Redistricting at the heart of Iraq’s 2021 legislative contest

Parliament Speaker Mohammad al-Halbousi has been trying to mobilise the necessary political support for the multi-district formula against the wishes of former Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki, who wants to maintain the single-district formula for each governorate.
Wednesday 09/09/2020
A 2019 file picture of Iraqi Parliament Speaker Mohammad al-Halbousi. (AFP)
A 2019 file picture of Iraqi Parliament Speaker Mohammad al-Halbousi. (AFP)

BAGHDAD – A fierce political battle is taking place in Iraq over electoral districts, which will eventually have to be finalised and documented in the annexes of the election law approved by parliament in an amended form, at the request of the angry Iraqi street, with the aim of preventing the domination of the Shia parties loyal to Iran.

In previous elections, Iraq adopted the proportional representation method while treating each governorate as a single constituency and using the system of closed and open lists, which allowed candidates with few votes to nevertheless win just because the lists supporting them got many votes.

When Iraqis took to the street early October 2019, in the largest popular protests the country has ever seen that lasted several months, one of their top demands was the adoption of a system of multiple districts in the election law, which was actually approved by the Iraqi parliament a few months later.

The multi-district formula stipulates that each governorate be divided into as many districts as the number of its seats in parliament, and the winner of the seat be the candidate with most votes, regardless of that candidate’s ranking on the nomination list.

Parliament Speaker Mohammad al-Halbousi has been very busy since last month trying to mobilise the necessary political support for the multi-district formula. However, he faces fierce opposition from prominent Shia political figures and parties, led by the State of Law coalition of former Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki, who wants to maintain the single-district formula for each governorate, regardless of the number of its seats.

Halbousi began his campaign from within the Sunni constituency to which he belongs. He was able to mobilise the support of the most prominent leaders of the Sunni forces, based on the fact that the multiple-districts system would allow Sunnis to regain about 20 seats in the Iraqi parliament that went to Shia and Kurdish forces during the 2010 elections, due to the internal shifts and movements of the population following the regime change and later on due to the mass displacement the Sunni community was subjected to following ISIS’s occupation of most of their areas in the summer of 2014.

Up to 2010, Sunnis had about 90 seats in the Iraqi parliament. In 2014 and 2018 elections, the Sunnis lost about 20 seats due to demographic and security conditions.

After securing the support of Sunni leaders, Halbousi moved on to the Shia forces to search for partners, including Ammar al-Hakim and his Al-Hikma Current. Hakim also heads a parliamentary coalition called Iraqis that controls nearly 24 seats.

Usually, Iraqi Kurds object to any formula that would split the provinces into smaller districts, but the signals coming from Erbil, the capital of the semi-autonomous Kurdish region, were different this time.

Halbousi flew to Erbil on Sunday urgently to meet with the prominent Kurdish leader Masoud Barzani. He reportedly discussed the multi-district formula with Barzani without meeting any clear objection from the latter.

Political sources in Baghdad say that Kurdish calculations indicate that the political forces that represent the semi-autonomous region in northern Iraq will not be harmed if the multi-district formula is applied, which means that there is a potential strong ally for Halbousi's efforts there.

However, the real concern and challenge for the young Sunni leader's efforts to change the election system to a multi-district formula,which is not very popular among the Shia forces, would be the attitude of the leader of the Sadrist movement, Muqtada al-Sadr.

Observers say that Sadr stands to be the biggest winner in the Shia regions if the multi-district formula is adopted, given that his supporters exist in many governorates and due to his growing influence on many levels.

Iraqi politicians say that Sadr's great chances of sweeping the elections in the event that the multi-district formula is adopted represent Maliki's biggest nightmare in the next stage, which explains why Maliki’s State of Law coalition is fighting tooth and nail against this formula.

Maliki's coalition believes that its chances of obtaining more seats will be greater, if, for example, the capital Baghdad is treated as a single electoral district, given the presence of a dispersed voting public that may vote for the coalition in various areas of the city. But these pro-coalition votes will have no value for the coalition unless they are in the end coalesced and counted for the coalition list, as was previously the case.

Observers say that the current political dead-end about the issue may push for outside the box solutions, meaning that political forces may have to accept different options due to the intensification of the dispute.

With the shared belief by all political parties in the country in the necessity of preserving the democratic process in its electoral aspects, observers expect that the parties will eventually agree on a hybrid formula that guarantees the multiplicity of districts within each governorate, but not at the level of one district per seat.

Political sources indicate that discussions are now taking place about the possibility of dividing one governorate that has 15 seats in parliament, for example, into three districts, each represented by five seats.

There are many proposals being put forth regarding this point, as observers point out that each party is submitting proposals that would suit its own electoral calculations and chances, and that makes the list of options very long.

So far, the proposal with the best chance of being adopted seems to be the one revolving around the formula of 4 or 5 parliament seats per district, keeping in mind that the Iraqi parliament consists of 329 seats.

This middle solution might be acceptable to the large parties opposing the multi-district formula, as it would not harm their electoral chances and mitigate the chance of having elections dominated by parties which are in favour of the multi-district formula.

Parliament will have to settle the debate immediately if it wants to respect the polling date of June 1, 2021 set by the government.