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Exporting Democracy: How can we achieve fair representation in Iraq?

February 2005

Most observers saw Iraq's recent elections as far more successful that many had believed possible. Voter turnout was comparable to American turnout in our recent presidential race, candidates representing a wide variety of perspectives were elected and women won historic numbers of seats. All of these specific successes were made possible by Iraq's use of a form of full representation very different to the winner-take-all election systems currently most common in America. The January 2005 vote in Iraq was carried out on the basis of national party lists. The whole country was treated as a single electoral district, within which voters voted for parties rather than individuals. Seats were then allocated in proportion to parties shares of the vote. A further stipulation that every third name on a party's list be a woman ensured a high degree of women's representation. For details of how exactly the vote was counted, click here.

U.N, Iraqi and American election officials approved using a national party list system in June 2004 because of the immediate political situation in the country.Iraq is fractured and unstable nation, with different religious and ethnic groups, who are frequently antagonistic towards one another. In addition, many areas are plagued by terrorism and insurgency, making it difficult for election officials to enter to draw up districts or for candidates to campaign.

Given this context, a national party list system presents clear advantages. The election system keeps the threshold of inclusion as low as possible, giving minority groups a realistic chance of election. A party can win one of the Iraqi parliaments 275 seats with as little as 0.36% of the vote. At the same time, a party hoping to win a large share of the seats will have to appeal to an equally large share of the population. This encouraged the major groups to put together slates with broad-based appeal, drawing candidates from across the geographical and ideological spectrums. The Kurdish slate, for instance, was composed of two parties acting in coalition who had previously fought a war with one another. In this way, the system allows as numerous different groups to be included in the government, and so have a hand in drafting the constitution. An election system that would have excluded minority groups such as the Kurds or the Sunni could have destabilized the country, potentially even leading to civil war. Similar considerations resulted in the adoption of a national list system in South Africa after then end of apartheid.

At the same time, a party list system was seen as one of the best ways of safeguarding the security of candidates who might be the targets of insurgent attacks. By standing as members of lists, rather than as individuals, candidates who felt at risk could hide their identities. Moreover, when the vote is carried out on a nationwide basis, there is no need for candidates to campaign in unstable areas.

Criticisms of the national list:

The national party list system, however, began to come under criticism as the date of the election drew closer. It became clear that the system would result in a legislature whose composition did not match the demographic makeup of the country entirely accurately.

A national party list guarantees all racial, ethnic, religious and ideological groups in a population fair representation, so long as all groups turn out to vote in equal number. However, if members of one group do not vote in proportion to their share of the population, they will lose out on representation. In Iraq, several Sunni political leaders demanded that Sunni voters boycott the elections, in protest of the continued American presence in the country. The continued insurgency, which was largely concentrated in Sunni areas, also intimidated voters and prevented many of them from going to the polls. 

The result was that the over-all turnout of around 58% masked some drastic differences between different regions and ethnic groups. In the largely Sunni Anbar province, for instance, only about 2% of eligible voters cast ballots. By contrast, the turnout in some Kurdish regions was as high as 92%. These trends were reflected in who won seats. Sunnis make up over 30% of the population, but the main Sunni Party, the Iraqis, won only 1.8% of the vote, which translates into just five seats. The high turnout in Kurdish areas meant that the principal Kurdish party won more than a quarter of the seats, although Iraqs population is only 15-20% Kurd. Full election results are available here.

The new Iraqi parliament will be charged, among other things, with drawing up a constitution governing future elections. Various alternatives might either increase the representativeness of Iraqs government, or further exclude minority groups. FairVote has used the January 2005 election results to model how the parliament would look under different electoral systems to show how, although different election systems will address different concerns, full representation remains clearly superior to winner-take-all elections.

Regional Lists:

When it became clear that the national list system was likely to result in the under-representation of Sunnis in government, some commentators suggested that a more sensible idea might have been to divide the country into regions, assign set numbers of seats to each region based on population, and conduct elections using party lists within these regional districts. Systems of this type have been used successfully in Finland and Denmark for many years. Since the different ethnic and religious groups in Iraq tend to live in different areas, this method of election might well lead to the legislature more accurately reflecting the population as a whole. Even if the turnout in a Sunni area was very low, Sunni representatives could still hope to win seats and wouldnt be swamped by high turnouts in other areas.

Weve modeled how regional lists might have worked in Iraq in 2005 on the basis of the actual election returns. Using Iraqs 18 pre-existing provinces as regional districts, we assigned seats to each province based on 1991 census data about the population of different areas. Overseas voters were assigned to a four-seat district. Using the provinces as districts is not ideal because they vary so greatly in population. Baghdad would be assigned 64 seats, and a party could win representation there with less than 2% of the vote. By contrast, sparsely populated provinces such as Muthanna and Dahuk would have only five seats, and 20% of the vote would be necessary to win. Because many areas are unstable, though, it would be difficult to gather enough demographic information to create more proportional districts, and too obviously drawing lines to increase particular groups chances of winning seats would be politically contentious. To download the complete spreadsheets, right-click here.

Who would win under regional lists?

Party / Coalition

National Percentage

National list seats

Regional list seats

United Iraqi Alliance

48.19%

140

145

Democratic Patriotic Alliance of Kurdistan

25.73%

75

62

Iraqi List

13.82%

40

48

The Iraqis

1.78%

5

12

Iraqi Turkmen Front

1.11%

3

2

National Independent Cadres and Elites

0.83%

3

0

People's Union

0.83%

2

0

Islamic Group of Kurdistan

0.72%

2

0

Islamic Action Organization In Iraq - Central Command

0.51%

2

0

National Democratic Alliance

0.44%

1

0

National Rafidain List

0.43%

1

0

Reconciliation and Liberation Bloc

0.36%

1

2

Iraq Assembly of National Unity

0.28%

0

0

Assembly of Independent Democrats

0.28%

0

0

Iraqi Islamic Party

0.25%

0

2

Islamic Dawa Movement

0.23%

0

0

Iraqi National Gathering

0.22%

0

2

What would change:

  • The principle Sunni party the Iraqis would see their share of the seats more than double from five to twelve. Iyad Allawis secular Iraqi List would also do better, primarily by picking up votes in predominately Sunni areas.
  • The Kurds would gain fewer seats, though still more than their share of the population.
  • Which small parties gained seats would change drastically. Parties such as the Peoples Union, a communist party which had a level of support which was fairly consistent across the nation, but not concentrated in any particular region, would lose out. By contrast, parties such as the Iraqi National Gathering, which had less overall national support, but picked up 11% of the vote in the province of Salahad, would win representation.

What would stay the same: 

  • The balance of power would not change. Under both a national and a regional list, the Shia party, the United Iraqi Alliance, would have a majority of seats in the parliament, but not the two thirds majority needed under the current constitution to choose a President. The UIA would need to reach out to one of the other large vote-getters most likely the Democratic Patriotic Alliance of Kurdistan to select an executive. 

  • Although Sunni representation in government would increase under regional lists, it would still fall well short of the Sunni share of the population. This is because turnout among Sunni in some areas was so low, that minority groups still won disproportionate numbers of the seats within majority-Sunni areas.

Although regional lists would result in some changes to who exactly won seats in parliament, it would have little effect on which groups were in positions of power and who was able to control the government.

How would winner-take-all work in Iraq?

By contrast, it is possible to say with a high level of certainty that a winner-take-all system would serve to exacerbate the problems caused by the low Sunni turnout and drastically reduce the representativeness of the parliament. If all the provinces were treated as at-large winner-take-all districts (the method of election used for many U.S. County Commissions) only the three biggest parties could hope to win seats, and the Sunnis would have no representation in government at all.

Party / Coalition

National Percentage

National list seats

At-large district seats

United Iraqi Alliance

48.19%

140

192

Democratic Patriotic Alliance of Kurdistan

25.73%

75

69

Iraqi List

13.82%

40

14

The Iraqis

1.78%

5

0

Iraqi Turkmen Front

1.11%

3

0

National Independent Cadres and Elites

0.83%

3

0

People's Union

0.83%

2

0

Islamic Group of Kurdistan

0.72%

2

0

Islamic Action Organization In Iraq - Central Command

0.51%

2

0

National Democratic Alliance

0.44%

1

0

National Rafidain List

0.43%

1

0

Reconciliation and Liberation Bloc

0.36%

1

0

Moreover, the United Iraqi Alliance, although they actually won less than half of the popular vote, would end up with more than two thirds of the seats: a super-majority which would allow them to control who was elected to the executive without any input from any of the other groups. Giving all of the power to a single ethnic group would likely greatly destabilize the country, even leading to civil war.

Although single member districts might disperse power more widely, since it is easier for a single group to dominate a smaller area, they still do nothing to guarantee representation for minorities. In areas with more than two viable parties, it would be possible for parties to win seats with much less than half of the total vote, and there would be no mechanism in place to ensure that the overall makeup of the legislature even closely mirrored the wishes of the voters, much less those of the population as a whole.

The stakes in Iraqs elections are high. A legislature that is perceived as unrepresentative has the potential to lead to a popular rejection of democracy as a whole, and a decent into civil war. This is one reason why so much attention has been paid to the design of Iraqs electoral system. But it is just as important to have fair elections in America as it is in Iraq. Though the consequences are less explosive, Americans suffer as much from the negative effects of winner-take-all elections as Iraqis could. America deserves intelligent electoral system design and serious consideration of full representation just as much as Iraq does.

More information:

 


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