Iraq: Minorities in the 2009 Elections

UNPO Election Observation Mission member, Andrew Swan, provides an insight into the situation of minorities in the 2009 Provincial Elections.

This article was also published in Liberal Matters, a publication of Liberal International. To download February 2009’s edition, please click here .

For the third time in six years, Iraqis have taken part in elections that will influence how their country is governed. Since 2005, provincial councils have had a say over the organization of local government and the distribution of federally allocated funding. In 2009 these powers will be expanded to allow provinces even greater freedoms. There was consequently a lot to win (or lose) for the parties that contested the provincial elections held on 31 January 2009. Voters will be deciding who will be elected to the provincial administrations in Iraq’s fourteen governorates that lie outside Kirkuk and the Kurdistan Regional Government. The elections are broadly expected to see Sunni representation increase at the cost of Kurdish representatives who will no longer be facing the Sunni boycott that allowed them to make sweeping gains in 2005.

Nowhere will the elections be more important than in northern Iraq and the Nineveh Province. With over two million inhabitants, the fertile Nineveh Province is home to many of Iraq’s minority Assyrian, Chaldean, Shabak, and Yazidi communities. Minorities have been reserved six seats throughout the country – although this is less than half of original proposals that were watered down amidst considerable opposition. The resentment felt by minorities towards Baghdad was palpable on election day.

Speaking in the early morning as polling stations readied themselves for voters, one Assyrian electoral worker explained his decision not to vote in emotive terms, “I [speaking of the broader Assyrian presence in Iraq] have lived here for six thousand years – why should I be happy with just one seat?” His is a voice that echoes in many quarters of the Nineveh Province. The resentment is understandable – the past six years have proved especially hard for Iraq’s minorities. They have become targets for extremists who saw them as turncoats because of their Christian faith or their work as Coalition Force translators. Increasingly though, the minority communities view the attacks made against them as political acts of intimidation. This is the widely held view of the Sunni attacks on Mosul’s Christian community in October 2008 that resulted in thousands of Assyrians fleeing the city.

At stake in the provincial elections are competing visions for Iraq’s future. Many minorities see their future best served by a highly decentralised Iraq rather than absorption into an increasingly confident Kurdistan or a return to Baghdad-based authoritarianism. The key battleground for these visions is the Nineveh Province. As a result, sectarian voting continues to divide voters in Iraq much more so than any degree of tactical voting, although that may also be changing as the electorate’s attention begins to focus much more on the delivery of public services than dogmatic issues. Caught between these political camps are Iraq’s minorities. They see their political participation and representation as especially important given that they have felt increasingly sidelined from the decisions that have been directing the country’s progress. They are also affected by the internal migration that has been destabilising Iraq since 2003 and has left the country with five million Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs). Amongst their ranks are the educated and skilled individuals that Iraq urgently needs for reconstruction but who have fled to neighboring states or the relative safety of the Nineveh Plain and its centuries old Christian community.

IDPs represent a substantial proportion of the electorate but their involvement in the provincial elections has proved patchy at best. Confusion surrounding their resettlement left large numbers of IDPs ill-informed about the election procedures and lacking the appropriate documentation. As a result, many were unable to cast their votes at specially established IDP voting stations, despite having travelled long distances to exercise their right to vote. Much of the frustration felt by IDPs on election day was directed at Iraq’s Independent High Electoral Commission (IHEC) and it is true that the IHEC has faced a daunting task in the registration of IDP voters. The IHEC commenced absentee voter registration on 15 July 2008 and concluded the process on 28 August 2008.

At this point registration lists were opened to public challenge over the course of seven days in November 2008. The process was a clear improvement over previous systems that had required IDPs to de-register from the authorities in their place of displacement but it was subject to two major flaws: Firstly, violence in Mosul occurred in the midst of the IDP registration period, adding thousands of IDPs to existing numbers almost overnight and spreading them throughout the Nineveh Province as they sought refuge with friends or family. Secondly, the failure of the Iraqi Council of Representatives to confirm that the election would be held 1 October 2008 delayed polling day by four months, which opened a gap in the IDP registration process through which many appeared to have fallen when it came to election day.

In one instance, almost a hundred IDP voters, many of them from Iraq’s minorities, were turned away from a polling centre in the town of Batnay with instructions to obtain the necessary documents from Mosul. These two failings were compounded on election day by poor communication between election centres, and the Batnay centre proved a case in point: even after having returned with the supposedly correct documents many still found themselves unable to vote. This was an indication of the challenges facing not only voters but also electoral officials. The fact that there were flaws in the voter registration administration should have been acknowledged and countered.

Smaller inconsistencies also conspired to disadvantage IDPs and disproportionately affected the votes of Iraqi minority communities. In Karamlesh, families were unable to cast votes if they turned up without the presence of the head of the family. In those polling centres where there were large IDP concentrations, such as Dohuk, large queues built up that put pressure on polling stations and resulted in some IDP voters being unable to cast their ballots. Where IDP and non-IDP polling centres were combined in the same building this exacerbated the confusion.

Frustrations also grew when, in one reported instance, IDP ballot papers ran out and voters had to be turned away. There can be no doubt that on election day the IHEC was grappling with formidable challenges. These ranged from the complex ‘partially open’ voting system that had been adopted to the unwieldy A2-sized ballot papers that included votes for political parties alongside those for individual candidates, not to mention the reserved seats for minority candidates and separate ballot papers for IDPs.

Explanatory posters, media campaigns, and voter education presentations in local community centres did much to clarify the system but in a country still wrestling with the legacies of authoritarianism, which includes an literacy rate of 74%, it will be inevitable that ballots will be incorrectly completed, classified as spoiled, and have to be discarded. Whether this affects Iraq’s minorities may only become truly evident in the post-election analysis. The failure of the international community to commit sizeable observation teams throughout Iraq on 31 January 2009 has also been a source of disappointment to Iraq’s minorities. The importance of the elections raised ambitions and suspicions in equal measure, and the organizational failings IDPs experienced lend weight to the argument calling for a greater international presence.

For the time being, attentions must dwell on the broader, more positive, picture that is emerging from the conduct of the elections. Participation in the Nineveh Province elections is expected to be high. One Chaldean community leader in the district of Alqosh, went so far as to predict a turnout of 70-75% – and early media reports would appear to support his estimate. The engagement of the national media in support of the IHEC’s voter education campaigns and the widespread coverage of voter dissatisfaction across television networks have reflected and encouraged public involvement in the democratic process. Debate and discussion have also been provoked by the election, with civil society playing an ever greater, and acknowledged, role.

At the party political level, the elections also demonstrated enthusiastic participation from the public, especially amongst minorities. Attendances at party rallies proved popular and energetic, with candidates justifying their stances and responding to questions posed by audiences that reflected Iraqi society. Debates between political parties and their candidates still remain rare, if not unheard of, but as both media interest and public expectations grow, it cannot be long before they begin to appear. Against such a backdrop, the enthusiasm and energy with which Iraq’s provincial elections have been met can only been a sign of a brighter future for the country as a whole.

The next step for Iraq will be parliamentary elections scheduled in late 2009, when observers all over the world will be hoping to see the progress made over the past six years cemented.