Iraq: Provincial elections and displacement (Opinion)

July 23, 2008 at 6:46 pm | Posted in Demographic contestation in Kerkuk, Iraq, Kerkuk, Provincial elections, Turkmens | Leave a comment
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Posted by Helena Cobban at July 21, 2008 10:55 AM

In all the recent reporting that I’ve seen on the Iraqi provincial elections, and their now almost certain postponement, I’ve seen almost no mention of one of the biggest administrative/political hurdles to holding these elections: that of the conflict-driven displacement of some four million Iraqis — more than 12 percent of the whole national population–away from their earlier home communities.

Somewhere around or just under two million of those displaced have gone to other countries and are thus considered refugees. Somewhere around or over two million of them are displaced inside the country and are thus defined as ‘Internally Displaced Persons’ (IDPs.)

In all the ‘purple finger moments’ (electoral events) that have been organized inside post-2003 Iraq until now, the fact of those vast displacements was not relevant. Those elections were organized on a nationwide proportional representation (PR) system. Thus, there was no relevance to any voters having an affiliation with a defined constituency. People could vote in them from anywhere within or outside Iraq, based only on possession of an officially issued Iraqi ration card or other proof of citizenship.

But in the context of province-level elections, the large-scale ethnic and sectarian cleansing that has occurred in the country since 2003– and also, before then– becomes very relevant indeed.

Where analysts or media people have focused on the challenge these broad displacements pose to the holding of sub-national-level polls, this attention has nearly always been focused on the special referendum stipulated for Kirkuk. And yes, Kirkuk has been the locus of considerable “demographic contestation”– i.e. successive waves of anti-Kurd, then anti-Arab and anti-Turkmen ethnic cleansing– over the past 30 years.

But ethnic and sectarian “cleansing” (oh, how I hate that word) has been a huge issue elsewhere in Iraq, too.

If province-level elections are to be held throughout the whole country, how will the four million IDPs and refugees be guaranteed their right to participate?

Who will define eligibility to vote in each province?

If everyone is guaranteed the right to vote in the province named as their home province on their ration card, will they be accorded all necessary facilities and protection to go to that home province to cast their vote?

Or, would it somehow be arranged that they cast their vote in the elections for their home province but can do so from wherever they are, inside or outside the country?

These are not trivial matters, at all.

I note that in some of the crucial sub-national elections in Bosnia, voters were accorded full rights to go to their earlier home provinces and cast their votes there. But given the scale of the ethnic cleansing there, organizing that was a massive operation!

The fact is, once you start dividing any country’s national population into territorially based sub-national voting units, there are numerous, very tricky decisions to be made regarding who has political rights within each unit. Should the broad outlines of the ethnic and sectarian cleansing that has occurred since 2003 simply be accepted as a “fact on the ground”, and decisions on voter eligibility be made on that basis? I doubt if many Iraqis want that to happen. (It would also be a highly unethical outcome.) Also, even if that approach were to be adopted regarding the IDPs, where would that leave the two million external refugees?

Iraq doesn’t look close to having reached national consensus on these questions yet.

I note that within the UN there is a considerable body of experience of addressing precisely such questions of untangling complex, conflict-driven demographic changes in the context of conflict-termination projects in several places around the world. The one that I’ve looked at most closely was in Mozambique, which had been subject to massive demographic displacements during the course of its 15-year civil war. But undertaking the repatriation of refugees and IDPs to their earlier home communities is certainly the preferred approach to the plight of these people, within the context of broader DDR efforts.

I’m not sure, frankly, what use provincial elections would really have in Iraq in the absence of such efforts?

I gather the political hopes from the provincial elections in Iraq have mainly been that they would help to integrate the formerly marginalized Sunni parties and blocs back into the political system. But might not the problems of demographic displacement and voter eligibility that would be aroused in the context of a provincial elections be more destabilizing than stabilizing? (Especially given that the Sunnis have probably been disproportionately the victims of ethnic/sectarian cleansing.)

Would it not be better, perhaps, simply to scratch the idea of provincial elections at this point and work on having the largest possible participation in the national elections that are scheduled for next year?




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