Iraq’s Sectarian Electoral System

Election worker empties ballots from a box during the 2009 provincial elections in Basra.

Election worker empties ballots from a box during the 2009 provincial elections in Basra. (Photo: New York Times)

The political scientist Maurice Duverger, in his classic work Political Parties, claimed that party systems and electoral systems in a democracy are “indissolubly linked” and “difficult to separate.” Together, these two systems determine the accuracy of political representation within a state. I have spent the last year studying political parties in Iraq and it is clear that the party system in Iraq created sectarian political representation. Therefore, according to Duverger’s statement, the electoral system in Iraq must also, in some way, contribute to that sectarian representation. In order to understand this relationship, it is useful to look back at the evolution of Iraq’s electoral system.

The first election in post-Saddam Iraq was held on January 30, 2005 to elect a 275 member Transitional National Assembly. The assembly was charged with drafting a new constitution and preparing for general elections to choose a permanent legislative body, set for December of the same year. The Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) began preparations to establish an electoral system for this contest as early as the summer of 2003. The electoral framework used was chosen by the chief of the UN Electoral Assistance Division, Carina Perelli, with the help of the CPA and the Iraqi Governing Council. The framework was signed into law by the CPA administrator, Paul Bremer, and announced by Perelli on June 4, 2004.

Carina Perelli was the chief of the UN Electoral Assistance Division until 2006.

Carina Perelli was the chief of the UN Electoral Assistance Division until 2006.

Perelli chose a closed-list proportional representation (PR) system based on a single national district. Simply put, PR is an electoral system in which political parties are listed on a ballot and each party receives a proportion of seats equal to the proportion of the vote they capture. Prior to an election parties submit a list of candidates that is equal to the total number of seats available.

In a closed-list PR system, the order of candidates on the list is chosen completely by the party. If Party A wins 15 seats, the first 15 candidates on Party A’s list enter the new government. This is different from an open-list system in which voters not only chose a party but also a candidate. The party list is then sorted by the number of votes each candidate received. When compared to each other, the closed-list system clearly places more control with the party while the open-list system favors the voter.

According to Perelli’s statement, this particular system was chosen for two reasons: inclusiveness and ease of administration. The PR system is known for returning a highly proportional result allowing many parties entry into the government. In Perelli’s words, the CPA sought to ensure that “anybody who needed to participate and who wanted to participate would have a chance to do so; that even the smaller interests would — should and would be represented.”

The single national district made the election easier to administer by allowing sectarian and ethnic communities, displaced throughout the country due to the policies of Saddam Hussein, to “accumulate their votes and to vote with like-minded people.” Further, by utilizing a closed-list system, all ballots printed within Iraq’s borders would look exactly alike. This allowed Shiites living in northern Iraq to vote for Shiite political parties based in the south, on the same ballot as southern Shiites.

Ballot for Iraq’s January 2005 national election. Because the entire country served as one electoral district, every eligible party was listed on each ballot, 111 in total. (Photo: U.S. Dept of State through the George W. Bush White House Archive)

Although the electoral system chosen for the January 2005 election fulfilled the goals set forth by Perelli, it also had significant repercussions for following elections and Iraqi politics as a whole. The first significant outcome was the electoral institutionalization of sectarian identity. Nussaibah Younis wrote in the journal Contemporary Arab Affairs that the single national district “encouraged voters to vote with reference to divisive identities at the national level, instead of potentially unifying local identities.” This sectarianization of national politics was made worse when a majority of Iraq’s Sunnis, unhappy with the chosen system, decided to boycott the January elections.

Secondly, Younis wrote that the closed-list system “separated voters from the individual politicians, forcing voters to support anonymous party lists instead of trusted and well-respected local individuals.” This reflects the discussion above which said that closed-list systems favor political parties by allowing them sole control over the candidates on their lists.

After a turbulent constitutional process, Iraqis returned to the polls in December of 2005 to elect a four-year full-term National Assembly. The closed-list PR system remained for the December elections, further strengthening the political parties. But the Transitional National Assembly amended the election law of 2004, removing the single national district and creating electoral districts equal to the existing 18 Iraqi provinces. This step was seen as a positive move for Iraq’s Sunnis, guaranteeing them greater representation.

The December 2005 elections introduced electoral districts aligned with Iraq's existing 18 provinces. (Photo:

The December 2005 elections introduced electoral districts aligned with Iraq’s existing 18 provinces. (Photo:

As Larry Diamond and Adeed Dawisha show in their article, Iraq’s Year of Voting Dangerously,” while the newly minted districts were a positive step for the electoral system, they also deepened the sectarian hold on politics. The provinces on which the districts were based contained mostly homogeneous ethnic or sectarian populations. This led to little competition between parties within each province. Similarly, few parties campaigned outside of their popular power base, which usually corresponded to provincial boundaries.

The next significant change to Iraq’s electoral system came with the Electoral Law of 2008. The law, passed before the 2009 provincial elections, established the use of open-lists. This system was expanded to the 2010 national elections through an amendment passed by Iraq’s National Assembly. The amendment gave the Iraqi voter an opportunity to vote for a party or a party and a candidate within that party. According to Younis , the result was that “many politicians with poor local reputations or who had performed badly in office were thrown out by voters regardless of where they stood in their internal party hierarchies.”

Iraqi woman voting in the 2010 national elections. (Photo: Al-Jazeera)

Iraqi woman voting in the 2010 national elections. (Photo: Al-Jazeera)

At first, the 2010 national elections appeared to break the sectarian hold on Iraqi politics. A secular coalition, the Iraqi National Accord, led by Iyad Allawi, won the most seats in the new legislature, beating the Shiite State of Law coalition led by Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki. However, this brief moment of secular victory was quickly overshadowed by the realities of the PR system. Because the PR system allows many parties and coalitions to win representation within the government, rarely does a single party or coalition receive a majority of the seats. Although Allawi’s Iraqi National Accord beat Maliki’s State of Law, Maliki was able to expand his coalition to capture a majority of seats, thus minimizing Allawi’s victory.

The CPA and Carina Perelli set out to create an Iraqi electoral system that would support an inclusive political system based on secular rather than sectarian identities. Unfortunately, the closed-list PR system put in place by the CPA before it transitioned power to the Iraqis did the exact opposite. The closed-list system allotted large amounts of power to the political parties while the initial single national district ensured that the parties elected to draft the constitution were based on sectarian identities. The electoral system is not solely to blame for the sectarian presence in Iraqi politics. But understanding the evolution of the system provides a deeper insight into current political events.


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