It appears that the long-anticipated Iraqi Parliament vote on a law governing the provincial elections scheduled for the beginning of October has been postponed until Thursday and probably longer. Parliamentary Speaker Mahmoud al-Mashhadani postponed discussions after the Kurds walked out in protest over the treatment of Kirkuk; leaders from the Shia UIA were reportedly huddling with their Kurdish partners in the governing coalition, trying to reach an agreement on how to proceed.
This isn't a great shock: the government had submitted a multiple-choice draft for the Parliament to debate, leaving the most contentious issues unresolved. It didn't seem likely that the divided and contentious Parliament would quickly arrive at a consensus which eluded Maliki's relatively tight ruling Shia-Kurd coalition. It isn't clear yet whether this will mean the postponement of the provincial elections, as the UN facilitators have warned. But hopefully it will: the consequences of these elections will be enormous, and it would be foolhardy to rush into them with half-baked, politically controversial rules simply to meet an artificial deadline.
The issues raised by the provincial election law cut to the heart of competing visions of Iraq's political future. Kurds are fuming over the plans for voting in Kirkuk, which they feel might prejudice the future of the contested area (the three official Kurdish provinces will almost certainly not take part at all in the provincial elections). The question of open vs closed lists may seem technocratic, but will have major implications for voting: many people think that (for better or worse) closed lists strengthen the role of parties at the expense of individual candidates and could heighten the salience of sectarian appeals; but at the same time, open lists make it virtually impossible to guarantee constitutionally mandated quotas for women and minorities. The government's directive against the use of religious symbols or the faces of non-candidates in election materials is widely believed to have targeted the Sadrists, but it also affects ISCI, one of Maliki's key ruling partners, and any use of Sistani.
Tensions surrounding the electoral laws are increased by the political stakes. There's a widespread belief that the government's recent military campaigns have been 'shaping operations' designed to improve the prospects of pro-government lists in the Shia areas at the expense of the Sadrists. And in the Sunni areas, the prospect of provincial elections has been dramatically heightening the tension between the Awakenings and the governing Islamic Party, with the former fearing that the latter will use its position to its advantage against the emerging political challenger.
Meanwhile, MP Khayrallah al-Basri of the Iraqiya list raised a vital issue which has barely been raised to this point, but which should be: the electoral participation of some 5 million Iraqis displaced from their original homes. Sectarian displacement has radically transformed the socio-political map of Iraq (think about those maps showing the changing sectarian composition of Baghdad since February 2006). There are currently 2.8 million internally displaced, according to the latest estimate by the International Organization for Migration, including almost 1.6 million since February 2006. There are massive gaps in voter registration among IDPs, especially the post-February 2006 IDPs, with little time (or intention?) to overcome them.
The current plan is to require all of these IDPs to vote absentee in their place of origin, not in their current place of residence. While this admirably refuses to ratify sectarian cleansing, it also introduces all kinds of potential distortions by severing voting from the localities and services in question (why vote on pragmatic grounds if you will not be relying on or benefiting from the local government being elected?). In comparable situations elsewhere, displaced voters have been given the choice as to where to vote, but this was reportedly vetoed by the Iraqi government. Meanwhile, refugees outside the country evidently will not be able to vote at all. Together, this could mean the effective disenfranchisement of some one-sixth of the electorate - not a decision to be taken lightly, without substantive public and policy debate.
After early skepticism, I've long since been persuaded of the importance of these elections, mostly by the stock placed on them by Iraqis. But that only increases the importance of taking the time to get the rules right and to not be stampeded by an artificial deadline. As MP Safia al-Shuail told Reuters, "It needs more time for discussion and it also needs a political consensus." I'd say that's right, if the provincial elections are going to live up to the great hopes which have been placed on them by so many different political actors inside and outside of Iraq.
UPDATE: Eric Martin thinks I'm being too optimistic....