also result in a slow government formation process, leaving a protracted period of time when no one in the Iraqi government will be making decisions on security or reconstruction, or be able to take on the mammoth tasks of revising Iraq's constitution and oil laws. These issues are much more important for Iraq's long-term stability than whether elections are held on time in 2010.

Kirkuk and Kurdish Power

The new election law almost guarantees intensified sectarian divisions in one of the most ethnically sensitive regions of Iraq. The incorporation of Kirkuk into the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) is seen as likely. Arabs, Turcomen, and other ethnic groups that left Kirkuk following the 2006 sectarian violence will no longer be eligible voters in Kirkuk. In 1957, Kurds made up about 48 percent of Kirkuk's population; they are now almost certainly well over 50 percent.

Under Iraq's constitution, a province can join a region if one-third of its provincial council members or one-tenth of its voters submit a request to the governing council, which decides based on simple majority of a quorum. Regions are constitutionally guaranteed revenues from natural resources based on population; there is only one official "region" in Iraq, Kurdistan, which was officially created in 2005 when the current Iraqi constitution was ratified. Iraq's constitution guarantees the right of other provinces to also form regions. After the national elections, it is almost certain that Kirkuk will petition to join the KRG. The Kurdish members of the governing council will certainly support this move, which is why the Kurds are making every effort to maximize the number of Kurdish members in the expanded council.

Shia members from the southern provinces also have an incentive to support a future Kirkuk petition, as this would help secure Kurdish support for a southern Shia region where substantial oil revenues would go directly to the regional government. An estimated 90 percent of Iraq's oil revenues come from Basra, which possesses about 70 percent of Iraq's oil reserves. Vast areas of Basra's oil fields are unexploited or minimally so.

[T]he current delays on Iraq's election law are a good sign, because it appears Iraq's Sunnis, Shias, and Kurds are seriously trying to work out a power-sharing arrangement acceptable to all.

Without a clear oil law in place that spells out how oil profits are to be shared between Iraq and oil corporations, it makes more sense to many southern Iraqis to wait to exploit their oil until such issues have been clarified and until they can assure that a substantial share of any such profits remains in the region. Whatever Kirkuk gets, Basra will also want. In November 2008, a petition to form a region out of the Basra province garnered thirty-five thousand votes, or about 2 percent of the province's population. The petition failed because it lacked the backing of several Shia political parties in Basra, which supported regionalization but did not agree on how many provinces should make up the southern region. As contentious as the KRG and Kurdish oil issue is now, the future issue of Basra's oil could dwarf it.

Reforms First, Then Elections

The United States would do well to back away from the policy of elections at any cost. Elections in Iraq do not signify stability. In Iraq, the sequence of events is more important than the chronology of them. That is, the order of constitutional reform, oil law reform, and election law reform is more important than ensuring they occur according to schedule. In this light, the current delays on Iraq's election law are a good sign, because it appears Iraq's Sunnis, Shias, and Kurds are seriously trying to work out a power-sharing arrangement acceptable to all.

Iraq's constitution requires a new government to be in place before existing mandates expire in March 2010, but Iraq's current government is certainly capable of finding a way to legalize a further delay on elections if needed. It is more important to ensure that elections, when they do happen, have the buy-in of all Iraqis, rather than being bound to a timetable that appears, from within the country, to be arbitrary and imposed from the outside. An election that does not have the confidence of all three groups could result in a boycott by one of them, as the Sunnis did in 2005, or in protracted disputes after the election regarding acceptable power-sharing arrangements, which also occurred after the 2005 elections.

The United States would also do well to consult with Iraq's neighbors, as each of these countries has a stake in a stable Iraq and will have to live with whatever form Iraq takes after elections. In 2006, Jordan and Syria took in close to two million Iraqi refugees fleeing sectarian violence. Many Iraqis still reside in these two countries, demanding resources and threatening to upset the delicate demographic balances between Sunnis and Shias. Iran also seeks a stable, non-threatening Iraq, one area where the United States and Iran can actually find areas of agreement. This should be exploited in the current environment, to the extent that the U.S. and Iran can engage with each other.

The political process is more important than the elections themselves, and there is no reason to think the outcome of the process would be any different if there were fifty thousand U.S. troops in the country, or one hundred thousand or one hundred and thirty thousand.

Each of Iraq's neighbors will undoubtedly seek to project its interests in Iraq's political development to ensure an optimal outcome; it would be naive to assume otherwise. Consulting with Arab countries about Iraq's political development is not the same thing as encouraging meddling in Iraq's internal affairs. Skilled diplomacy is called for in achieving the first without implying the second. Rather than focusing solely on U.S. goals in Iraq, the United States should seek areas of common interest with Iraq's neighbors.

And finally, the United States should decouple its military planning from Iraq's elections. The U.S. military is in no position to influence the difficult compromises Iraq's Sunni, Shia, and Kurdish leaders will have to make to ensure buy-in from the communities they represent in national elections, nor should it attempt to do so. The United States was not able to get Sunnis to vote in 2005 elections; there is no reason to believe it can force unwilling Sunnis or Kurds to the ballot boxes now. The political process is more important than the elections themselves, and there is no reason to think the outcome of the process would be any different if there were fifty thousand U.S. troops in the country, or one hundred thousand or one hundred and thirty thousand.

The sectarian violence that consumed Iraq in 2006 and 2007 was not a result of insufficient numbers of U.S. troops, but the result of underlying sectarian tensions and the lack of a capable Iraqi government following the December 2005 elections. This does not mean the United States should not reduce its military presence in Iraq; it should do so when and how its interests are best suited. But if the United States pushes for elections simply to check a box and satisfy U.S. criteria for a military drawdown, the election result will not be worth the paper it takes to print the ballots.

Rachel Schneller is a foreign service officer with the U.S. Department of State. The ideas expressed in the article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of the U.S. government or State Department.

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