With a mix of condemnation, maneuver, and strategic calculation, Gulf countries are navigating the current crisis.
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On March 26, the Iraqi Parliament adopted a new election law, which Iraq’s recently elected prime minister, Mohammed al-Sudani, had promised to quickly accomplish. However, Sudani’s lack of a parliamentary bloc directly affiliated with him allowed the Coordination Framework, a coalition of pro-Iranian Shia parties, to draft and garner support for the law. It was able to do so by utilizing its numbers in Parliament and maneuvering with other blocs, including the Kurdish and Sunni parties that make up the State Administration Coalition, which formed the current government. The law will first be applied in the provincial council elections planned for November 6, though it is expected to be used in Iraq’s parliamentary elections as well.
The new law uses the same election procedures as Iraq’s 2013 provincial council and 2014 and 2018 parliamentary elections, the latter of which sparked the 2019 Tishreen Movement protests. The protests, which were driven by the belief that pressing issues could not be addressed by a government formed through the election procedures used in 2018, led to the resignation of then-Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mahdi.
Similarly, there was backlash to the new law. Demonstrations against the changes to the election law broke out before the session during which it was passed in Parliament. Also, some members of small parties and independent members of parliament protested during the session and were removed from the Parliament.
As with past changes to Iraq’s election law, the new law is likely to usher in fresh elements of uncertainty in the country. Over the past 20 years, there have been multiple alterations to the method of distributing seats in Iraq’s Parliament. Following the overthrow of Saddam Hussein with the 2003 U.S.-led invasion, the initial elections required voters to select from predetermined lists created by political parties, without the opportunity to choose their preferred candidate within a list. Consequently, the election results did not fully reflect the voters’ intentions, since candidate positions and legislative powers were solely determined by the political parties. The Federal Supreme Court of Iraq later deemed this electoral law unconstitutional, and in preparation for the 2010 elections, revisions were made to enable voters to select individual candidates from the lists. For the 2013 provincial council elections as well as the 2014 and 2018 parliamentary elections, the Sainte-Lague proportional representation system was used. The system, developed by French mathematician Andre Sainte-Lague, awards seats based on the number of votes for electoral lists rather than individual candidates.
The election law changes made in Iraq since 2003 have not only affected representation in Parliament but have also changed the way governments have been formed. Proportional election systems, like Sainte-Lague, more readily facilitated government formation as ethnic or sectarian groups formed a unified bloc. When Shia parties, particularly, are divided, it has been difficult to form a government. Nonetheless, whether there’s a proportional or majoritarian election system, as long as the Shia parties are divided among themselves, as has recently been the case, the political crises following elections are likely to continue.
New Election Law
With the reimplementation of the Sainte-Lague proportional representation system, candidates on lists – particularly lists associated with large, well-organized political parties – will have a distinct advantage. Under this system, even if a candidate associated with a list receives fewer votes than an independent candidate, he or she will still be favored over the independent candidate if the list receives more total votes. For example, a list consisting of five candidates who received 2,000 votes each would be favored over an independent candidate who received fewer than 10,000 votes; independent candidates must compete against the total votes received by a list.
The new election law reduces the number of electoral districts from 83 to 18, making each province a single electoral district. Minority quotas will also be implemented so that candidates in provinces with a minority quota can only receive votes from their province, rather than a system in which minority candidates can receive votes from any province with a minority quota. With this change, some local minority parties and candidates may become more competitive against dominant minority parties, such as the ostensibly Christian but militia-connected Babylon Movement, which was able to win four out of Iraq’s five seats for Christians in the 2021 elections despite lack of support from many Christians in provinces eligible to vote for minority candidates. The women’s quota has been preserved by requiring at least 83 women, or 25% of the total seats, to be included in Parliament; if the number of seats in Parliament increases, women’s representation will increase proportionally.
Furthermore, while ethnic, religious, and sectarian identities have played a prominent role in past elections, cross-identity common lists will be empowered now that electoral districts have been expanded to cover entire provinces. With the enlargement of electoral districts, the scope of politics – carried out in small constituencies in the last elections – will also expand, with electoral lists developing strategies to attract voters from different identities across entire provinces and likely creating joint lists comprised of various groups. This change will also lay the groundwork for an “Iraqi” national identity to be elevated over ethnic, religious, and sectarian identities.
Additionally, the abandonment of multimember electoral districts is likely to even out the seats among well-organized political parties, which in the past have efficiently directed supporters toward their candidates, and parties that have popular support but struggle to organize. For example, the Alliance of Nation State Forces, led by former Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi and the National Wisdom Movement’s Ammar al-Hakim, received over 60,000 votes from Baghdad’s 17 electoral districts in the October 2021 parliamentary elections – more than the total received by three parties that won seats – but failed to secure any seats because none of its candidates received the most votes in any of the districts. However, if the Sainte-Lague method had been used, the Alliance of Nation State Forces would have earned five seats from Baghdad.
Furthermore, as the above recalculation shows, had the 2021 elections been held under the Sainte-Lague method, the Sadrist movement would have lost four seats. The recently formed Furatain (Euphrates) Movement, whose most popular candidate and leader, Sudani, received 5,333 votes, would have still secured one seat with the help of the votes received by the other candidates within the list. Notably, due to the changes in the law, none of the five independent candidates who won seats in 2021 would have secured them under the new election law even if they received more votes than the Furatain Movement’s most popular candidate.
The election results for Basra tell a similar story. Smaller parties, such as the National Support Alliance and Biladi National Movement, along with one independent candidate, would have lost their seats under the new rules. The Tishreen Movement would have suffered the largest setback with the recalculations; except for a few candidates who ran independently of organized parties, no Tishreen Movement candidates would have won seats in Parliament.
Despite receiving fewer votes than the Tasmim Alliance, the Sadrist movement won almost twice as many seats in 2021. The Sadrist movement’s success can largely be attributed to its strong organizational capabilities, including its release of an app that directed voters to vote for candidates aligned with the movement. However, the new election law will eliminate the advantage provided by the Sadrist movement’s effective vote distribution strategy – under the new rules, the movement would have lost four seats. In contrast, the Coordination Framework parties would have gained a significant number of seats in Baghdad, while the Emtidad Movement, which was formed by the Tishreen protesters, would have won almost twice the number of seats in Dhi Qar governate.
Under this new version of Iraq’s old electoral law, the Coordination Framework will likely become more competitive in elections against the Sadrist movement. In fact, if the Coordination Framework backs two separate blocs, such as the State of Law Coalition and Fatah Coalition, it could win more seats than the Sadrist movement. A reduction in the number of independent candidates and seats held by small parties will cause those seats to be directed toward major parties.
While the Sadrist movement emerged victorious from the 2021 elections, it may lose much of its power in Parliament due to the changes to Iraq’s electoral law. Indeed, after the resignation of Sadrist members of parliament, it is likely that the other large blocs in the Parliament, particularly the Coordination Framework, voted to bring back a province-based proportional system to disadvantage Sadrists, smaller parties, and independent candidates. This would make it even more difficult for the Sadrist movement to transition to the majoritarian government system Muqtada al-Sadr, the movement’s leader, was specifically pushing for following the 2021 elections. As a result, it is likely that political rivalries, especially among Shia political factions, will continue.
Nonetheless, Iraq’s new electoral system is unlikely to significantly alter the ethnic and sectarian composition of Parliament. The relatively homogeneous makeup of Iraq’s provinces suggests that the balance of power among various ethnic and sectarian groups that emerged following the 2003 U.S.-led invasion will remain in place. For instance, even if a range of Sunni parties compete in Sunni-majority Anbar province, Anbar’s 15 seats will still be held by Sunnis regardless of which parties win. Similarly, Kurdish parties will likely continue to win most of the seats in the predominantly Kurdish provinces of Erbil, Sulaymaniyah, Duhok, and Halabja. However, there may be more intense competition among identity groups in provinces with diverse populations. In Arab-majority Nineveh province, Kurdish parties won 11 out of 31 seats in the last elections. If a similar outcome is repeated in the next provincial council elections, the Kurdistan Democratic Party may demand the governor’s office, which could spark tensions in the Arab-dominated province. Similar disputes are likely to occur in other more diverse provinces, such as Kirkuk, Diyala, and Saladin.
On a social level, the removal of independent and Tishreen movement politicians from Parliament could deepen the sense of alienation and marginalization among the youth who have mobilized protests against the political system, further eroding trust in the political establishment and strengthening the perception that meaningful change cannot be achieved through existing institutions. Moreover, the exclusion of diverse voices from Parliament risks perpetuating the dominance of established political elites and fueling the population’s grievances.
graduated from Bahçeşehir University. He is currently the Iraq studies expert at the Center for Middle Eastern Studies (ORSAM) in Ankara.
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