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Iraq’s Parliamentary Elections: An Explainer

Author: Lionel Beehner
December 7, 2005
This publication is now archived.

Introduction

The December 15 elections will mark the first time in post-Saddam Iraq when voters will decide the permanent makeup of their government. At stake is the composition of the 275-seat Council of Representatives, formerly the National Assembly. Some 226 political groups and more than 7,000 candidates are running for parliament. Each parliamentarian will be elected for a four-year term. The vote symbolizes the final stage in the U.S.-led process of establishing a functioning, multiparty government in Iraq. Experts say the vote should run smoother than past elections in Iraq due to more sophisticated campaigning techniques, additional polling stations, and the presence of 160,000 U.S. troops.

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How will Iraqis’ votes be counted?

The election will run under slightly different rules from those that governed January’s single-district, proportional-representation system. Under the new rules, 230 of the 275 seats will be divided among the eighteen provinces and allocated depending on each province’s registered number of voters. The remaining forty-five seats will then be divvied up not by province but by total vote count, including votes cast by Iraqis abroad. These seats are then distributed in two phases: First, any political bloc that does not win seats at the provincial level but meets a certain threshold nationwide will be granted “compensatory” seats. Second, the last remaining seats will be offered to those political blocs that win provincial-level seats to reward the blocs with larger national support.

Is this new system popular among Iraqis?

Experts say this system, devised by the interim parliament, rewards voters who turn out, is proportional, and will produce fewer wasted votes than in previous elections. There was talk of reserving a select number of seats for minority candidates, but the plan was shelved because there was inadequate time to decide which political entities qualified as minorities. There was also criticism by some because the system was adopted only three months before the election and, because of its complexity, most voters do not fully understand it.

The vote symbolizes the final stage in the U.S.-led process of establishing a functioning, multiparty government in Iraq.

Which political groups stand to benefit most under these new voting rules?

Nathan Brown, senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, says the new voting structure will likely benefit Sunni Arabs because they are the majority in only a few provinces. Under the old rules, even majority-Sunni provinces were underrepresented in parliament because Sunnis boycotted the vote. Under the new rules, the allocation of a select number of seats to the three main Sunni provinces—Salahuddin, Anbar, and Nineveh—virtually assures them at least forty to fifty of the provincial seats. Experts say the new voting system should also benefit independents and smaller political coalitions, whose support tends to be more split among the provinces. Another point that has received scant attention, Brown says, is that this time around voters will be represented by parliamentarians directly from their province, as opposed to nation-wide slates of party candidates. “They are now not merely party representatives but also local representatives and likely to have stronger ties in the province,” he says. The list of candidates will remain confidential until after the election, however, for security reasons.

Will there be election monitors present?

Yes, but mostly just Iraqi or regional observers. The European Union had planned to send a monitoring delegation but backed out because of security concerns. Instead, three EU lawmakers will be on hand December 15 but not have powers of an official mission. Traditional U.S. election watchdogs like the Carter Center will not be present, but others, including the National Democratic Institute and Senator Joseph Biden (D-DE), will be on hand for monitoring purposes. According to the Independent Electoral Commission for Iraq (IECI), more than 70,000 independent election observers have been accredited to monitor 6,200 polling stations across all of Iraq's eighteen provinces—a 50 percent increase from the October referendum.

Who is eligible to vote?

Any Iraqi over the age of eighteen who's registered to vote. All told, there are roughly 15 million registered voters, including some 1.5 million Iraqi expatriates from fifteen countries around the world. Australia's 20,000 Iraqi voters began casting absentee ballots on December 12.

What kind of voter turnout is expected?

Organizers predict a high voter turnout. Hussein Hindawi, head of the IECI, recently told reporters he expects turnout to eclipse the October’s constitutional referendum, when roughly two-thirds of Iraq’s 14 million registered voters turned out to vote. Part of the reason is that Sunni Arabs, who comprise at least 20 percent of Iraq’s population, do not intend to boycott these elections, as they did in January’s interim parliamentary elections, when only 58 percent of the electorate voted. Also, news reports suggest several clerics, both Shiite and Sunni, have been urging their worshippers to vote; some have even issued fatwas ordering their followers to cast ballots.

Several clerics, both Shiite and Sunni, have been urging their worshippers to vote; some have even issued fatwas ordering their followers to cast ballots.

Further, because these elections will decide parliament’s makeup for the next four years, there is more at stake, experts say, suggesting that Iraqis will be more inclined to go to the polls. Organizers say the increased number of polling stations and improved media coverage of the various coalitions should boost the turnout as well. In January, Anbar, a heavily Sunni province, only had twenty polling centers. There were 144 on hand for the referendum; now there are more than 160, according to Hindawi. However, experts say a late surge in insurgent violence could deter voters in less secure areas like the Sunni Triangle from turning out December 15.

What happens after the election?

Once the seats are allocated, the parliament, which will convene fifteen days after the results are certified, selects a presidential council, comprising a president and two vice presidents. This council, which must win two-thirds majority approval, then appoints a prime minister, ostensibly the leader of the largest bloc represented, expected to be the Shiite-led United Iraqi Alliance. The prime ministerial post and presidency will likely go to a Kurd and Shiite, experts say, but it’s unclear if the cabinet positions—which the prime minister has thirty days to fill—will be distributed evenly to reflect the parliament’s political breakdown. In addition to approving the council of ministries, the parliament is in charge of deciding policy on legislative, treaty, and budgetary issues, according to Iraq's constitution.

The parliament's other two biggest tasks at hand: forming a constitutional court and amending the constitution. Iraqi moderates have voiced concern that Iraq’s constitutional court may get packed with Islamist-leaning judges. To block such a move, some experts say a coalition of sorts could form among Iraqi secularists in parliament. Sunni Arabs are expected to amend the constitution under Article 140, which was added by Shiite leaders shortly before the referendum to appease Sunni Arab voters. But significantly altering the constitution is a complex process, experts say. Parliament must first form a committee, which then has up to four months to propose a package of constitutional amendments. Next, the parliament must vote on the amendments as a package, not individually, and requires a simple majority. If passed, the bloc of amendments then needs to win approval from the public in a nationwide referendum, similar to the one held on the constitution in October.

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