Changes in Iraq Election Law Weaken Quota for Women


BAGHDAD — A little more than two weeks before Iraq’s provincial elections, there is widening anger that the published version of the election law has only a weak provision to set aside seats for women

Early versions of the law, which governs the election of Iraq’s 18 provincial councils, included a firm guarantee that women would have at least 25 percent of the seats — the same percentage mandated by the Constitution for the numbers of women in Parliament.

In the male-dominated Arab culture, the framers of the Constitution and the Americans who were involved in drafting it thought that the quota was necessary to ensure that women would be represented.

But the provincial election law was changed several times, and the quota language was gone by the time it went to the Presidency Council, whose approval is needed for it to become official. It went back to the Parliament with several unrelated changes and was published in early October.

The lack of a strong guarantee for women’s council seats has begun to gain widespread attention only in the last few days.

“We’ve been told it was a mistake, but this is not good enough,” said Maysoon al-Damluji, a woman from a secular bloc in Parliament. “We’re trying to be sure that women get not less than 25 percent of the seats.”

Iraq’s electoral commission is trying to come up with an interpretation of the law that addresses the concerns, but it is not clear if its solution will satisfy the many political players involved.

The final version of the law ended up with vague wording saying there had to be “a woman at the end of every three winners.” The electoral commission at first was not sure whether that meant every third seat had to go to a woman or every fourth seat, said an international expert who works closely with the election commission, and spoke on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak publicly.

In an attempt to resolve the confusion, the electoral commission has announced that in each province it will award the third seat any party wins to one of its female candidates.

At first blush, that would seem to ensure even more seats for women, but the approach applies only to parties that have multiple candidates and win multiple seats. That may work in more populous provinces, according to one commission member and to the commission expert. But in other provinces, some parties that win seats may consist of only one or two local leaders — and they are rarely women.

Some members of Parliament thought that the law’s provision on women had been diluted without being widely publicized. “This is a very serious matter,” said Hassan al-Shammari, a member of Fadhila, a Shiite party.

Ms. Damluji said she and others had proposed an amendment that would reinstate the quota. But with the elections scheduled for Jan. 31, it seems unlikely that Parliament will manage to pass a law. Women in some areas confront serious obstacles to running campaigns; their posters are torn down and they even face death threats, she said.

Another problem with the election law has been the violation of its rules against the use of religious symbols. Early on, when the law was being drafted, there was ambitious talk about banning the use of mosques for anything related to campaigns and prohibiting the use of religious figures and slogans, which are powerful in Iraq, especially in the vast rural south, where some people are only semiliterate.

The final version was much weaker. While parties still cannot campaign at mosques, the published version of the law allows houses of worship to be used to “support the electoral process,” language that is far vaguer than a direct prohibition.

Now even the weaker rules are being violated by some Shiite religious parties. Faraj al-Haydari, the chairman of the electoral commission, said that so far there had been 45 violations of election laws, including the use of religious figures in campaign materials, as well as bribery.

At a rally by a major Shiite party, the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq, on Jan. 6, for example, the party’s leader, Abdul Aziz al-Hakim, a cleric, referred repeatedly to Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani as Mr. Hakim’s supporters carried banners with Ayatollah Sistani’s face on them.

“His eminence stressed that he does not support any political entity,” said Mr. Haydari, referring to a meeting he had with Ayatollah Sistani a few days ago. “His exact words were ‘I do not support any political entity.’ ”

On Tuesday, the vice president-elect, Senator Joseph R. Biden Jr. of Delaware, and Senator Lindsey Graham, Republican of South Carolina, visited Kirkuk, where they met with provincial council members. Kirkuk is the most volatile of the disputed areas in Iraq and rich in oil. The disputed areas in northern Iraq are claimed both by the Kurdistan region and by the predominantly Arab part of the country, south of Kurdistan.

Kirkuk Province also has a sizable Turkmen population, as well as a Christian minority. The province has been teetering on the edge of violence for much of the past five years but has seemed especially explosive in recent months, so much so that Parliament has put off provincial elections there until a later date.

Ahmed al-Askeri, a member of the Kurdish bloc on the provincial council, said that Mr. Biden told the council that “the solution to Kirkuk is one of four keys to solving the problems of Iraq.”

Iraqi employees of The New York Times contributed reporting from Kurdistan and Kirkuk.