Political fight could delay Iraqi elections

The Iraqi parliament approved a bill Tuesday that calls for provincial elections on Oct. 1, but the secret ballot alienated Iraqi Kurds and likely will lead to the postponement of the process until next year, several members of parliament said.

Opponents charged that some of the ruling Shiite Muslim parties were trying to delay the elections by forcing the law through instead of negotiating a compromise. They said the bill was almost certain to be vetoed and challenged in constitutional courts.

“We have never had a secret vote in the two years of this parliament,” said Mahmoud Othman, one of the Kurdish parliamentarians who walked out. “We don't consider it legal. … It is an effort to delay the elections.”

Iraqi politics has pivoted this entire year on holding provincial elections. Newly emerged local leaders hoped to win a legitimate role in government, and major political blocs were vying for support among their bases. The U.S. has called the process crucial for much-needed political reconciliation.

Some Iraqis think the offensives that Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki launched in the southern cities of Basra and Amara and the Baghdad slum of Sadr City were to weaken his political rivals, the Sadrists, who controlled those areas.

The possibility of a months-long delay in the elections could fundamentally alter the priorities of local and national politicians.

Among the issues that divided the parliament were whether the ballot should list names or political parties' slates; whether there should be a quota for female candidates; where displaced residents should vote; and, most important, how to divide votes among sects in the oil-rich Kirkuk province.

During Tuesday's session, Speaker Mahmoud Mashadani, a Sunni Muslim Arab, called for an open vote but proposed to delay elections in Kirkuk province, according to Baha Araji, a member of parliament who's with the Sadrists, rebel Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr's party. When members rejected that, the speaker proposed dividing Kirkuk equally among Arabs, Kurds and Turkmens. That, too, was rejected, and he moved the vote to a secret ballot.

Of the 275 members of parliament, 227 were in attendance and began secret votes on the 51 articles that make up the bill. They agreed that there should be a mixed ballot of names and slates, 25 percent of the candidates should be women, and displaced voters should pick candidates in their original hometowns.

When the parliament reached Article 24, which dealt with Kirkuk, about 60 Kurds and 15 Shiites stormed out, calling the process illegal.

Kurds consider Kirkuk a vital economic base for a potential independent state.

“We walked out because of the way it was being handled,” Othman said. The remaining 142 voted, and 127 passed the remaining articles.

Division over the issue quickly became bitter, as Kurdish members charged that the speaker recruited security guards and staffers to maintain a quorum after they left. That couldn't be confirmed Tuesday.