Iraq election law marks progress, opens political season

Provincial polls are now expected early next year and could bring about a political realignment across Iraq.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

Now that Iraq's parliament passed a provincial elections law Wednesday, overcoming months of political gridlock, many politicians and Iraqis are looking ahead to what the elections early next year will mean for Iraq.

This new legislation “showed that on a broader political level, they [Iraqi political leaders] can find solutions to really tough problems,” says Ambassador Robert Ford, head of the political section in the US Embassy in Baghdad.

Scheduled to take place by Jan. 31, 2009, the vote has the potential to create major change. One of the central issues stemming from the elections may be the question of who controls political appointments, says Glen Rangwala, a lecturer in Middle Eastern politics at Cambridge University in England. As new local leaders take the helm, new questions will arise about who controls everything from the police to exports.

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Debate over these issues "will lead to a period of particular instability as different groups within Iraq – national government, local government, mayors – each stake their claim to being the legitimate authority for who should be in charge of the reappointment or the renewal of the positions of government officials," says Dr. Rangwala.

Additionally, the elections will stir debate over the of lack of central services, such as electricity and water. Many suspect that incumbents will have a hard time getting voter support because of an ongoing lack of basic utilities.

"Democracy does not only mean having an election or passing a law in the legislature," says Abdul Jabbar Ahmad, a professor of political science at Baghdad University. "A real government provides services."

While he acknowledges the new law is progress, Dr. Ahmad says it "is not a permanent solution." Many Iraqis have criticized parliament over the law for sidestepping the central issue and excluding an article that would have created a minority quota.

Controversy about a power-sharing arrangement for Kirkuk was largely responsible for delaying the law. The semiautonomous Kurdish region in the north has laid a claim to Kirkuk, while Iraqi government officials say the oil-rich region falls under its control.

The new agreement bypassed this issue by creating a special committee to investigate it further, while 14 of Iraq's 18 provinces will hold elections. The three Kurdish provinces and Kirkuk will have their elections later.

Originally scheduled to take place for the first time in four years this October, the provincial vote met a number of hurdles. While other drafts created small quotas for Christians and other minorities, the provision was eliminated from the approved version. The new law did, however, create a 25 percent quota for women.

It must receive approval from a three-person presidential panel led by Mr. Talabani, but with broad support it's expected to be signed.

Mahmoud Othman, a Kurdish member of parliament, says that he hopes the president will use this review process to force an amendment to include a minority quota.

"The minorities, whether they're ethnic or religious, they need quotas," he says. "That's part of democracy. The rule of the majority means there should be protection of the minorities.… It's not a perfect law, but it's a step forward."

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