The results of the January 30 elections announced Sunday by the Independent Electoral Commission are another giant step towards building a free and democratic Iraq. Voter turnout, at almost 59 percent, was higher than an U.S. election since 1968. That in itself can be counted as a victory, though hardly surprising except to the chronically pessimistic. But the election results do not in themselves settle the question of who will take power in the transitional government.
Handicapping is underway on who will take the top leadership positions. This is taking the form of a debate within the victorious United Iraqi Alliance (UIA) between supporters of Finance Minister Adil Abd-al-Mahdi, who is backed by the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI), and Vice President Ibrahim al-Jafari, head of the Islamic Dawah party. These are the two most influential groups in the so-called Shia list that gained 47.6 part of the national vote and will likely receive around 132 of the 275 seats in the Transitional National Assembly. Two other potential UIA nominees are nuclear scientist Husayn al-Shahristani (wouldn’t that be ironic?) who is favored by Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, and Iraqi National Congress (INC) head Ahmad Chalabi (whose election would be even more ironic).
The fact that the United Iraqi Alliance did not win an outright majority is good news. They will have to make a coalition with one or more of the smaller parties in order to form a government. A two-thirds majority (184) is required to elect a prime minister and president, so that means attracting over fifty votes, assuming the 16 parties that make up the Shia list stick together. The Kurdish Alliance took 25.4 percent of the vote and will likely gain around 70 seats, not enough to defeat a candidate they disapprove of but a large enough block to form a serious opposition (or a potent majority coalition partner). The Iraqi List led by current interim Prime Minister Iyad Allawi will probably receive 38 seats with its 13.6 percent showing. Approximately 40 seats will be divided among the dozen or so smaller parties.
Determining who will sit in the parliament is not clear-cut. First, the number of seats each party or coalition has won must be determined. This will be most difficult among the lesser parties, those that gained enough votes to win at least one seat and may be entitled to a major fraction of another. However, seats cannot be divided, so a formula will be used to decide the marginal cases, though the larger, more powerful coalitions will want to sweep up as many of these disputed seats as possible. Once the number of seats each group is entitled to is determined, the intra-party debates over who will actually get them will intensify.
In mature parliamentary democracies, a rank-order list of names is published before the election so the voters know for whom they are voting. However, most Iraqi parties kept their lists secret, citing security concerns. In fact, they probably did not have detailed lists, or may have had several drafts of lists that were being continually revised. It would have been too difficult to settle the questions of precedence before the election, and could have led to fights that would have broken up the coalitions. The groups receiving the largest numbers of votes are not technically parties but assemblages of parties, some of which are larger and more influential than others. Each party coalition will now have to decide how many seats go to each of their constituent members. Some of the smaller parties are likely to receive only token seats, the majority going to the dominant partners. It will be difficult for those who are shut out this way to make much of a case since there is no certain method of determining how much each party’s supporters contributed to the coalition’s total. This will lead to intense bargaining among the various groups for the limited numbers of seats. It will be interesting to see if the coalitions maintain their cohesion when the assembly convenes. There are no rules that will force the parties to cooperate while governing, and variations on the blocs may emerge as issues are debated, particularly the new constitution.
Drafting the permanent constitution is the principal, though not only, mission for the transitional national assembly. Article 61 of the Law of Administration for the State of Iraq for the Transitional Period lays out the process. The draft must be completed by August 15, 2005. A referendum will then be held no later than October 15. The referendum is one of the key checks on the process of formulating the new basic law. It must be approved by a majority vote, and must not be rejected by two-thirds of the voters in three or more provinces. This gives Kurds and Sunnis a practical check on the will of the majority; they can defeat a constitution they disapprove of by marshalling local opposition and forcing a rewrite. This should deter more radical members of the UIA from suggesting a sharia-based constitution, which probably would not receive support from the majority of the Iraqi population anyway. Polls show around 10 percent supporting a fundamentalist approach to government. Should the draft constitution be rejected in the referendum, the national assembly will dissolve and a new one elected in December. If it is approved, the December elections will be for whatever government is established under the constitution. Either way, we will go through this process again by year’s end.