Al-Ahram Weekly Online   22 - 28 October 2009
Issue No. 969
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Elections on the way?

Political wrangling has delayed the passage of a new Iraqi election law, with possibly serious repercussions for January's elections, writes Salah Hemeid

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Traffic from Iraq to Syria and Jordan was halted after a suicide truck bomb damaged the bridge across the Euphrates River west of Ramadi

Traffic from Iraq to Syria and Jordan was halted after a suicide truck bomb damaged the bridge across the Euphrates River west of Ramadi (photo: AFP)

Iraq's third election since the overthrow of the regime of Saddam Hussein after the 2003 US-led invasion of the country was thrown into doubt this week when the Iraqi parliament failed to agree on a new election law. Iraqi lawmakers have not been able to pass the legislation in part because of differences over the nature of the voting system and ethnic divisions in the disputed oil-rich province of Kirkuk.

The polls are scheduled for 16 January, and Iraq's independent High Electoral Commission has said that the calendar for planning the election is based on that date. The commission, responsible for organising polls in Iraq, has said that it needs 90 days to print and distribute ballots. Iraqi and UN officials fear that the election could be delayed if lawmakers fail to pass a revised election law this week.

The January elections are seen as crucial to building the stability needed for US troops to be able to leave Iraq by 2010. Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri Al-Maliki has also said that any delay would hurt Iraq's "political situation and its experiment in democracy."

"Any attempt to postpone the forthcoming election will lead to a constitutional vacuum in the country, because the current Iraqi parliament will lose its legitimacy after 16 January, 2010. If a new election does not take place, this will cause a wave of chaos in this country that could ruin all we've achieved," Al-Maliki said in a statement last week.

According to deputy speaker of the parliament Khaled Al-Attiya, the 275-member legislature had failed to agree on the bill despite a warning from the parliamentary speaker Iyad Al-Samaraai that the bill should be passed by Monday.

"We will continue our discussions until we reach an agreement," Al-Attiya told reporters after a stormy session boycotted by many members of parliament who tried to prevent a quorum. "Several problems remain, the most important of which is Kirkuk," he said. The vote was originally slated to be held on Thursday, but was delayed until Monday.

The deadlock on the election law concerns whether ballot papers should list only the competing parties or whether they should also include the candidates' names. While some MPs favour a closed electoral list, in which only the parties appear on the ballot, others back a system in which the names of the candidates are listed along with their parties.

Some prominent members of parliament fear that having their names put on the ballot papers will harm their chances of re-election. A closed list would likely favour incumbent politicians, who are expected to lose support at the polls for failing to deliver essential services and cut down on corruption.

Among the staunchest supporters of the closed-list system is the newly-formed Iraqi National Alliance (INA) coalition, led by the Shia Supreme Iraqi Islamic Council. The Tehran- backed Council, largely blamed increasing Iranian influence and soaring corruption in the country, fears that it might lose votes from disgruntled voters.

The Sadrist Movement made up of the followers of Shia cleric Muqtada Al-Sadr also lost much of its support in the Shia provinces in southern and central Iraq to Al-Maliki in the provincial elections held last January, and it fears that it may lose more seats in the parliament in the forthcoming elections.

Many Iraqis have concluded that the Shia groups are unable to deliver public services and that they provoke sectarian conflict.

Sami Al-Askari, a lawmaker in Al-Maliki's Daawa Party, has accused some parliamentarians of "blocking the vote on the law through their absence," referring to the INA coalition, several members of which did not attend the session of the parliament on Monday.

Al-Daawa supports the open list, while INA is challenging Al-Maliki's multi-confessional State of Law Coalition in the 16 January elections. Iraq's most influential Shia cleric, Grand Ayatollah Ali Al-Sistani, who wields influence among Iraqi Shias, has also stepped into the debate by issuing a rare public pronouncement urging an open list for the elections.

Another unresolved area is how to organise elections in the city of Kirkuk, where there have been sharp political disputes between Kurds, Arabs and Turkmen. The election law has become mired in the issue of how voting should take place in the province, which is one of the country's most important producers of oil. Arabs and Turkmen want special provisions to counter the large influx of Kurdish residents after Saddam was toppled.

Arabs and Turkmen in Kirkuk have also rejected a compromise worked out by the United Nations representative in Iraq, which proposes that the Kurds should get a majority of 51 per cent of the seats allocated for the province. They have warned that they will start a campaign of civil disobedience if their demands are not met.

The Kurds have also rejected a proposal to give Kirkuk a special status and have threatened to torpedo the passing of the new legislation.

Any postponement of January's polls might also have an impact on president Obama's schedule for withdrawing US troops from Iraq. These are committed to staying for up to 60 days after national elections have been held in order to ensure a safe transfer of power. The planned pull-out date may now have to be pushed back, since the Iraqi parliament has missed this week's deadline for agreeing balloting rules.

This possibility has prompted the commander of the US forces in Iraq, General Ray Odierno, and US Ambassador Chris Hill to urge that the election law be passed quickly. "Would we like them [to] get this over with earlier rather than later? We would, but sometimes in this country there's a tendency to do things at the last minute. So we'll see," Hill said on Friday in a CNN interview.

While the Iraqi parliament has remained gridlocked over how to run the national elections slated for January, Al-Sadr has called on his followers to hold primary elections in order to choose their candidates. In a statement posted on his movement's website, Al-Sadr described the primary elections as "a first step to liberating Iraq politically."

Hundreds of thousands of Al-Sadr's supporters voted to choose candidates for January's elections last Friday. The primary, also open to non-party members, saw more than 670 people, including 83 women, compete to fill the more than 50 positions in the January parliamentary elections.

The Supreme Iraqi Islamic Council has also said that it will organise primary polls ahead of the elections. This move is largely symbolic and is designed to show that both groups have grassroots support in the Shia community.

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