Iraq's election crisis threatens to reignite sectarian conflict

Disputes over the allocation of votes threatens not only to delay Iraq's January elections but to enflame sectarian tensions and Sunni alienation from the political establishment.
Shatha Al Juburi
7 December 2009

It seems a crisis is looming over the passing of the new law for the Iraqi parliamentary elections 2010. Sunni Arabs, Shii Arabs and Kurds are all accusing each other of sabotaging progress. The Iraqi parliament on 8 November cleared a major hurdle when it managed to pass an amended law for the new parliamentary elections which appeared to settle the allocation of votes in the disputed oil-rich city of Kirkuk, which Kurds seek to incorporate within their semi-independent region. The Kurdish-Arab dispute had hindered holding provincial elections in Kirkuk in January 2009.

The Iraqi constitution obliges the central government to hold a referendum in the Kurdish-populated areas of four Iraqi governorates in northern Iraq (including Ta’mim whose capital is Kirkuk) to determine whether they should remain under Baghdad's control or become part of the KRG. But even before that takes place, the constitution commits Iraqi government to reverse Saddam's "Arabization" policies in these areas, which is taken to mean moving Arabs out and bringing Kurds in. The Iraqi government has postponed the referendum, originally due in 2007, several times for fear of sparking a civil war between Kurds and Arabs and disrupting oil production. The Arab-Kurdish conflict over land, oil, the budget and other issues is seen one of the main problems hindering political progress and greater security in Iraq.

Another contentious issue which has emerged in the past few weeks was whether Iraqi voters should vote on the basis of “open lists” in which voters choose candidates directly or “closed list” in which they vote for parties. Iraqis favour the open list after experimenting with this mechanism in the January 2009 provincial elections. Open lists have been deemed more democratic and are consequently being implemented.

Nevertheless, efforts to pass a new law to hold the next parliamentary elections on time, in January 2010, have not been successful. On 8 November, the Sunni vice-president Tariq al-Hashimi vetoed the amended election law, asking the quota of reserved seats voted in by exiled and minority voters to be increased from five percent to fifteen percent on the basis that there are thought to be 4 million exiled Iraqis and the Iraqi constitution allocates one deputy per 100,000 Iraqis. Iraqi nationalists, like former Prime Minister Ayad Allawi, Salih al-Mutlaq, and the former parliament speaker Mahmud al-Mishadani welcomed al-Hashimi’s intervention and expressed their objection to the new law. Al-Hashimi’s veto was also welcomed by the Kurdish parties who had complained that the five percent quota for minority seats should be raised to fifteen percent in the hope that increased quotas would confer an advantage on their allies among the Shabak and Yazidis minorities in Kurdish Iraq, who have typically been represented by leaders hostile to the Kurdish majority parties.

After two days of failed talks, the Iraqi parliament on 23 November disregarded a veto by al-Hashemi and approved new amendments which are widely seen as likely to be held-up by a second veto from al-Hashimi. The new amendments increased the number of parliamentary seats for the Kurds at the expense of the Sunni Arabs in the north, mainly in Nineveh. The change was a victory for Kurds who threatened they would boycott the elections if their demand for increasing their provinces’ representation in parliament was not met. The Kurdish and Shiite Islamist parties have agreed on this, but on the issue of Kirkuk the Sunni and Shii Arabs remain united against the Kurds.

Sunnis and nationalists have complained the amendments negatively affect their interests and have attacked the Shi’ite Islamists who supported them. US and UN diplomats have tried frantically but failed to broker a compromise between Hashemi and Shi’ite MPs who accused him of trying to bolster Sunnis’ chances by raising a quota for Iraqis living abroad.

Although Al-Hashimi was legally entitled to veto the first bill, the use of his veto has turned out to be a tactical mistake. The veto, intended to increase Sunni Arab participation in the election, instead appeared to have united Shiis and Kurds, further alienating the Sunni population. By introducing new amendments, the Shiis and Kurds have enraged greater number of Sunnis who feel they are the only constituency to be disenfranchised. Al-Hashimi’s veto reinforced divisions which had previously threatened to plunge the country into civil war, raising the likelihood that Sunnis will turn to non-parliamentary means to gain political power. If the new amendments get vetoed by al-Hashimi again and the bill’s supporters in the Iraqi parliament manage to form a three-fifths majority, an increasingly hostile sectarian atmosphere will form an unforgiving backdrop to the next parliamentary elections.

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