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How will Iraq’s October 15 referendum work?

Author: Lionel Beehner
October 4, 2005

Introduction

On October 15, Iraqis go to the polls to vote in a referendum on the country’s draft constitution. The ballot will feature one question: “Do you approve the draft constitution of Iraq?” If a majority of Iraqis vote yes, or if two-thirds of the registered voters in three or more of Iraq’s eighteen governorates do not vote no, then the constitution will pass into law.

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The referendum, if it passes, will conclude a turbulent process of political infighting that has revealed the deep schisms between Iraq’s Sunni Arab, Shiite, and Kurdish communities. Much of the wrangling has been over wording on sensitive issues like religion, federalism, and distribution of oil revenues. Sunni Arabs complained about being sidelined during the process and criticized the final draft of the document, which was never formally approved by Iraq’s National Assembly, for failing to address their concerns on federalism. Sunnis generally fear a federalized state will allocate too much power and wealth to Iraq’s oil-rich regions in the north and south.

Has the constitution been finalized?

In theory, yes. Five million copies of an early version of the draft constitution, after several delays, were distributed to Iraqis in early October along with their ration cards. However, the final text of the document is still a work in progress, says Nathan Brown, senior associate with the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. Zalmay Khalilzad , U.S. ambassador to Iraq, is reportedly still in negotiations with Sunni leaders over wording in the draft on Iraqi identity issues and may add addendums to the text before the October 15 referendum. Most of these changes, however, are not substantive, Brown says, but amount merely to “tinkering in symbolic areas or changing preambular language.”

Can the constitution, once passed, be amended?

Yes. Currently, any amendment must win approval by two-thirds of parliament and the Presidency Council, as well as pass a national referendum. One of the Sunnis’ chief concerns is that the constitutional amendment procedures in place are too lax and may allow the document to be easily amendable in the future by the Shiite majority, Brown says.

Who can vote on the referendum?

Any Iraqi citizen can vote who’s legally competent, over the age of eighteen, and registered to vote by the mid-September deadline. Of Iraq’s 27 million people, roughly 14.2 million are eligible to vote. Unlike the January 30 elections for the transitional National Assembly, none of the nearly two million eligible Iraqi nationals living outside of Iraq’s borders will be allowed to cast ballots.

Is voter turnout expected to be high?

It’s unclear. Fewer than 60 percent of all registered voters cast ballots in Iraq’s January elections. But experts expect this referendum’s voter turnout to be higher. Much of the turnout will hinge on whether Sunni Arabs boycott the vote, as they did during January’s election. Sunni Arabs, who comprise roughly 20 percent of Iraq’s population, form the majority in four of Iraq’s eighteen provinces, but they are overwhelmingly the majority in only two: Anbar province, a heavily Sunni area west of Baghdad that stretches to the Syrian border, and Salahuddin, a province north of Baghdad. High registration numbers—as high as 75 percent, Iraqi election officials say—in Anbar and Salahuddin suggest that Sunni Arabs may not boycott the election but will vote against the document. Only 10 percent of eligible Sunni Arabs voted in January’s parliamentary elections.

Experts expect a very high voter turnout among Kurds, who got most of what they wished for in the latest draft of the document—concessions on the issue of federalism, ambiguous wording on Iraq’s Arab identity, an expected resettlement of Kirkuk, the oil-rich city some Kurdish leaders call “our Jerusalem.” Shiites, who make up a majority of Iraqis, are also expected to vote in relatively high numbers. Much of their turnout, however, will depend on Moqtada al-Sadr, the radical Shiite cleric, who has yet to formally declare his position on the constitution, says Kenneth Katzman, a Middle East specialist with the Congressional Research Service.

Aside from Sunni anger over the constitution’s wording, the biggest hindrance to a high voter turnout is security, experts say. Several Sunni-dominated areas, particularly along the Euphrates River valley in towns like Tal Afar or Sadah, were insurgent strongholds until recent sweeps by U.S.-Iraqi forces. The raids were part of U.S.-led efforts to secure these areas to allow Sunni Arabs to vote. However, in areas around the Sunni Triangle northwest of Baghdad, security remains inadequate less than two weeks before the referendum, experts say.  

Is the constitution expected to pass?

Probably, experts say. Even if Sunni Arabs come out and vote against the document, experts say they would probably not make up the majority in enough provinces to derail the constitution. However, a recent rule change was overturned that would have required two-thirds of registered voters—versus just two-thirds of those who actually cast ballots—to vote “no” on the constitution in three of Iraq’s eighteen governorates for the document to fail. The rule was overturned after a loud protest from Sunni Arabs, who called it a “mockery of democracy,” as well as the United Nations and U.S. government. Given past elections’ low voter turnout in Iraq, if the rule change had stood in place, Brown says it would have made “it impossible for the constitution to fail.”

What happens if the constitution passes?

Once the votes are tallied, which will likely take a few days, the outcome of the referendum will be announced at a press conference by the Independent Electoral Commission of Iraq (IECI).  If the referendum passes, the document will be ratified and passed into law. Elections for a permanent government will then be held December 15, and the new government will assume office no later than December 31.

What happens if the constitution fails?

According to the Transitional Administrative Law (TAL)—the interim constitution passed by Iraqis with U.S. oversight—if the constitution is rejected, the National Assembly must be dissolved and elections for a second transitional National Assembly must be held by December 15. Then the drafting process will start again—“a replay of this year basically,” Katzman says. A second draft must be completed by August 15, 2006, and a second referendum held by October 15, 2006. A six-month extension can be requested, pushing the final deadline for the second draft to February 15, 2007. The TAL does not indicate what should happen if the constitution fails a referendum a second time.

Will elections monitors be present?

Yes. Six international observer groups have accredited nearly 500 observers for the referendum, down from the 700 observers present during the January 30 election. Among those in Iraq monitoring the upcoming referendum are representatives from Arab nongovernmental organizations and the Arab League—a first for Iraq—as well as U.S.-based election watchdog groups like the National Democratic Institute. All observers must be approved by the IECI’s Board of Commissioners, which extended the monitors’ registration and accreditation deadline until October 10. 

What role has the United States played in the constitution-drafting process?

The U.S. government has been heavily involved in the process. Some Sunni Arabs and Iraqi experts have complained that Washington put too much stock on meeting deadlines set by the TAL than on incorporating the Sunnis’ demands. The United States, in addition to providing election monitors and securing Sunni-dominant provinces, has also provided constitutional scholars to assist in the drafting of the document and urged Shiites to revise language on religion and federalism, in last-ditch efforts to appease Sunni leaders. The United States has also expressed dissatisfaction with the National Assembly’s recent rule change on what constitutes an actual “voter.”

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