Yesterday, about 18.9 million eligible Iraqis had the opportunity to elect their 325-member Council of Representatives through an open-list proportional system.
The Independent High Electoral Commission (IHEC) estimated today that approximately 11.7 million voters cast their ballot in one of the 52,000 polling stations on March 7th. This 62.4% voter turnout does not yet include ballots cast in early voting, or those cast by the 275,000 out-of-country voters.
The nearly two-thirds of eligible voters represents a high level of participation, especially considering the substantial attempts to intimidate voters. Even if the total turnout doesn’t reach the high participation of the December 2005 parliamentary election (over 70%), it will still generate a highly legitimate parliament, particularly if it is confirmed that turnout exceeded 50% in all provinces. It is also interesting to note that the level of participation largely exceeds the 56% of participation from the 2008 U.S. presidential elections.
Counting is now underway and the first partial results could be released later this week. In the meantime, there is a lot to be said about how this Iraqi election is impacting the country’s political future. Iraqis spent a lot of time negotiating and adjusting their electoral law, because they understood that only representative institutions could generate an inclusive democratic process (see the Part 2 of our series on Iraq's 2010 parliamentary elections, about the Iraqi PR system). On this topic, the American Enterprise Institute (AEI) held on March 1st a special event titled “Iraq’s Elections: Progress or Peril?” offering an interesting perspective on why battling for fair elections is essential in the fledging Iraqi democracy.
As Carina Perelli from the International Foundation for Electoral System (IFES) pointed out, democracy is a long-term process; however, through the drafting of their democratic system, Iraqis are creating habits of debate and cooperation beyond sectarian and political divisions. In fact, the 2009 provincial elections already illustrated a transition from identity issues to more practical ones such as governance or delivery services, particularly with Iraqi voters favoring central government over federalism.
The electoral process contributes indeed to Iraq's stabilization because it is all about finding compromises to determine the country's future. Iraq is not close to a stable democracy yet, with some burning issues like over-militarization of politics, census’ scheduling and oil. It is however very powerful to have voters going to the polls to freely decide their own future. Besides, the complete uncertainty of the electoral outcome provides an exciting extra-motivation to participate, as Brian Katulis from the Center for American Progress, Scott Carpenter from the Washington Institute for Near East Policy and Michael Rubin from AEI stressed.
Thus, even if the formation of a government takes up to several months, the democratic deliberative process is still beneficial to the development of the Iraqi institutions. The regional open-list proportional system is indeed going to guarantee a healthy connection between the newly elected representatives and their constituents. It also induced the formation of major coalitions beyond strictly ethno-sectarian interests, such as the “State of Law Coalition” led by the Prime Minister Maliki, or the secular alliances “Iraqi Unity” or “Iraqiya,” composed of Sunni and Shiite Muslims. It will also require the future government to be cross-sectarian and multi-ethnic.
Consequently, although the coming weeks may seem uncertain, Iraq’s new electoral system makes room for healthy debates and for a stabilized country.