Some Iraqi Odds and Ends
Posted by Michael Wahid Hanna
Sunday was a good day for Iraq but it is unwise to draw overly broad conclusions based on this one day. And I am holding off on commenting about the government formation process until we get official results from the Independent High Electoral Commission of Iraq (IHEC). But I did want to comment on two very important points because they have often shaped and warped the nature of commentary and analysis on last Sunday’s elections.
First, the question of Sunni participation has become garbled with the passage of time, perhaps due to Iraq’s unorthodox political calendar in 2005, when the country held three nationwide votes in succession: a January 2005 parliamentary election for a transitional national assembly, which was tasked with drafting a constitution; an October 2005 referendum to ratify Iraq’s constitution; and a December 2005 parliamentary election, which resulted in the seating of the current parliament and the selection of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki.
Sunni Arab participation in the first of these elections was abysmally low. This was the result of an announced boycott of the political process by various Sunni Arab political and insurgent groups and the very real threat of retaliation against those who dared to vote in Sunni Arab areas. The effects of this boycott were magnified due to the fact that the country was organized into one electoral district as opposed to province by province voting. This was done for administrative reasons due to the inability to organize a more complicated election at that time, but the choice had very grave consequences for the political process and only served to amplify the lack of Sunni Arab participation.
This was not the case in the December 2005 elections when Sunni Arabs turned out to vote in numbers that corresponded or exceeded the levels of turnout in other provinces. Of course, Sunni Arabs also turned out in other mixed areas of the country, but the demonstration of Sunni Arab participation in those elections is most clear when looking at the results from the four Sunni-majority provinces (the demographics of the contested province of Tameem (or Kirkuk) are something of an unknown, although the Kurds almost certainly constitute a majority at this time): Anbar, Diyala, Ninewa, and Salahaddeen.
Here are the official numbers from that election as released by IHEC:
The bottom line is that Sunni Arabs participated in the December 2005 elections. Keep that in mind next time you hear that Sunni Arabs boycotted the previous parliamentary elections because it is not accurate.
Second, I wanted to address the issue of voter turnout and participation. Most stories have led with the percentage of voters who turned out on Sunday, citing the approximately 62% released by IHEC. But this number is not particularly useful for comparative purposes and is, in fact, somewhat misleading. This is a result of the increase in voter registration rolls since 2005. This has been a politically-sensitive issue, particularly in Kirkuk, but without getting into too many details, the method for registering voters has changed since that time and is now based on passive registration. As such, the more relevant figure for comparison’s sake is the total number of voters. As you can see above, that number for in-country voting was under 12 million in December 2005. But according to an IHEC representative, total voter turnout on Sunday exceeded (Arabic) 12 million after figuring in 272,000 out-of-country votes. So the level of in-country participation appears to have held steady as opposed to suffering a serious decline, which has been the general implication of much of the press coverage.