Iraqi Parliament approves amendments to election law despite objections

Adoption of modified Sainte Lague system, which favours established parties, leads to protests

Iraqi Prime Minister Mohammed Shia Al Sudani addresses the parliament in October 2022. Photo: Iraqi Parliament Media Office
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The streets of major southern Iraqi cities were aflame early on Tuesday morning with pro-reform protesters burning tyres to express objection to the new amendments to election law.

In a chaotic session on Monday, the parliament endorsed the controversial amendments despite objections from protesters and independent politicians.

These amendments could make it hard for independent candidates and small parties to compete against big parties and to reach the legislative body.

MPs were forced to adopt a new election law after pro-reform October protests swept Iraq in late 2019, with many small electoral districts in each province and the winner being the party with the highest number of votes.

That move gave new independent parties — many of which were supported by protesters — a stronger chance of winning seats in the 329-seat parliament in October 2021 elections.

The new amendments return the law to the modified Sainte Lague system introduced in 2014, which uses a complicated formula to apportion seats and tends to favour established parties.

They also reverse a key change in 2019 law, reducing the number of constituencies from 83 to 18 which is one district for each governorate.

Shortly after Monday's session, a few protesters took to the streets and vowed more demonstrations.

“We will have another say tomorrow,” activist Dhirghan Majid told a gathering of protesters in the southern city of Nasiriyah. “This is just a beginning.”

Late on Monday and early morning Tuesday, protesters in the cities of Hilla, Nasiriyah, Najaf, Diwaniyah and Kut burnt tyres and blocked main roads with concrete. Anti-riot police and other security forces were sent.

In videos shared by protesters on social media, security troops were trying to disperse demonstrators while shootings are heard on background.

In one video, an unidentified activist said protesters in Hilla "are facing unjustified repression" and vowed to spread the protests to other cities if the provincial police do not release those arrested.

"Yes, yes to Iraq," the young activist said, pumping his fist in the air. He was flanked by at least two dozen protesters, some holding Iraqi flags and tyres.

"We reject Saint Lague law," reads a banner at Al Haboubi Square in Nasriyah where protesters were gathering and setting up tents. "It brings us back to square one."

At least 560 Iraqis and members of the security forces were killed during the demonstrations, while tens of thousands were wounded, many with live ammunition.

Chaotic session

Independent parliamentarians walked out from the session, which started late on Sunday night, to try to delay it, but the legislative body secured the quorum it needed.

In a bid to block the voting, the independents entered the hall, chanting against the amendments and demanding to end the session.

“No, no to Sainte Lague,” they shouted inside the hall, some of them hitting tables with their hands and others blowing referees' whistles.

At one point, Speaker Mohammed Al Halbousi lost his temper when MPs refused to leave, asking the security personnel to move them away and threatening them with suspension.

“We are being pushed by the guards,” Amer Ismael said while filming with his phone. “This is a humiliation to us.”

The sessions lasted until dawn on Monday, when the new law was approved.

A prominent activist party that emerged from October 2019 protests, the Imtidad Movement, denounced the “flagrant aggression against the representatives of the people” and described it as "a challenge to the peoples' will”.

“The assault against the lawmakers by the security forces and threatening them with suspension by the parliament Speaker is a dangerous precedent that contradicts the principles of democracy and ethical values,” the party said in a statement.

A lawsuit will be filed at the Federal Supreme Court to challenge the outcomes of the session, it said.

The independent Waie Movement announced it would boycott coming elections.

Coming elections

Since 2003, Iraq has held five parliamentary elections, all with different systems for allocating seats.

The latest was in October 2021, when the powerful Sadrist Movement, endorsed by Shiite cleric Moqtada Al Sadr, emerged as the clear winner with 73 seats.

But months later, the process of forming the government ground to a halt. Mr Al Sadr ordered his followers to resign from parliament and withdraw from the political process.

He sought to form a majority government and his absence from the legislative body and political process has strengthened his Shiite rivals in the Iran-backed Co-ordination Framework after suffering a major blow in 2021 elections.

The new amendments were pushed by the Co-ordination Framework, which now has the majority inside the parliament and is the main supporter to Prime Minister Mohammed Shia Al Sudani.

The country is also planning to hold provincial council elections on November 6, its first in a decade. The Iraqi government has not yet scheduled the country's next general elections.

In a related development, the semi-autonomous Kurdish Regional Government said on Sunday that the region would be holding elections for its regional parliament on November 18, after a delay of a year.

A political dispute between the region's most powerful party, the Kurdistan Democractic Party and a coalition led by the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, encompassing smaller opposition parties, had delayed the vote.

This month, the parties agreed on an amended election law that would divide the region into four constituencies, increase the quota for female MPs and require co-ordination with the federal Ministry of Planning to implement the law.

Dilshad Shahab, a representative of the region's presidency, called on “relevant authorities to be ready to conduct the necessary tasks with support and co-operation from the Independent High Elections Commission for implementing this decision”.

Kurdish President Nechirvan Barzani also called on the UN for assistance in monitoring the poll.

Updated: March 28, 2023, 6:11 AM