Way back on September 16, I succumbed to optimism on the Iraqi provincial elections law based on reports in the Iraqi press that a deal had been reached. I was particularly pleased about this because of very credible rumors (and a proliferation of statements by UIA and other prominent figures) that a deal had been reached to give up on the Parliamentary track and instead revert to the rules which governed the 2005 provincial elections, which would likely have helped the current ruling elites hold on to power and generate great frustration for the currently excluded groups which hope to gain political power through the elections (especially the Sunni Awakenings groupings). I argued then, as I have for months, that it was better to get the rules right than to rush to hold the elections by a particular date (in this case the end of December). And then, of course, the deal in Parliament collapsed and weeks went by without a vote while the rumors of a bad deal escalated.
Thankfully, today it appears that the impasse has finally been broken as the Parliament overwhelmingly passed a new provincial elections law based on a compromise on Kirkuk engineered by the tireless UN envoy Staffan de Mistura. (There is some disagreement in the reporting as to whether this was a vote by consensus or by a majority of the 191 members present out of 275, but either way it passed.) What's more, they have agreed to push back the deadline for voting until January 31, 2009 (in the non-KRG provinces and Tamim province with Kirkuk). This will allow enough time for the Iraqi High Elections Commission (which will determine the exact date) to adequately prepare and organize and for the various political blocs to mobilize for the campaign.
The law still needs to pass the Presidency Council, where the last version was vetoed in July. That remains a possibility, given the interests of some of the members of the Council in avoiding elections under the new rules. But it seems unlikely given the long, intense crisis. Last time it was obvious to everyone that Talabani would veto because the entire Kurdish bloc had walked out, but this time they seem to have bought in to the deal so I don't expect him to block this one.
The details of the final law remain unclear also. For example, in this story filed just a few hours before the vote, an Iraqi MP talks about a 25% quota for women candidates - but that's hard to guarantee in an open list election. So I will be searching today for a text of the new law today to find out its key provisions beyond the headline compromise on Kirkuk which is deservedly getting most of the attention. More on that when I find it.
Of course these elections aren't alone going to solve the major problems of power and governance. There will losers as well as winners, frustrated expectations, and likely complaints about fraud and malfeasance of all varieties. Refugees and IDPs are still effectively disenfranchised. But for now, I'm guardedly hopeful that Iraqis might finally have come to agreement on the rules governing these important elections and have avoided the temptation (and pressure from, perhaps, the United States) to rush them on a non-consensus set of rules in order to meet an arbitrary deadline.
UPDATE: The Iraqi Parliament has released a detailed report, if not the actual text, of the law. Among the crucial details, beyond the elaborate compromise on Kirkuk: the vote will be open list, women's quota but no minorities quota, can use symbols of non-candidates except for religious figures (so no Sistani? Is Sadr "religious" figure?), and some limitations on use of mosques and other places of worship for campaigning. All in all looks pretty good - the open list is key, and goes against the preferences of what the ruling coalition, plus a way was found to accomodate the women's quota. Attention will now turn to trying to guarantee a free and fair vote, but this looks to be a major accomplishment at last - one key to democracy is that outcomes are uncertain but the rules are not. Staffan de Mistura and the much maligned UN should receive major credit for this outcome, which as he puts it speaks eloquently to the ability of Iraqis to come to agreement despite all the obstacles.