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Proportional representation in Iraq is a recipe for instability

By Michael Rubin - posted Monday, 5 July 2004

Coalition Provisional Authority administrator Paul Bremer boarded a military flight last week and went home. Though Iraqis will cheer his departure, the transfer of sovereignty will not mark the beginning of the end, but rather the end of the beginning.

In some ways, the transfer of sovereignty will be anti-climactic. Coalition troops will remain. But military presence and sovereignty are not mutually exclusive - no one questions the sovereignty of Qatar, Korea, Turkey, Italy, or South Korea, even though they host United States troops.

The decision of diplomats to remain inside the Republican Palace in Baghdad, however, is a mistake. Saddam Hussein's former palace not only symbolises the worst of his horrific reign but also more than a year of occupation.


The transfer of sovereignty may be a watershed but Iraqis say true legitimacy will come only after elections. Iraqis look forward to casting their votes but short-sighted technocratic decisions threaten the durability of Iraq's democratic experiment. Indeed, a decision relatively unnoticed outside of Baghdad may become Bremer's greatest legacy.

On June 15, Bremer threw aside the advice of Iraqis (and many in Washington) and issued CPA Order No.96 imposing a party-slate system on Iraq.

"Iraq will be a single-electoral constituency. All seats in the National Assembly will be allocated through a system of proportional representation," the order declares.

With the stroke of a pen, Bremer set Iraq down the path towards a Lebanon-style communal system. United Nations elections specialist Carina Perelli says: "There are a lot of communities that have been broken and dispersed around Iraq. And these communities wanted to be able to accumulate their votes and to vote with like-minded people."

In other words, Bremer and Perelli assume that Iraqis want only to vote for ethnic or sectarian parties.

The irony is that while a party-slate system catalyses instability, it will not bolster representation. For example, neither Iraq's Chaldean or Yezidi communities have political parties.


Many Iraqis share ethnicity but not religion. For example, the Turkmen of Tel Afar, a town of 160,000, are 95 per cent Shia, while the Turkmen of Erbil are Sunnis. Ten per cent of Kurds are Shia.

So the system will bolster populist political clerics like Karbala's Sayyid Hadi al-Modarresi, who told the Arabic daily al-Hayah: "The first article in a democracy is the rule of the majority over the minority."

It is also easier for neighbouring countries like Iran and Saudi Arabia to interfere in a party-slate system. Simply put, it is easier to fund a party list than subsidise separate candidates in neighbourhood districts in which residents are more aware of outside influence.

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This article was first published in The Australian Financial Review on 29 June 2004.

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About the Author

Michael Rubin is a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute and editor of the Middle East Quarterly. He was a Baghdad-based coalition political adviser.

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