Iraq’s constitutional reform suffers further setbacks

The Iraqi parliament approved late last year a new election law that replaces the party list with an individual-voting system amid pressure from a popular protest movement. However, technical problems regarding how to divide the provinces into electoral constituencies have hampered efforts to reach an agreement on a final version. As the prime minister has set 6 June 2021 as the date for early elections, the parliament is expected to finalise the law as soon as possible. Yet, the task at hand appears to be no easy feat, given disputes among parliamentary blocs and other issues. Proponents have pinned hopes on the possibility that the law could bring an end to the de facto sectarian system and the overwhelming influence of the parties. Critics maintain the opposite.

What does the law say?

On 24 December, the Council of Representatives (parliament) approved a 50-article election law, the key changes of which include replacing the party-list system with voting for individuals. The new law came amid government efforts to introduce political reforms to appease mass anti-government protests that started in October 2019. According to the law, the parliament will consist of 251 seats (instead of the current 329), 242 of which will be divided among Iraq’s 18 provinces while the remaining will be quotas for minorities – five seats for Christians, one for Sabian Mandaeans, one for Shabak and one for Feyli Kurds. Also, 25 per cent of the total seats will be allocated to women. Each individual MP will represent a specific electoral district. The population of each district, or constituency, should be no less than 100,000 people. If lower, the district will join its neighbour to make one constituency. The law states that the Ministry of Planning will provide the Independent High Electoral Commission (IHEC) with the districts and number of residents of each. But over the past months, lawmakers have encountered a number of hurdles in deciding how to divide constituencies.

What is the problem?

Article 15 of the law is supposed to be supplemented with an annex detailing the new constituencies. However, the Ministry of Planning does not have accurate, up-to-date demographical statistics about the constituencies and districts need to be clearly delineated. This would mean a national census is a must. But Planning Minister Khaled Battal said conducting a census this year is unlikely due to the health and financial constraints resulting from the Covid-19 pandemic and the subsequent drop in oil prices. There is also a demographic problem. About 1.5 million internally displaced persons (IDPs) live in refugee camps scattered across the provinces of Nineveh, Duhok and Anbar. Tens of thousands of IDPs also reside in other provinces, although not in camps. With these issues at the centre, the debate over how to divide constituencies has thus far been intense, with many parliamentary blocs suggesting a number of plans.

What is being suggested to find a way out?

As the ideal notion of creating districts with approximately 100,000 people each has turned out to be a likely impossible task to accomplish in the near future, other suggestions have emerged. The four main plans in parliament suggest that each province be divided into three or five constituencies – each district (which includes sub-districts, towns and villages) is a constituency or every 100,000 people constitute one constituency. The Iraqi Forces Coalition, a Sunni parliamentary bloc, has suggested that the three most-populated provinces – Baghdad, Nineveh, and Basra – be divided into two constituencies each. Iraqiyoon (Iraqis), a newly-formed coalition led by Ammar al-Hakim, has proposed that each province be divided into no less than two and no more than five constituencies.

Yet, Kurdish blocs have suggested that the whole country be counted as one constituency. But the debate has also been enveloped by complications regarding provinces with mixed ethnic and sectarian populations, such as Diyala, Nineveh, Kirkuk and Salah al-Din. Some blocs have suggested that ethnic and sectarian considerations be taken into account when joining small areas together to create a constituency, so as to avoid ethnic-sectarian tensions. As the debate continues, the UN mission in Iraq stepped in to suggest a plan. As reported by Al-Mada daily newspaper on 23 August, the UN mission proposed the idea that 80 constituencies should be created, taking into account the “population components”, in reference to ethnic and sectarian groups. This was also supported by a report published on 9 September by London-based pan-Arab newspaper Al-Araby al-Jadid. It said it had obtained a “leaked document” revealing a suggestion in the parliament to divide constituencies in the provinces of Salah al-Din, Diyala and Nineveh along ethnic, sectarian and religious lines by forming constituencies from areas of the same groups of people, even though they are not geographically adjacent.

Why the shift to an individual-voting system?

Politicians and observers believe that the multi-constituency system could end the de facto sectarian quotas in place since the removal of late President Saddam Hussein in 2003. They also hope it could end the hegemony of the large political groups, allow independents and small parties to emerge, and secure a larger turnout in elections. However, critics believe the new system will not end the sectarian quotas, but rather deepen them. They also say that lawmakers under the suggested system will only be interested in their own districts, rather than provinces. Other critics believe the new system will also serve the parties already in power, since they still have wealth, arms and influence, whereas independents and smaller parties will lose. However, many legislators are against the law altogether. As many as 120 lawmakers have reportedly been collecting signatures to withdraw the bill and propose an amended version.

What is expected next?

Given the complexities listed above, drawing constituencies according to the ideal 100,000-people-district plan appears very unlikely. Ethnic and sectarian considerations, referred to in Iraq as “consensual democracy” and “balance”, will continue to govern decision-making. The final version of the law will ultimately be a compromise between political blocs. “The new constituencies will be drawn by the political blocs, which will certainly agree on how to minimise any harm they might sustain,” MP Ahmed al-Jabouri was quoted by the state-owned Iraqi News Agency as saying on 8 September.

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