Iraqi open lists

In a post I had missed till now, Reidar Visser makes clear that the Iraqi electoral system used for the general elections earlier this year was indeed open list. The key point is in bold (my emphasis):

It cannot be stressed too much that the Iraqi electoral system is a hybrid of a closed list system and an open-list system. The method for counting the votes was left unspecified in the amended electoral law last autumn, and in its regulation on the subject, the election commission (IHEC) opted for a quite radical approach as far as the weight of open-list (tick an individual on the list) versus closed-list usage (no preference expressed) of the ballot was concerned: The final ordering of the candidates is decided only by the number of personal votes obtained, with no regard to original position on the list. In democratic theory, this could be said to be somewhat problematic, since one might well argue that a list vote with no candidate preferences indicated is not only a vote for the political entity in question, but also for the particular ordering of candidates on the list, as per the preset ranking decided by the leadership. (If the order on the list counted for nothing, the candidates might as well have been listed alphabetically, or according to age, or whatever.) Arguably, then, a more balanced approach to the hybrid of open and closed list would be to count each unmarked ballot as a vote for the top candidate on the list, transferring the vote to the next highest when the first has achieved the number required to win a seat and so on. This is of course all utterly academic as long as IHEC has ruled the way it has, but it does explain why well-organised radical challenges from below are quite easy under the Iraqi system (as seen first and foremost in the case of the Sadrists), and also why minor differences can have an enormous impact when the general number of personal votes is low, not least with respect to the women’s quota (where the struggle is often between candidates with votes in the 3-digit range).

So, just after stressing that the list type is a “hybrid” he goes on to stress that it is in fact an open list. Not hybrid at all.

The point he makes here about implications for “democratic theory” of an open list system in which a vote cast only for the list, without a candidate preference vote, is entirely valid. I have made the same point myself in published work. It is ambiguous, and perhaps unclear to many voters, what the meaning of a list vote without a preference vote is, when applied to the intra-party dimension of representation. Did the voter who abstained from participation in the ranking of candidates really mean to delegate the ranking decision to other voters, who did cast preference votes? Or did such a voter intend to accept the party leadership’s preferred ranking?

Notwithstanding this theoretical ambiguity, there is nothing unusual about this in practice. Open-list systems, in which the preference vote is optional, and in which a list-only vote has no bearing on the order of candidates are found in Brazil, Peru, Switzerland, and formerly in Italy.

Of course, a real hybrid of open and closed lists would be one in which a list vote counted for a pre-established party order, while a preference vote potentially counted for changing that order. These are usually termed “flexible” list systems (or sometimes “semi-open” or “semi-closed”), and are found in Austria, Belgium, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, and some other countries.

Other variants also exist: open lists in which the voter must cast a preference vote (Chile, Finland, Poland). There are even flexible lists where the voter must cast a preference vote notwithstanding that a pre-ordered party ranking usually prevails (e.g.Netherlands).

The rest of Visser’s post offers some detail about the extent to which intra-party groups, such as the Sadrists,were successful in elevating their candidates via preference voting. In an earlier post, Visser had detailed “the Sadrist watershed.”

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