This Sunday, Iraq will elect its parliament for the third time in five years. For the first time, they will use an “open” list proportional system, which is seen as a major step to cement Iraqi democracy. Since the January 2005 elections for a constitutional convention, Iraq has gradually modified its use of proportional representation (PR) to ensure that its voting system is best designed to achieve inclusive, fair representation in Parliament.
First of all, let’s not forget that Iraq does not have a presidential election. Rather, the Council of Representatives elects the President of the Republic, who then nominates a Prime Minister from the majority coalition in the Council. Thus, the Iraqi legislative body, along with passing bills, oversees the executive, which makes it essential to be fully representative of the Iraqi population and prompted several revisions of the mechanism for apportioning seats to help adjust representation.
The first general election since the US-led 2003 invasion of Iraq where held on January 30, 2005, to elect the transitional 275-member Iraqi National Assembly (the equivalent of the current Council of Representatives of Iraq, established under the October 2005 Constitution, in charge of drafting the new Iraqi Constitution and exercising legislative functions until the enactment of the new constitution). For its first-ever proportional voting elections, Iraq used a national party list system. This means that Iraq was basically a single constituency, within which, rather than voting for individuals, voters voted for one political party out of the 111 that had been certified by the Independent Electoral Commission of Iraq. Seats were then allocated proportionally to parties’ share of the vote.
This national party list system was clearly advantageous given that Iraq was deeply fractured between different religious and ethnic groups. By keeping the threshold of inclusion low, it gave minority groups a realistic opportunity to be part of the Constitution’s drafting by securing parliamentary representation. Indeed, the “Reconciliation and Liberation Bloc” was able to win one seat with as few as 0.36% of the vote. The system also encouraged major political groups to build broad-based coalitions to secure more votes and thus more seats. The best example of this incentive is the “Democratic Patriotic Alliance of Kurdistan”, which brought together the “Kurdistan Democratic Party” and the “Patriotic Union of Kurdistan”, which were previously engaged in a war with each other.
However, if the national party list system created a national legislature that was proportional to the vote, it failed to provide Iraq with representation that matched the country’s demography. Indeed, the Sunni population boycotted the vote in protest of the American presence in the country and only won 5 seats, with 1.8% of the vote. Consequently, the turnout’s disparity between the different ethnic, religious and ideological groups skewed the process of fair representation in the Iraqi parliament.
To begin overcoming sectarian rifts and encourage trust in the democratic process, Iraq needed to guarantee more inclusive representation and thus, to adjust its electoral process. This is why the December 2005 elections, held to elect the first full-term four-year Council of Representatives, used a different kind of proportional voting system: regional party lists.
For this purpose, Iraq was divided into 18 provinces, each of which had been allocated a number of seats proportional to its number of registered voters. The seats won by each regional party, based on its share of the vote, were then filled with candidates in the order they were originally listed. Additionally to those 230 seats, 45 compensatory seats were reserved for parties that did not win seats under the regional list elections but had enough nationwide votes to win a seat at the national level.
This system significantly enhanced the democratic electoral process and generated extensive participation among Iraqi voters, with a turnout of almost 80% and 228 competing parties. It also maintained the incentive to build broad-based coalitions while giving more weight to the Sunnis: the political coalition, the “Iraqi Accord Front,” came in third overall by receiving 15.1% of the votes and 44 seats.
However, even if it improved representation, the closed-list system did not allow Iraqis to vote for individual candidates, which made it unpopular. While strengthening political parties and incumbents, it did not create any constituency link.
This is why the 2010 elections are using an open-list form of PR: it is an incentive to get attractive candidates running for the Council of Representatives, while ensuring that they can be held accountable locally. Indeed, with this open-list system, Iraqi voters will be able to choose their favorite candidate from the regional list they are voting for. This switch should empower Iraqi voters, and thus boost both participation and representation.
The 2009 electoral law also establishes new provisions about seats’ repartition. It increased the number of seats from 275 to 325, in order to observe the constitutional requirement of one seat per 100,000 voters. 310 seats will be apportioned between the 18 provinces proportionally to their estimated population. They will then be allocated to each regional party according to their local share of the vote and eventually filled with the candidates from those parties with the highest number of votes. Among the 15 other seats, 7 will be nationwide compensatory seats and 8 will be reserved to minority groups, such as Christian, Shabak, Yizidi and Sabean. Lastly, out-of-country voters are allowed to vote in the province where they used to live.
Agreeing on an electoral law was fundamental for Iraq’s democratic progression. The bill had been fiercely debated before being passed, with the Parliament and Presidential Council playing hot potato with it. However, it was essential that Iraqis negotiate the new rules of the game, within their own established constitutional and legal rules.
Iraq is indeed a great example of a country that has been willing to evolve to ensure fair representation, switching from reflective representation with the national party list, to the open-list system with more descriptive representation.
Stay tuned for our next post that will describe how the Iraqi electoral system is determining the country's political horizon, with exciting highlights from the March 1st American Enterprise Institute's event on the upcoming Iraqi elections!