The Washington Post
The Right Plan for Iraqi Voters
July 6, 2004
In recent weeks conservatives have criticized the choice of a proportional
representation system for Iraq's elections and have disparaged the U.N.
electoral assistance department and its director, Carina Perelli. But the plan
these critics propose for Iraq -- rejection of proportional voting in favor of
an Anglo-American-style, winner-take-all system -- is not a recipe for
According to critics of the United Nations, most notably Michael Rubin on
this page [June 19] and Richard Perle in a speech to the American Enterprise
Institute, the U.N. plan for Iraq's January elections ignores the desire of
liberal Iraqis for constituency-based elections and is likely to bring
disastrous consequences, along the lines of those produced by Lebanon's failed
communal system. Others claim that the U.N. plan will harm the Shiite majority,
breeding more instability.
The criticism of U.N. electoral efforts is unjustified. Perelli and her staff
have overseen successful elections in East Timor, Nigeria and elsewhere, while
her department has played a crucial role in bringing democracy to Namibia,
Cambodia, Mozambique and Indonesia, among others. The United Nations certainly
has been guilty of serious institutional failures, but its running and planning
of elections has been a bright spot. With Carlos Valenzuela, a savvy veteran of
some of the most testing elections around the world -- at the helm in Iraq, the
United Nations brings a wealth of experience to the table.
Why is it correct in recommending proportional representation for the
constituent assembly elections in Iraq? First and foremost, proportional
representation will avoid the anomalies that are prevalent when single-member
districts or some variant thereof are used in emerging democracies. In 1998 the
Lesotho Congress for Democracy won all but one seat in parliament with 60
percent of the vote; rioting and state collapse ensued. In the 2000 Mongolian
elections, the ruling party took 95 percent of the seats with 58 percent of the
vote. In Iraq such a system would most likely give a significant "seat
bonus" to Shiite parties, to the detriment of Sunni-based groups and
embryonic multiethnic movements.
The St. Lucian Nobel Prize-winner Sir Arthur Lewis cautioned 40 years ago
that "the surest way to kill the idea of democracy in a plural society is
to adopt the Anglo-American system of First Past the Post." Contrary to
Richard Perle's belief that proportional representation will harden ethnic and
religious divisions in Iraq, evidence from elsewhere suggests the opposite.
While it is true that proportional representation will not eliminate these
tendencies, single-member districts are much more inclined to entrench such
cleavages. The system places a primacy on mobilizing your group, in your part of
the country. There is often no incentive to appeal outside the core voter base.
First-past-the-post systems in divided African and Asian societies have
facilitated the development of ethnically chauvinistic parties. Conversely,
there are inherent incentives in proportional representation to appeal beyond
the boundaries of your group; proportionality leaves a space for multiethnic
parties to grow, as in South Africa. Every vote counts toward gaining extra
seats in the national legislature, and this would motivate broader vote appeals
from Kurdish and Sunni parties in Iraq.
Majority-based systems also systematically exclude women and smaller minority
groups from representation. Women are underrepresented throughout the world, but
the situation is significantly worse when single-member districts are used.
Proportional representation allows the use of special mechanisms for gender
diversity when constituting party lists. Finally, using proportional
representation avoids the political powder keg of drawing district boundaries,
and it makes voter registration far easier.
For these reasons, outside of the United States, proportional representation
is not, as columnist Jim Hoagland charged in his June 20 column, a
"controversial electoral system." Proportional representation systems
are used by many more countries than first-past-the-post systems. They are in
place in most of Europe and Latin America and have worked well in countless
democratizing nations. Nevertheless, proportionality is not a panacea. The
electoral system is just one cog in the machinery of institutional design,
social accommodation and economic development. But if the election cog is
misshapen, progress often grinds to a halt.
If the real issue is that Iraqis reasonably desire a degree of geographical
representation, then that too can be accommodated in a system that fairly
translates votes cast into seats won. Michael Rubin claims there are only two
ways to hold direct elections: by party slates or by single-member
constituencies. But the trend nowadays is for both established and emerging
democracies to move to mixed systems, combining party slates and
individual-candidate voting in districts, which satisfy various needs. No system
can guarantee a democratic Iraq, but imposing winner-take-all elections would be
like playing Russian roulette with Iraq's political future.