Iraqi MPs delay decision on new voting law but set provincial elections for November

Last time Iraq held a provincial election was in 2013

The Iraqi parliament, where a showdown over proposed national election legislation is now expected on Saturday. Photo: Iraqi Parliament Media Office
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Iraq’s provincial council elections are set to take place on November 6 after parliament approved the date for the vote.

A showdown over a controversial new national election law, however, has been delayed until Saturday.

After the 2003 US-led invasion that toppled Saddam Hussein’s regime, parliamentary and provincial council elections were introduced as the main pillar for democracy.

Provincial councils play a vital role as the sub-national legislative authority, as well as devising localised development plans.

They have the power to elect and replace provincial governors and make special appointments. However, they have limited power in approving projects and spending.

When the youth-led, pro-reform protests broke out in central and southern Iraq in October 2019, one of their main demands was dissolving provincial councils, which they accused of widespread corruption.

In a bid to appease the protesters, parliament bowed to that demand and decided to disband provincial councils by the end of 2019.

However, the Supreme Federal Court ruled in June 2021 that such disbandment was unconstitutional and instead considered them frozen.

Controversial election law

Since 2003, Iraq has held five parliamentary elections, all with different systems for allocating seats. The latest was in October 2021.

In each system that governed elections before 2021, the method of seat distribution was changed in favour of the bigger political parties, the exception being a provincial election in 2013.

In that vote, Iraq used the Sainte Lague system, which benefits smaller parties, but it was modified in 2014's national elections, restoring the advantage for established political groups.

Under pressure from the October 2019 protests, known as the Tishreen Movement, MPs approved a new election law with numerous small electoral districts in each province and the winner being the party the highest number of votes, abolishing the modified Sainte Lague system.

That move gave the new independent parties — many of which were supported by protesters — a stronger chance of winning seats.

With the absence of the powerful Sadrist Movement from parliament — after its leader Moqtada Al Sadr withdrew its 73 MPs from the chamber — the controlling political parties are seeking to alter the law in their favour, pushing aside small independent groups.

Although Mr Al Sadr's bloc emerged with a strong plurality in October's elections, winning 73 of 329 seats, it failed to form a majority government, deepening the rift between him and his Shiite rivals.

The process of forming the government ground to a halt, forcing him to order his followers to resign from parliament and withdraw from the political process.

Established parties cement power

In support of the new law are the Iran-backed Co-ordination Framework, as well as the Parliament Speaker’s Taqadum party and two main Kurdish parties, the Kurdistan Democratic Party and Patriotic Union of Kurdistan.

They want to return to the modified Sainte Lague system introduced in 2014, which involves a complicated formula used to apportion seats in favour of established parties.

The system would also apply to provincial elections, none of which have been held since 2013. The delay has been blamed on disputes between Baghdad and Kurdish authorities, and insecurity arising from the conflict against ISIS.

Parliament was supposed to vote on the law on Sunday, but the session was delayed until dawn on Monday as many independent politicians who objected to the proposal walked out.

At about 4am, the session started with a needed quorum of 171 politicians, the legislative body said in a statement.

But they only voted on seven articles of 15 in the new election law, the statement added. It left the controversial articles for Saturday.

Hours after Monday’s parliamentary session, Iraqi security forces were heavily deployed at Baghdad’s Tahrir Square for a potential gathering of protesters who are against the amendments.

Updated: March 20, 2023, 10:31 AM