CHAI KHANA COMMENTARIES

Iraq’s Electoral Democracy on the Line: A Call for Extending UNAMI’s Mandate

A female candidate gestures to supporters during an election event in 2010. (Photo credit: “Al Jazeera English” by Omar Chatriwala is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0. The original photo can be found at https://www.flickr.com/photos/aljazeeraenglish/4404427308/.)

By EPIC’s Editorial Team

On April 19, Judge Jalil Adnan Khalaf, Chairman of Iraq’s Independent High Electoral Commission (IHEC), reportedly resigned under pressure from influential political factions, raising concerns about the integrity of Iraq’s electoral system. This development, coupled with recent amendments to Iraq’s election law (published here), poses a formidable challenge to the progress made in electoral reforms following the Tishreen protests in October 2019, which aimed for a more democratic and accountable government.

The Tishreen protest movement underscored the urgent need for overhauling Iraq’s electoral law. Among the primary demands were an end to the sectarian allocation system, known as “Muhasasa,” and restoring the independence of the electoral commission to ensure fair elections. These calls were partially heeded in the law that governed the early elections of October 2021. However, the recently passed amendments to the electoral law by parliament threaten to undo these incremental reforms and potentially aggravate the root issues that ignited the protests.

Adding to the concerns, the newly-adopted Sainte-Laguë system, designed as a method of proportional representation, has been met with criticism for its perceived favoritism towards established political parties, while sidelining independent candidates and newer political parties. Detractors contend that this system, previously used with minor variations in elections from 2005 to 2018, may further marginalize significant segments of society and concentrate power among a select elite, thus posing a threat to the development of a truly representative democracy in Iraq.

Equally troubling is the shift from a multi-district system, employed in the 2021 elections where candidates competed in 83 districts under the single non-transferable vote (SNTV) system, to the new election law’s treatment of each governorate as a single electoral district. The previous arrangement was hailed as a revolutionary step that leveled the playing field between independents and large parties, promising enhanced accountability between representatives and the electorate. However, reverting to proportional representation and fewer districts has sparked concerns about the marginalization of independent voices in the forthcoming election.

To ensure the impartiality and inclusiveness of the electoral process, it is essential for all branches of government – the legislature, executive, and judiciary – to actively safeguard the independence of IHEC and refrain from interfering in its affairs. Given the recent controversy, a thorough review of changes to the election system by all stakeholders, both within Iraq and in the international community, is strongly recommended. The aim should be to ensure that the electoral process aligns with the Iraqi public’s desire for free and fair elections and equitable representation.

It is of utmost importance for the international community to renew its commitment towards ensuring Iraq’s democratic progress, primarily by renewing the mandate of the United Nations Assistance Mission for Iraq (UNAMI), which is set to expire next week. UNAMI’s role, which has been crucial in providing technical support, overseeing operations, and enhancing the capabilities of IHEC, is pivotal for the successful orchestration of Iraq’s electoral process. Its imminent mandate expiration necessitates urgent action from the international community to sustain its continued involvement.

The international community, in close collaboration with UNAMI, bears the responsibility of prioritizing the enhancement of Iraqi civil society’s capabilities to effectively oversee upcoming elections. This objective can be accomplished by providing essential expertise and resources, thereby ensuring heightened transparency and impartiality on the day of voting. Despite the inherent advantage given to large and influential political parties in seat distribution, a concern that can only be rectified through future legislative measures, empowering civil society remains crucial. Furthermore, extending support to IHEC is of utmost importance, enabling them to establish and enforce appropriate electoral guidelines within their jurisdiction. This can help curb the potential for fraud, combat vote buying, and prevent the misuse of public resources in favor of specific candidates.

Furthermore, it is imperative to note that recent amendments to the election law have raised concerns about the neutrality and inclusivity of the electoral process. To mitigate this, the international community, alongside UNAMI, needs to guarantee that these changes do not undermine the democratic rights of the Iraqi citizens. Additionally, the need for international observation missions cannot be understated. Not only will they provide an external validation of the election results, but they will also enhance trust and credibility in the electoral process among the Iraqi population.

The unfolding situation in Iraq underscores the critical need to uphold democratic institutions and processes in countries grappling with the difficult task of cementing democratic values in an environment rife with corruption and foreign interference, and where lines between political actors and armed factions are blurred. It serves as a stark reminder that the international community must remain vigilant in its support and promotion of democratic principles and institutions worldwide.

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Enabling Peace in Iraq Center is an independent 501(c)3 organization dedicated to supporting Iraqi efforts to improve governance and human rights, build peace, and address climate change.