In reflecting on the current state of political affairs in Iraq, it is difficult to recall the optimistic embrace of electoral process by the country’s citizens 12 years ago.
As Iraq struggles with its current security and political crises, it’s important to look back and explore the electoral practices in Iraq that offered fair and representative processes for Iraqis to choose their own government.
In 2005, there were three electoral events in Iraq designed to establish democratic governance in the country: an election for the Transitional National Assembly in January, a constitutional referendum in October and a Council of Representatives’ election in December.
For all three elections, I served as an advisor to the Independent Electoral Commission of Iraq and the United Nations Assistance Mission in Iraq and observed positive political participation in the country. At the time, I was with the International Foundation for Electoral Systems.
The development of a political process in Iraq faced unique security, historical, logistical and sectarian obstacles. There were constant threats of violence from various insurgencies–from assassination to kidnapping attempts, among other challenges.
Any of the obstacles mentioned could have destabilized the process or somehow comprised its integrity and the acceptance of results.
Throughout the year, voter turnout increased with each election: 57.7 percent in January; 63.3 percent for October; and 77.7 percent in December.
The electoral process continued to move forward on schedule, despite occasional disruptions.
Boosting voter turnout by improving access
In order to be as inclusive as possible, voting opportunities were extended by the Independent Electoral Commission of Iraq to several categories of special voters, such as hospital patients, detainees, security forces and out-of-country voters.
Several polling stations were set up in hospitals located in each governorate, opening the door for more than 19,000 hospital patients to vote. More than 22,000 detainees, who had not been convicted of a crime, voted as well.
Iraqi Security Forces were able to vote through special voting procedures and also through regular procedure for the forces on duty guarding the polling centers in their own governorate. More than 250,000 security forces were able to vote this way.
Additionally, voting opportunities were extended to eligible Iraqis residing abroad for this election from 15 countries on four continents.
While political participation was encouraged for Iraqis, at the same time, egregious remnants of the Saddam Hussein regime were identified and denied their right to participate because of their behaviors during the regime through a process termed De-Baathification.
Reducing obstacles with fair representation
Political participation can be measured by a number of factors including voter turnout, the formation of political entities, candidacies and election monitors.
When the voter turnout trend lines are analyzed by governorate, patterns of participation by various ethnicity increased.
The turnout trend in the predominantly Sunni governorates of Anbar, Diyala, and Salahadin expanded exponentially from 2 percent, 33 percent and 29 percent in January, respectively, to 86 percent, 75 percent and 98 percent in December. The turnout in Mosul increased from 17 percent in January to 70 percent in December.
The predominantly Kurdish governorates of Dohuk, Erbil and Suleymania, either stabilized in the 90 percentiles (Dohuk and Erbil), or increased slightly into the low 80 percentiles (Suleymania).
The turnout in Kirkuk increased from 70 percent in January to 86 percent in December. Political participation in parties and as candidates was robust. The turnout in Kurdish governorates had remained consistently above the national average of 77.7 percent. The balance of the governorates lagged slightly in the turnout rate as compared with the national average, and some governorates in the south showed a slight decline in participation from January to December.
There were 307 political entities contesting in the December parliamentary election, including 19 coalitions. A total of 7,655 candidates were fielded on 996 certified candidate lists. Of those elected to the 275 seats, 70 were women.
The process was monitored by nearly 400,000 observers, subject to audits, complaints and appeals. There was an average of nine political entities agents and four non-partisan monitors for every polling station.
Looking to the future
While these various electoral attributes are noted, Iraq is another example where successful elections do not automatically translate into a functioning democracy.
Elections are a “necessary prerequisite” for democracy, but elections alone cannot accomplish the democratization of governance in a country transitioning from conflict or authoritarianism.
As Iraqi security forces continue to retake territory once occupied by the Islamic State, there is value in understanding and reviewing the 2005 electoral process, as governance determined through the ballot is reestablished.
Jeff Fischer is a Senior Electoral Advisor at Creative Associates International.