Wikileaks: Iraq lists and Iranian influence

The following excerpt from one of the State Department cables in the Iraqi election of 2010 is interesting for its discussion of list type.

It is important to note that Iran’s power in Iraq, although extensive, is not without limitations. The IRIG’s greatest political roadblock remains the domineering authority and religious credibility embodied in Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani. Despite his Iranian heritage, Sistani is Iraq’s most revered Shia religious (and political) authority. A critic of Iran’s “Velayet-e-Faqih” (rule of the jurisprudent) system of theocratic governance, Sistani’s abstemious (aka Quietest school) approach to Shia politics has kept him well above the political fray while at the same time ensuring him significant impact on those rare occasions when he pronounces on politics. For example, Sistani’s public support for an open list ballot was instrumental in prompting ISCI, Sadrist Trend, Maliki’s State of Law, and other Shia parties to follow suit, despite Tehran’s preference for a closed list. Domestic political realities will continue to force Shia political parties like ISCI, Dawa Qwill continue to force Shia political parties like ISCI, Dawa and Sadr Trend, with close historic ties to Iran, to balance between support for a broader Iraqi-Shia agenda, as championed by Sistani, and the alternative, championed by Iran, that would subordinate Iraqi interests to Iran’s broader objectives (septel).

Via Wikileaks. Emphasis added.

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.”

Government-formation in Iraq formally begins

The constitutional process for forming a government in Iraq has now formally begun–more than eight months after the elections.

Incumbent PM Nouri Maliki has been invited by President* Jalal Talabani to form a government. He now has a 30-day period in which to present a cabinet to parliament.

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* Or, more accurately, chairman of the three-person Presidency council. {See comments}

Iraq party lists (yes, again)

In the past, we have had discussions here about the type of lists used in Iraqi elections. All are in agreement that the elections of 2005 were by closed list, and that more recent elections were not. However, there has been some uncertainty about just which form of non-closed lists have been used.

In various previous discussions (click “Iraq” in the “planted in” line to see them), some of my valued commenters have linked to items from the Iraqi electoral commission that purport to show that the 2009 provincial elections were by flexible list, and that this year’s national assembly elections were by open lists.* Unfortunately, all those links now simply take one to the main Arabic page of the commission (and clicking there on the English link also does not seem to allow one to find archived articles).

I wonder if anyone saved these original articles, or has any other reliable sources** that clearly indicate the list format in these elections.

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* The distinction that I am making is that under flexible lists, “preference” votes cast for candidates on a party’s list affect the order of election only for those candidates who receive some legally stipulated quota of preference votes. Otherwise, a pre-set party list order prevails. Under open lists, on the other hand, preference votes alone determine the order in which candidates are elected from the list, there being no pre-set list order with any affect on candidate ranking.

**In my experience, many writers, even by political scientists, will say “open” even when the lists in question in some country actually are flexible. (For that matter, sometimes that will refer to flexible lists as though they are closed. Flexible lists are kind of an orphan category, notwithstanding that they are used in so many European PR systems!)

Is Iraq’s electoral system really open-list PR?

Even though we thought we had settled the question, maybe not.

An acquaintance who voted out-of-country in the election of Baghdad’s Council of Representatives delegation (M=68, he said) told me tonight that he had cast his vote for a list. He did not use his option to cast any preference vote. He also said that, in order to cast a preference vote, one first had to vote for a list. Then one could express a candidate preference using information from a directory of candidates-by-party. (I do not know any more about how that worked because I do not read Arabic, but Pauline at FairVote offers a specimen ballot.) All this suggests a flexible-list system like the one we assumed had applied to the governorate (i.e. provincial) elections in January 2009. The question then becomes (once again) what quota of preference votes a candidate needs for his/her position on his/her party’s list to change.

If only it were that simple. My acquaintance moreover told me that one had the option to rank up to all of the candidates on a party’s list. Having been an amateur STV junkie for many years, I can imagine ways in which ranking would factor into a flexible-list system. But what’s the use in speculating when the basic rules are so difficult to nail down? And here I thought I had painstakingly tracked down the important details.

What can be said of all this uncertainty? Assuming my acquaintance spoke truth…

First, I am conditionally skeptical of cross-national work treating institutional details like these as variables. I had put a lot of time into once-and-for-all answering the open/flexible question, drawing on resources unavailable even to most academics, and here came a real-life Iraqi voter with reasons for doubt. If my acquaintance spoke truth, I can only wonder about the extent to which measurement error (i.e. incorrectly coding a polity’s electoral rules) makes suspect what we think we have learned about institutions’ causes and effects.

Second, I am conditionally convinced of the unreliability of ostensibly reliable sources. The one I edit may not be exempt from this charge, despite my obsessive propensity – as my beleaguered assistant can attest – for filling in every missing value. The same goes for information put online (yet no longer available in some cases) by the United Nations Assistance Mission in Iraq and the Independent High Electoral Commission… assuming, of course, that my acquaintance spoke truth.

Third, my belief in the investigative efficiency of talking to people is reinforced. Where Google searches yield quantity, a few personal conversations yield quality. Conversations allow one to ask for clarification and to pose follow-up questions. Assuming my acquaintance spoke truth, I learned more about the present, national Iraqi electoral system in five minutes than I did in days of scouring the Internet.

On a more technical note, my acquaintance said he was disappointed that the system had not provided for panachage.

Iraq election-law deal

(Updated, 8 Dec. and again on 9 Dec.)

Reuters India reports:

a last-minute deal between parliamentarians on Sunday night, 10 minutes before the expiry of a deadline for [Sunni member of Presidency Council] Hashemi to cast a second veto, rescued the election law and set the ballot back on track.

The agreement restored some seats to Sunni areas and also placated Kurdish complaints by giving their semi-autonomous northern provinces a handful more seats.

Where do those seats come from? Part of the deal is for a 325-seat parliament, rather than 275 (reported in Washington Post).

A BBC Arabic item from 7 Dec. (dubbed into English via Mosaic) provided some further detail. Of the 325 seats, 310 will be elected from the governatorates (provinces), serving as electoral districts. Forty one of these seats are assigned to the Kurdish districts (their parties had demanded 50). Of the 15 national-tier seats, 5 are set aside for Christians and 3 for other minorities (including the Yazidi). The other 7 were unspecified in the BBC report; the original controversy that triggered the veto was partly over the number of seats for Iraqis abroad. At that time, there were going to be 8 such seats (out of 275), so this deal would seem to be worse on that dimension. However, there are more seats in the Sunni-majority districts, which seems to have been the real issue all along.*

The Reuters India item reported that the election date would likely to be 27 February, rather than January as previously planned. However, BBC Radio is reporting today (8 Dec.) that it will be some time in early March.

Click “Iraq” in the “planted in” line for some discussion of the previous bills and the veto.

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* Updates: Reidar Visser states that Iraqis abroad will vote in their home governorate (district). In that case, they do not need a special national constituency, as contemplated in the earlier draft. This is a much saner solution. He also notes that it is not actually clear what the finally agreed assembly size is. District magnitudes would range from about 6 to 72.