Proportional Representation: Democracy Iraqi Style

For months now, the difficulty of striking a balance between the various ethnic groups has been hampering efforts to form a government in Iraq. An agreement has now been reached, but it has not taken long for deep divisions to become evident. Birgit Svensson reports from Baghdad

Members of the Iraqi parliament (photo: AP/Karim Kadim)
Anything but stable: none of the parties secured the majority needed to form a government after the general election in March 2010

​​It is a demonstrative gesture. On the day following the election of Sunni politician Osama al-Nujaifi as speaker of the Iraqi parliament, he and Yonadam Kanna, a Christian member of parliament, paid a visit to the Syrian Catholic church that was the scene of a terrible bloodbath on 31 October.

On that day, four terrorists stormed the church during Mass, taking more than a hundred worshipers hostage. The attempted rescue by Iraqi security forces cost the lives of 54 people. And worse was to come. The days that followed saw a series of bomb attacks on Christians, their properties and businesses; the first time that Christians had been specifically targeted for terrorist attacks in Baghdad.

The terrorist umbrella group "Islamic State of Iraq", to which al-Qaida also belongs, claimed responsibility for the attacks. Osama al-Nujaifi, brother of the governor of the northern city of Mosul, the third largest in the country, knows the group and is determined to crack down firmly on it – almost exactly two years ago something similar happened in his hometown.

Back then, thousands of Christians fled the city as, systematically, over the course of a week, a Christian was murdered every day, forcing the government in Baghdad to increase the military presence in the city to protect those who remained.

In spite of his concerns for Iraqi Christians, Kanna remains optimistic that the successful formation of a government will help to reduce the threat of terror attacks and ease the security situation.

Funeral of one of those killed in the attack on a Syrian Catholic church in Baghdad (photo: dpa)
On 31 October, Christians in Baghdad were targeted for the first time; Yonadam Kanna, a Christian member of parliament, is nevertheless optimistic that the formation of a government will help reduce the terror threat and bring stability

​​He does not subscribe to the chaos theories that see Iraq facing the possibility of renewed civil war. The increased terrorist activity of recent weeks is something he sees as politically motivated: "It's up to the politicians to provide a counterbalance," he says. That was why Osama al-Nujaifi's visit to the church was so important.

Unseemly squabbling for the top government post

And indeed, since 24 October, when the Iraqi Supreme Court responded to an action brought by several civil society groups by ordering parliament to reconvene and elect a president, pressure to break the political stalemate has been growing.

The political deadlock crippled Iraq for eight months. Although Iyad Allawi, who was the first interim prime minister after the fall of Saddam Hussein, secured a narrow victory in the elections on 7 March with 92 seats, he was short of the necessary majority to form a government. Second placed Nuri al-Maliki (with 89 seats), the incumbent prime minister, was also left in need of coalition partners. Things soon deteriorated into a round of unseemly squabbling and haggling, which quickly developed into an increasingly bitter two-horse race and, it soon became evident, a very personal battle between Allawi and Maliki.

It gradually became obvious that any coalition between Maliki and Allawi, which would have brought a comfortable majority, was a non-starter. Their respective searches for coalition partners resulted in political paralysis and a power vacuum that gave the terrorists space to operate. Soon bomb attacks were on the increase throughout the country.

In the end it was the Kurdish party that took the initiative, mediating a power-sharing deal between the two arch rivals. Under the terms of the agreement, Maliki would remain as prime minister, Allawi's party would take on chairmanship of the parliament and Kurdish president, Jalal Talabani, would retain office for a second term.

Iyad Allawi and Nuri al-Maliki among Iraqi MPs (photo: AP)
Unseemly squabbling for government posts: no sooner had a government been formed that the deep divisions between the parties began to show

​​The deep divisions between participants in the emerging coalition were, however, already visible at the first convening of parliament. Following a dispute over the role and powers of the new strategic council – which is not yet up and running, but is intended as a check on the power of the prime minister – two-thirds of Allawi's party walked out of the meeting in protest.

Pulling the strings in the background

It is the fourth time that Rosch Nuri Schaways has been involved in negotiations on the formation of a government. The Kurd, who already had a spell as vice president to Allawi, is now one of Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki's two deputies.

"I never wanted a top job in government," he replies in perfect German – he has a degree in electrical engineering from Ilmenau in Thuringia – to the question of why it is that he has always remained deputy. "I have never run for parliament". He sees himself rather as someone who pulls the strings in the background. Currently he is one of the most influential men on the Iraqi political scene. His quiet manner makes him the perfect foil to counterbalance the more extreme manifestations of Iraq's rough and tumble politics.

Balance has always been his guiding principle and one that at the present time he sees as offering the only solution to the crisis of government. "The country is not yet ready for a purely parliamentary majority government", he says in opposition to Nuri al-Maliki. "We need to involve everyone, or we will never see an end to the terror."

Controversial proportional representation democracy

Maliki wants to see an end to the proportional representation, which the Americans introduced after their invasion. All ethnic groups in Iraq have had a proportional share in government since its introduction.

The Shiite prime minister has a Kurdish and a Sunni deputy. The Kurdish president has Shiite and Sunni vice-presidents. The parliamentary chairman, who is Sunni, has Shiite and Kurdish deputies. The same situation holds true for posts in the ministries and the security services, indeed for practically the entire state apparatus.

Nuri al-Maliki and Jalal Talabani in the autonomous Kurdish region (photo: dpa)
The Kurdish Alliance has emerged in the role of kingmaker, in spite of its fourth place (with 57 seats) in March's parliamentary elections

​​The Shiite prime minister is not alone in seeing this as a major obstacle to his political activities. "Why have we had a proportional representation system forced upon us, that was only introduced in Lebanon after 15 years of civil war?" says Rajja Kuzai, criticising the initiative of first US administrator Paul Bremer who, the doctor says, appointed her to the government council set up by himself in the autumn of 2003, not because of any particular talents she possessed, but because she was a woman and a Shiite.

Meanwhile, seven years have passed, but the discussion remains as controversial as ever, though for different reasons. The fact that the Kurdish Alliance has emerged in the role of kingmaker, in spite of its fourth place (with 57 seats) in the elections, is a great relief to the Americans, since it is the Kurds who have been pushing for proportional representation to be maintained.

Without Allawi and his Sunni supporters, the Iranian influence in the Iraqi government would continue to increase: a nightmare scenario as far as Washington is concerned, just as it would be for Iraq's Sunni-dominated neighbouring countries.

Once Tehran had succeeded in mending the rift between Maliki and the Shiite leader Moktada al-Sadr, who lives in the Iranian city of Qom, and persuaded him to lend his support to the 60-year-old's bid for a second term of office, it seemed that nothing could stand in the way of a return to a religiously dominated Shiite government. They were, however, deprived of the necessary majority by just two votes.

Maliki needs the Kurds to govern. He now has just 30 days to assemble his cabinet. The dispute over proportional representation looks set to run and run.

Birgit Svensson

© 2010

Translated from the German by Ron Walker

Editor: Aingeal Flanagan/

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