Analysis: Iraq parliament moves towards pre-election showdown

Numerous question marks hang over provincial and national elections expected to take place next year as MPs grapple to resolve disputes over election laws and the make-up of the electoral commission

Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi, center, attends a session of the Iraqi Parliament, in Baghdad, Iraq, Wednesday, Sept. 27, 2017. al-Abadi on Wednesday ordered the Kurdish region to hand over control of its airports to federal authorities or face a flight ban. (AP Photo/Karim Kadim)
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Amid the climax in the war against ISIL and the uproar over an independence referendum in Iraqi Kurdistan, Iraq's political class also faces challenges in getting prepared for national and provincial elections next year.

Provincial elections, last held in April 2013, were expected to be held in May of this year but were postponed until September. In August, however, parliament decided to postpone the polls again, this time merging them with the next national elections. Iraq last held national elections in April 2014 and is expected to hold them again in April next year, although constitutionally could hold them through the middle of the following month.

New legislation is supposed to be passed in Iraq for each new election, determining how it will be carried out. Parliament had been expected to pass new laws for both the upcoming provincial and national elections, as well as choose a new board of commissioners for the Independent High Electoral Commission (IHEC) — but it has run into several problems on these issues.

The legislation to govern the next provincial elections is mostly complete after parliament voted in August to "fix" what the large parliamentary blocs saw as the key flaw of the 2013 provincial elections law — that it was designed to set a low threshold for small political parties and independent candidates to obtain seats. This led to provincial councils with numerous small parties.

As then prime minister Nuri Al Maliki put it, this resulted in “weak” local governments, impeding effective governance. Critics took a different view, however, asserting that Mr Al Maliki’s concern was maintaining the dominance of the established parties.

The large parliamentary blocs rectified this “problem” for the national elections in 2014 by increasing the threshold for parties to obtain seats, resulting in fewer small parties in parliament. The same “fix” was passed in August for the next provincial elections when parliament approved a high threshold over the objection of small parties and Shiite cleric Muqtada Al Sadr's movement — the latter having taken up the cause of small parties as a way of weakening Mr Al Maliki’s State of Law Coalition and other big blocs.


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The only part of the provincial elections law not yet passed is the segment relating to who is eligible to vote in the disputed province of Kirkuk, which is claimed by both Baghdad and Iraq's autonomous Kurdish region. Arab, Turkmen and Kurdish MPs have been unable to agree on whether Arabs originally from another province and the large number of Kurds who have been moving back to Kirkuk since 2003 should be allowed to take part in provincial elections. But, given the current standoff between Baghdad and Kurds over Kirkuk’s participation in the Kurdish independence referendum, it is unlikely this issue will be resolved anytime soon and the provincial elections will likely proceed without Kirkuk's involvement. Kirkuk’s current provincial council was elected in January 2005 — the last time provincial elections were held there.

A law to govern the next national elections may not be achievable, however. A bill introduced back in February by president Fuad Masum was quickly rejected by the major blocs as being too favourable to the Sadrists and local independent candidates. There are now multiple proposals, including a bill passed by prime minister Haider Al Abadi’s cabinet. Mr Al Abadi has addressed the issue by saying that if a new federal election law cannot be passed in time then the next national poll will just use the 2014 law.

More difficult to manage, however, is the dispute over the selection of the new IHEC, whose term expired on September 20. Although parliament speaker Salim Al Jiburi, with questionable authority, declared IHEC’s mandate to be extended by a month, this is only a temporary fix — the issue must be addressed one way or another.

Just this week, parliament took the major step of rejecting a proposal to replace an IHEC dominated by politically-allocated nominees with judges appointed by the Judicial High Council, the body that supervises the judiciary. The proposal was sponsored by the Civil Democratic Alliance party, which holds five seats in parliament, and supported by the Sadrists and vice president Iyad Allawi’s bloc. Opponents of the proposal, who include the State of Law Coalition and who possess a nominal majority in parliament, support a continuation of the status quo. But, with Kurdish MPs currently boycotting parliament over its rejection of the Kurdish independence referendum, this grouping is struggling to form a quorum in order to legislate for that. At present, IHEC members are chosen by a selection committee chaired by the Dawa Party's Amer Al Khuzai, an ally of vice president Nuri Al Maliki, who is now Mr Al Abadi’s chief rival.

Disagreement over this issue has been building up to a confrontation all year. Under existing law governing the IHEC, the selection committee's members are chosen by parliament, allowing the major parliamentary blocs' loyalists to dominate. Mr Al Khuzai's predecessor, deputy parliamentary speaker Aram Shaykh Muhammad of the Kurdish Gorran party, was viewed as a relatively neutral player but was pushed out in March after less than a month in the job. Mr Khuzai filled his place and since then close observers have described the process as heavily politicised.

Exacerbating the uncertainty surrounding Iraq's next elections are remaining question marks over how the various political parties will align themselves — the biggest being how the competition between Mr Al Abadi and Mr Al Maliki will play out. Both men belong to the Dawa Party but have been making regular veiled — and at times not-so-veiled — attacks against one another.

The clearest confirmation of otherwise anonymous reports that they will run on competing lists came in a recent interview from Mr Al Maliki on Dawa’s Afaq television channel, in which the vice-president implicitly said that such a matchup would take place.

Another key question relates to Mr Al Sadr's movement, which represents much of the Shiite popular class in Iraq. Representatives of Mr Al Sadr's Ahrar Bloc in parliament have talked up turning their loose alliance with secular activists — currently limited to street protests — into a formalised electoral alliance. Yet, also looming is Mr Al Sadr’s threat to boycott the election if it is overseen by another “corrupt” and politicised electoral commission — an allegation made more dramatic by the cleric’s claim that his "corrupt" opponents plan to have him killed.

The recent parliamentary vote rejecting a judge-overseen electoral commission creates an awkward choice for Mr Al Sadr — to participate in next year's national elections and perhaps lose face, or boycott them and risk the exclusion of his broad lower-class base from the political process, a dangerous scenario.

Also adding to the uncertainty is the emergence of new factions, whose potential remains untested. One is the Coalition for Democracy and Justice faction led by Barham Salih, which recently split from the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan party. Mr Salih, who frames his party as reformist, anti-corruption and pro-democracy, will need to reach a coalition agreement with the Gorran party — which appeals to the same part of the Kurdish electorate — if he wants his faction to compete effectively against the autonomous Kurdistan region’s dominant parties.

Another wild card is Ammar Al Hakim’s new Hikma Current party, which split off from the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq. Mr Al Hakim, despite his status as a cleric who inherited political authority through his family, has framed himself as a moderniser and Iraqi nationalist. As a result, he will be competing for votes with Mr Al Abadi — except that the prime minister has the advantages of a national media pulpit and a status as the commander-in-chief in the successful war against ISIL.

Both new movements have their work cut out for them.