Iraq Throws Obama a Curve Ball, Key 2010 Elections in Peril
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Reminiscent of the political problems in Afghanistan that have plagued the Obama White House, on Monday Iraqi Vice-President Tareq al-Hashemi vetoed a set of amendments to Iraq’s election law approved by the Iraqi parliament. The veto may lead to a delay of the Iraqi elections, currently scheduled for January 21, 2010, and could trigger a debate over U.S. plans to withdraw from Iraq.
The elections law amendment, commonly referred to as the “new elections law” was under consideration for almost a year before its final passage on November 8th. Passage of the law was delayed 11 times, as lawmakers could not reach agreement over the allocation of parliamentary seats.
The original election law, used in the 2005 elections, was viewed by many Iraqis as unfair and opaque. The old law employed a “closed list” system, in which Iraqis were only allowed to vote for coalitions rather than individual candidates. The coalitions were not required to declare the names of their candidates. This led to millions of Iraqis voting for sectarian and ethnic-based coalitions with no political platforms or candidate names. Under the old law, all of Iraq was a single electoral district, failing to ensure that candidates were representing their constituencies.
The newly passed law seeks to provide greater transparency and accountability of candidates and their political parties by blending the old “closed list” with elements of an “open list”. Under the new law Iraqis are given the option to either vote for a particular candidate in a coalition or vote for the entire coalition. The new law also puts into place electoral districts organized by provinces.
With a system that apparently deepens democracy, giving citizens greater oversight of their lawmakers, why would al-Hashemi veto the measure? The status of how seats will be allocated in politically charged city of Kirkuk and for Iraqi refugees is officially being used as the rationale for vetoing the measure, but the truth lies a bit deeper.
There are approximately 20 major political parties represented in parliament, but only five are in the executive branch. Despite the fact that combined these five parties control a minority of seats in parliament they managed, with the help of the Bush administration, to the run the country exclusively without participation of the other 15 parties that control the majority of seats in the parliament (the only nationally elected body).
Four of these five ruling parties control the Presidential Council (ISCI, KPD/PUK, Islamic Party), and the fifth is Prime Minister Al-Maliki’s party (Al-Dawa). The four ruling parties in the presidential council oppose the “open list” law, because they have benefited from the “closed list” system. The closed list system has given them a free ride at the expense of other parties.
But these four parties started to lose their grip on power in the January 2009 provincial elections when the elections law was changed, forming electoral districts by province. The ruling parties lost control of all of the provincial councils to nationalist parties and others not previously represented in the provincial councils. Take ISCI for example, it used to control around a dozen provincial councils, now they control zero.
The idea of running national elections under a similar scenario terrifies the ruling parties, and is why they oppose an open list solution despite the public pressure to change the system to a more transparent and representative one.
The question now for the United States is if this latest roadblock in Iraq will have any impact on withdrawal plans. Currently there are two parallel plans guiding U.S. withdrawal: the bilateral security agreement (aka SOFA), and Obama’s plan for the withdrawal of combat troops.