The Right Plan for Iraqi Voters

By Andrew Reynolds
Published July 6th 2004 in The Washington Post
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 stability.

According to the 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.