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New Provincial Election Law Passes in Iraq

View an interactive chart on Iraq’s progress on the 18 political and security benchmarks.

After a lengthy delay, the Iraqi parliament earlier this week finally passed a provincial elections law. While a date has not been finalized, the legislation contains a January 31, 2009 deadline for holding elections. The complex problem of Kirkuk, which had caused Iraqi President and Patriotic Union of Kurdistan leader Jalal Talabani to veto an earlier draft provincial elections law, has been set aside for the moment.

This vote represents an important step forward, but even holding these elections will require additional steps. Prematurely declaring mission accomplished, as this Washington Post editorial did, is unwise. Overstating the achievement would ignore the fact that less than one-third of the initial 18 benchmarks for Iraq’s political transition have been achieved.

Fewer than one in five Iraqi voters eligible to participate in the election are registered to vote, and only about 100,000 of the more than 2 million internally displaced Iraqis have registered. There are no provisions for the millions of Iraqi refugees outside of the country to participate.

Moreover, provincial elections will not occur in 4 of Iraq’s 18 provinces. The Kurdistan Regional Government has decided to not to hold elections in its three provinces, and Tamim province, in which Kirkuk resides, has been removed from this round of provincial elections per the terms of the United Nations-brokered compromise. A parliamentary committee composed of Kurds, Arabs, Turkomans, and Christians will formulate recommendations to resolve the status of Kirkuk by March 31, 2009. Barring rejection of the committee’s recommendations by one of the major groups or parliament, the Council of Representatives will then pass a separate election law for Tamim province.

Other sections of the law include ensuring 25 percent of the elected provincial council representatives are female and eliminating an earlier article that provided 13 guaranteed seats for minority groups such as Christians and Yazidis. U.N. special envoy Staffan di Mastura, who brokered the elections law, expressed hope that a provision for minority inclusion in the government would be incorporated at a later date.

So what’s the takeaway from the passage of this law? The ability of the Iraqi parliament, working with the assistance of the United Nations, to craft a mutually acceptable law after such acrimony earlier this summer should not be underestimated. And provincial elections, assuming they go forward before the January 31 deadline and are as free and fair as possible, can go a long way to giving political power to currently marginal groups.

Nevertheless, we need to be realistic about what’s actually been accomplished. Most important is the perception and reality of free and fair elections. Failing to meet the January 31 deadline for elections will reinforce the perception that those in power at the provincial level, at least, intend to remain in power no matter the cost. There is also a legitimate fear of electoral manipulation; the Iraqi government may use the levers of state power to ensure outcomes favorable to it and its political allies.

In the bigger picture, provincial elections may complicate rather than move forward Iraq’s political transition. As we argued in our recent report, Iraq has a number of distinct political fault-lines and challenges that will not be cured with a new round of elections. A more fractured political system—with different parties in power at local and national levels—may be the likely result of provincial elections, making progress more difficult on other issues like oil and revenue-sharing laws and constitutional reform.

The process of passing the elections law revealed deep rifts among Iraq’s political factions. Placing primacy on elections over resolving Iraq’s deep political disputes places the cart before the horse. The elections law itself was delayed by the Arab-Kurd dispute over Kirkuk, and the compromise to pass it, which merely kicked the Kirkuk problem down the road with no guarantee of its ultimate resolution. Nonetheless, the work of the United Nations and special envoy di Mastura on brokering the compromise does make the prospects for further U.N.-led compromises look better.

Above all, the passage of the elections law shows that the United States is not the principal driver of events in Iraq. Iraqis themselves, with the help of neutral international organizations like the United Nations, drove the politics that impeded and then passed the elections law. The more American policymakers and politicians recognize this reality, the more likely the United States will be able to salvage a suboptimal but acceptable outcome in Iraq.

View an interactive chart on Iraq’s progress on the 18 political and security benchmarks.