If all goes as planned, Iraqis will head to the polls on 30 April 2014 for the first national parliamentary elections since the 2011 withdrawal of U.S. forces. Iraq’s incumbent Prime Minister Nouri Al-Maliki is seeking a third consecutive term, despite his government’s chronic failure to promote good governance, better security, or national reconciliation.
The Atlantic’s Defense One reports, these elections mark a crossroads moment for the nation’s future: “…today Iraq is in chaos, with deadly violence, a dysfunctional government and a thriving al-Qaeda-aligned insurgency gaining hold in cities that Americans gave their lives to secure.” In February alone, at least 700 deaths were reported in Iraq. Additional deaths in Anbar province have been reported, although unconfirmed, due to the inability of United Nations officials to safely access the area.
The newly elected parliament will be charged with forming a government that can forge a path toward better governance, security, and national unity.
These elections will decide the 328 members of the Council of Representatives, the main elected body of Iraq’s national government, for the next four years. The Council of Representatives then elects the President and Vice President. The newly elected President then nominates a Prime Minister from the majority coalition in the Council, and this nomination must then be approved by the Council of Representatives.
Iraqi elections utilize an open-list system, meaning voters choose from a selection of political parties and coalitions. This method of proportional representation apportions 310 seats among Iraq’s 18 governorates. An additional 8 seats are reserved for minority groups (Christian 5, Sabean 1, Shabak 1, and Yizidi 1) and 10 compensatory seats are awarded to the lists that win the most votes nationwide. This system is meant to best accommodate and include Iraq’s widely diverse population.
A vast majority of Iraq’s political parties are based on religion and ethnicity, most notably between the Sunnis, Shiites and Kurds. Iraq’s political parties have traditionally banded together to compete as coalitions to maximize gains for the constituencies they represent. The administering body for Iraqi elections, the Independent High Electoral Commission (IHEC), released the official list of 39 electoral lists that are running in the upcoming election as coalitions of political parties. Since the last parliamentary elections in 2010, intra-sectarian competition has resulted in the splintering of several political parties and coalitions. In the 2010 parliamentary election, the Iraqi National Movement (aka Iraqiya) became the largest alliance, winning 91 seats. The State of Law Coalition became the second largest alliance, with a total of 89 seats. Other noteworthy parties are the Kurdistan Democratic Party, the Iraqi National Accord, and the Sadrist Movement (Ahrar).
Women are not to be overlooked in Iraq’s political sphere. A required one-fourth of the Council of Representatives must be female. In the coming election, there are expected to be over 2,500 women running for positions. This marks the highest participation of women to date.
All candidates running for election must first be approved by the Accountability and Justice Committee (AJC). Candidates face disqualification if found to have any ties to the Ba’ath party, of which Saddam Hussein was affiliated. This process, known as de-Baathification, has been the topic of much controversy since its introduction in 2003. In the 2010 parliamentary elections, the AJC banned 511 candidates from running and 15 political parties, most of whom were Sunni. More than 170 candidates appealed their ban, with only 26 appeals being successful. The IHEC also refused to disqualify 52 candidates. The actions of the AJC have fallen victim to accusations of both unconstitutionality and illegality. British Scholar Toby Dodge reports that Prime Minister Maliki’s direct control of the courts in Iraq has been a source of contention threatening the legitimacy of free and fair elections. Speaking to the nature of de-Baathification, EPIC founder and executive director, Erik Gustafson, agrees: “I would hope that the courts make decisions based on the facts of each case and not based on undue political pressure.”
However, on Tuesday 03/25, the Iraqi parliament and legislature issued differing rulings regarding the controversial clause in Iraqi electoral law allowing for the disqualification of candidates based on reputation. This resulted in the resignation of the entire IHEC board this Tuesday in protest of what they called political and judicial interference in the IHEC’s operations. IHEC spokesman Safa al-Mussawi told Agence French-Presse, “The commission is today caught between two authorities — the legislative and the judicial — and the two have issued contradictory decisions”. With the elections drawing near, it is unclear if these resignations will delay the planned April 30th elections.
The failure to deliver free and fair elections in Iraq opens the nation to a greater possibility for instability. As a means of combatting these and other potential challenges to free and fair elections in Iraq, international observers are necessary to serve as election monitors. In January, Eli Lake’s article in the Daily Beast reported that Iraqi Deputy Prime Minister Saleh al-Mutlaq called on the U.S., international community, and non-governmental organizations “to send election monitors, to ensure through technology there will be no fraud.” Their presence will be an essential safeguard to ensuring the legitimacy of these elections and setting Iraq up for success after the elections.
Despite any challenges facing the upcoming elections, expectations for the elections remain high. Within the current state of violence and a rise of sectarianism, Iraqis have the opportunity to positively change the direction that their country is heading. At a recent event hosted by U.S. Institute of Peace, Iraq’s federal deputy prime minister Rowsch N. Shaways discussed Iraq’s youth as a platform for change. He spoke of their optimism for change and for putting a divided history of sectarianism behind them by saying, “They want to build the country based on being Iraqis.” The question that remains is, will Iraqis have that opportunity to have their voices heard and counted on April 30th?