On Monday, November 4, Iraqi lawmakers passed a new election law. Under this law, parliamentary elections are set to be held on April 30, 2014. This step was necessary because the Supreme Court in Baghdad declared the previous election law unconstitutional in 2010. The electoral law was the subject of political deadlock which lasted for weeks. Within that time, the debate on the election surrounded various contested issues, such as the distribution of surplus votes and seat quotas for minorities, and claims that Prime Minister Maliki has consolidated too much power. Despite the weeks-long debate, the electoral law was passed in just enough time for the necessary six month period to prepare for the elections, which will mark Iraq’s first national elections since March 2010.
One of the most significant changes which the new electoral law made is a shift in the distribution method of leftover seats to the Saint-Lague Method. The previous law mandated that only parties that had already won seats would be eligible to win these leftover seats. The Saint-Lague Method, however, allows for smaller parties to vie for these seats, thus making wider parliamentary representation possible. Additionally, the new law increases the number of parliamentary seats from 325 to 328. These three additional seats, along with seven seats which had previously gone to winning blocs, will now be distributed to ten governorates. According to Iraq analyst Reidar Visser, the governorates of Baghdad, Basra, Dhi Qar, Babel, Karbala, Anbar, Diyala, Erbil, Dahuk and Sulaymaniyah have each won one extra seat. The eight seats specifically reserved for ethnic and religious minorities remain the same.
During the meeting between President Obama and Prime Minister Maliki on November 1, Obama stressed the importance of this legislation to Prime Minister Maliki so that “people can resolve differences through politics instead of violence.” With violence in Iraq at its highest level since 2008, political cooperation at this juncture is crucial. The passing of this legislation is certainly a positive development, and the United Nations and Vice President Joe Biden have offered their praise in the hopes that it will strengthen democracy and decrease violence in Iraq. However, while holding free and fair elections in a timely fashion is critical, the new election law passed by the Council of Representatives is not yet set in stone. Currently, the status of the electoral amendment is that of a “law proposal” instead of “legislative project,” which means that it could still be struck down by the Iraqi Supreme Court.
While Maliki has stated his commitment to holding elections on time and to promoting democracy, only time will tell whether or not this law will bring about positive change in Iraq. In the meantime, President Obama must take advantage of the momentum which the meeting provided and maintain a productive relationship between the United States and Iraq. While the 2014 elections provide the opportunity for a renewed path to democracy, political inclusion, and peace in Iraq, there is also the possibility that it could bring about even more sectarian violence. As the elections approach, President Obama must not fall back into the habit of ignoring Iraq. If you have not yet done so, please sign our petition urging President Obama to keep Iraq on his agenda.