Al-Zaman reports in Arabic that the Iraqi parliament approved the electoral law to govern the elections scheduled for early next year. The vote was 141 in favor out of what Al-Zaman said were 175 attending (the Iraqi parliament has 275 seats, so a simple majority is 138). AFP estimated attending MPs at 195.
President Barack Obama hailed the vote as “an important milestone as the Iraqi people continue to take responsibility for their future.” In other words, it means to the Obama administration that the time when they can get out of Iraq is nearer. US ambassador Christopher Hill is said to have played a key mediating role in pushing the law through after it was voted on and failed to pass numerous times.
Update: Steve Clemons reports that Vice President Joe Biden played a cental role in the negotiations. Clemons stresses his calls with Kurdistan president Massoud Barzani. But since the legislation was a big win for the Kurds, the hard talk must have been with Arab leaders such as PM Nuri al-Maliki, who gave up a lot on Kirkuk.
The Kurdistan Alliance scored a major victory insofar as the law agrees to use the 2009 voting rolls for the polls in Kirkuk Province. The Kurdistan Regional Government began as a provincial confederacy incorporating 3 of Iraq’s 18 provinces, but over time the original provincial administrations and borders were erased, leaving the KRG as a super-province in its own right. Kurdistan wishes to incorporate into itself a fourth province, oil-rich Kirkuk, which has a mixed population of Kurds, Turkmen and Arabs. Turkmen and Arabs on the whole do not wish to become part of Kurdistan. There has been enormous Kurdish immigration into Kirkuk in recent years. Kurds say these immigrants had been in Kirkuk but were expelled by Saddam, who brought up Arabs to Arabize the province.
But there were lots of Arabs in Kirkuk before Arabization, and probably a significant proportion of new Kurdish immigrants were not traditionally residents there. Arabs and Turkmen also charge that the current voting rolls are full of fraudulent names, as Kurds have attempted to pack the registration list. The Arab and Turkmen members of parliament had wanted the 2004 electoral rolls used, to offset the likelihood of a Kurdish landslide in Kirkuk province that might set the stage for its full incorporation into the Kurdistan Regional Government. The compromise is that the Kirkuk electoral rolls will be subject to special scrutiny. If at least 5% of voter registration in a district is found fraudulent, then any 55 parliamentarians may call for a recount.
Al-Zaman says that during the moments when the vote was taken and the results announced, the chamber was in chaos. Some members of parliament doubted that the measure actually received 141 votes. The Kurdistan Alliance MPs went wild with joy at the passage of the law in this form.
Some members of parliament objected to a provision whereby displaced Iraqi outside their own original places of residence are not allowed to vote. Given the ethnic cleansing of so many Sunni Arabs of Baghdad and environs this provision probably hurts the Sunni Arab parties. Critics of the measure said it was unconstitutional, since the Iraqi constitution does not tie voting rights for citizens to place of residence.
The election had been scheduled for January 16, but it is now set for January 23. Ambassador Hill is reportedly pushing hard for that date as final.
Nevertheless, al-Zaman reports that the Iraqi High Commission says that this law was enacted too late to hold the election on time. He is requesting a 3-month delay, to April 16. This delay would affect Americans, since the US military is being kept in Iraq at this point primarily so that it can lock down the country for 3 days to allow voters to go to the polls without being blown up. Delaying the date of the election might delay the timeline for taking troops out of the country. This delay is no doubt what spurred Ambassador Hill to insist that January 23 is the firm date. Constitutionally, moreover, the election must take place in January.
The law calls for a system wherein voters vote for candidates by name, though these are part of an electoral list or party. This system should not be confused with the US and British open voting, wherein one can vote for candidates regardless of their party or even vote for independents. In Iraq, the party lists still put up the candidates. Iraqis contrast this “Modified List” system to the closed list system that had been used for previous elections, where voters only have the option of choosing an electoral list or party when they vote, but had no control over which candidates the victorious party would seat in parliament.
Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, the spiritual leader of Iraqi Shiites, had campaigned hard for a modified list system, appearing to believe that the closed list encourages sectarianism, and that it is undemocratic insofar as it detracted from popular sovereignty (the people should have a say in particular politicians elected and not just which party gets to choose them).
The passage of the electoral law now allows Iraq to proceed on something like the timeline envisaged for it in the Status of Forces Agreement. If the election is held on January 23, there will probably be months of wrangling over who will be the new prime minister. But that indecision should not be a bar to withdrawing US troops, who are continuing to come out of Iraq ahead of schedule.
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