Iraq electoral system change

The Iraqi parliament has passed a new election law. That is interesting in itself, but what really prompted me to “plant” about it was this stunning line from the caption to the photo accompanying the Al Monitor article, saying that the new law would establish:

a first-past-the-post system to replace the complex mix of proportional representation and list voting.

I’ve often remarked in the past about how journalists who clearly do not get electoral systems just call any PR “complex.” But a “complex mix” of PR and list voting? That is a new one on me. The current system is not such a remarkable variety among the larger orchard of electoral systems–it’s a districted list-PR system in which lists are open and the governorates serve as electoral districts.

Moreover, the new system is not going to be FPTP. As I understand it from a couple of contacts, it will be single non-transferable vote (SNTV). In terms of how most electoral-system experts tend to think of these things, that would be a substantial retrogression, adopting what most specialists consider one of the worst of all systems.

In connection with the change, the number of districts will be increased. The consequence thus would be a lowering of mean district magnitude. At least the reformers got that part right; if you must use SNTV, use small districts. The article, however, is confusing as to how the number of districts is being determined (to be honest, it is confusing about almost everything).

The political blocs agreed Sept. 14 to divide each of the country’s governorates into a number of electoral constituencies that reflect the number of seats allocated for women in parliament under the Constitution, which is 25.

For example, the capital, Baghdad, which has about 71 seats, including 17 seats reserved for women, will turn into 17 electoral constituencies.

I guess this just means the existing number of women’s set-aside seats is being used and, presumably, one winner in each new district will need to be a woman. But I can’t say for sure if my interpretation is correct. As for the new mean magnitude will be, in Baghdad the numbers cited imply it will be just over 4 (=71/17). However, if the size of the parliament (329) is staying the same and there will be just 25 districts, that would imply an overall mean magnitude of 13. This can’t be right. Surely there will not be 17 districts in Baghdad and only 8 in the rest of the country. So, who knows!

The article also offers some overview of opposition from groups who fear–probably for good reason–that they will be more poorly represented under the new electoral system.

(Note: The caption refers to the parliament having passed the law on Dec. 24; however, the news story is dated Nov. 2, 2020.)

UPDATE: Apparently the average magnitude indeed will be around 4; the article apparently has the total number of districts wrong. Not 25 districts, but existing women’s representation target (on which districting will be based) of 25%. See comments. If the assembly size is staying constant, then the number of districts should be 329/4=82.

14 thoughts on “Iraq electoral system change

  1. Occasionally I wonder if Saddam would still be alive today if the 2003 invasion had never occurred. He would be nearly 84 and may well have handed power over to Uday or Qusay, although sometimes these dictators don’t even trust their own offspring to hand power to.


  2. I was thinking the same thing! My comparative politics students just “designed democracy” in Iraq and Afghanistan (among other places), and they will be horrified to know that Iraq has followed Afghanistan’s example.


    • Those who are organized and are the larger parties in any given region stand to benefit. As for closed lists, Iraq had them, and the Shia clerics pushed for open lists. By doing so, they were able to upset the previous efforts of party leaders to represent minorities through having them in realistic ranks on the lists. Taagepera and I summarize this in our book, Votes from Seats, and I think I probably blogged about it (see older posts in the “Iraq” block).


  3. Rather than either
    (a) requiring (by law or by political pressure) that at least of the N highest candidates on each closed list be of X group (eg the Swedish and Dutch “zipper method” with male and female nominees alternating odd and even slots), or
    (b) requiring a ballot, to be valid, to include votes for a certain minimum number of candidates of X group (like the British Labour Party’s National Executive Committee elections, or Lebanon before the 2017 switch to PR),
    – a polity could instead use open or flexible lists but superimpose quotas that override the normal order of election.
    Borrowing from the Finns and assigning each individual candidate a “comparison number” (ie, list’s total votes divided by candidate’s place on the list if using D’Hondt, or by place on the list minus 0.5 if using Sainte-Lague), and then bump candidates up in the overall ranking if they are (eg) one of the 6 highest-scoring female candidates, or the highest-scoring Yazidi candidate, etc, in a 17-seat province. Such a system can accommodate intersectionality – a candidate who belongs to one or more groups each currently below its allocated minimum number of seats, is elected ahead of a candidate who belongs to no such protected group, or only to one or more protected groups each of which already has its minimum number. So you don’t have to decide whether male Yazidi candidate comes before female Shia candidate; as long as both women and Yazidi are under quota, both get preference; subject to that, elect from largest to smallest comparison numbers.
    This may distort party representation in overall terms (not merely re-ordering ranking within each list) if a party grossly falls short of nominating members of the various scheduled castes, but many would say that serves such parties right.
    Advantages: avoids closed lists (mileage may vary as to whether this is bug or feature) – individual candidates have to work to get personal votes to boost their chances of winning a seat
    Downside: may be legislative or constitutional squabbles over which groups deserve explicit recognition.
    PS: Whether open lists would let the Shia majority lock out smaller minority groups would depend very much on how many candidates a candidate may approve. With the Finnish/ Chilean/ Brazilian system, a smaller group might actually have an advantage over a larger group since all its members can simply plump/ bullet for a single candidate – larger groups have to resort to Japanese/ Taiwanese/ Puerto Rican/ Irish techniques to divide their votes more evenly among several candidates. But with the Swiss/ Luxembourgeois/ Cypriot/ (pre-1993) Italian system, with multiple votes within each list, quite possibly equalling or exceeding the number of seats your party wins, the result is not SNTV but MNTV block vote, and the majority group within the party can easily lock minority candidates out completely.


    • On that last point, I agree that smaller groups could have an advantage under open lists, if they concentrate their votes on one candidate on a given list. That is the lesson of SNTV, and the intra-list allocation under open-list PR is identical to SNTV (top s win, where s is the number of seats a list has won; SNTV, of course, is top-M win, regardless of party). Taagepera and I discuss this in our 2017 book with respect to small parties in pre-election alliance lists in OLPR systems.

      The harder problem is groups that are large enough to win more than one (within a given list) but still representative of a minority of the list’s voters. They then need multiple candidates and a good vote-division strategy. I would guess this is more or less what happened when Iraq switched to open lists: groups that had candidates in electable list positions on the previous closed lists split their votes across too many candidates and thus elected few or none. I have not seen detailed studies to know if this is correct, but anecdotal reports indicate that minority candidates fared badly. (Note: this does not refer to the groups that actual have set-aside seats. By definition, they still got represented.)

      I am not sure I understand the proposed quota system well enough to comment on it.


      • That would create an ironic situation where minorities (relying on open lists rather than reserved seats to ensure their representation) might be better off with medium- rather than large district magnitudes – the teens rather than the twenties or thirties – since, as MSS notes, with effective intra-list SNTV, it is easier for a minority that represents 10% of the populace to say “vote for our one candidate” when there are 10 seats than “surnames A-L (or equivalent in Arabic), please vote for the first candidate; everyone else please vote for the other candidate” when there are 20 seats.
        With non-transferable votes, there is a stronger case for some stipulative rule as to how many candidates of each group must be elected. Analogous here to reserved seats in open-list PR would be India’s system of reserving specified constituencies for Scheduled Castes. As one US observer noted (it was probably in The New Republic, from memory) this may sound paternalistic to Westerners but it means that voters, ironically, have a freer choice – they don’t have to worry that their community will lose a seat if they vote in an “undisciplined” way and split their votes. So, at least as regards Scheduled Castes, India doesn’t get the equivalent of liberal New York State being “represented” for six years by conservative Senator James Buckley because liberal NY voters made the mistake of voting for their true first choices.


  4. Apparently, the minimum number of women is 1/4th of the total number of seats, so the new M should be around 4.

    Do they have reliable sub-governorate data?

    And SNTV is indeed a strange choice.


    • Thanks. If only the author of that article could have figured that out!

      If they are going to do SNTV, at least they got the average magnitude about right.


  5. Where do they get the idea that under the existing electoral system in Iraq it is too easy for a list to win all seats in a province? The new law “also prevents parties from running on unified lists, which in the past have helped them easily sweep all the seats in a specific province.” “The law ends the practice of political parties running on unified lists, which allowed them to easily win all seats in a given province.”

    The system was districted List-PR (Sainte-Lague) within 18 districts of M=18 (max. Baghdad 71, min. Muthanna 7)

    The most one-sided competition in 2018 was in Duhok where KDP got 10/12 seats with 71% votes (one other party 9% = 1 seat and one seat set aside for the christian minority)

    If preventing the dominant list to sweep all seats is one aim, will SNTV do better?


    • It probably will, insofar as it will require large parties to not only win a high share of the vote, but to effectively divide their vote amongst their candidates. Minor parties can upset this with just one candidate. The more fundamental question is whether this is a good thing: as you say, the current system is already quite proportional, and Iraq already has a highly fragmented legislature. Hard to see exactly why “excessive party consolidation” is considered a problem.


  6. Has anyone been able to confirm that the new electoral system (first used last week) is indeed SNTV? Looking through governorate-level results, the party seat shares look surprisingly proportional to vote shares. Not perfectly proportional, but certainly none of the bizarro outcomes SNTV has the potential to create. So either it’s not really SNTV, or voters are well-coordinated.


    • This site shows election results at the district level, and it seems pretty clear that the system is SNTV given that the winners in all seats seem to be those with the highest vote totals. There are a few exceptions but on closer checking these seem to be female candidates who obviously have their own quotas.


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