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October 5, 2005
Iraq Reverses Controversial Rule Change

The Iraqi National Assembly has reversed itself after heavy UN criticism and US pressure forced it to reconsider an electoral rule change that almost precipitated another Sunni boycott. The parliament earlier passed a law that changed the threshold for rejection of the proposed constitution from two-thirds of all votes to two-thirds of all voters, a bar so high that its attainment would be impossible under almost any circumstances:

After a brief debate and with only about half of its 275 members present, the assembly voted 119-28 to restore the original voting rules for the referendum, which will take place Oct. 15. Washington hopes a "yes" vote in the referendum will unite Iraq's disparate factions and erode support for the country's bloody insurgency. ...

The original rules, now restored, mean that Sunnis can veto the constitution by getting a two-thirds "no" vote in three provinces, even if the charter wins majority approval nationwide. Sunni Arabs are dominant in four of the 18 provinces.

On Sunday, Iraq's Shiite- and Kurdish-controlled parliament effectively closed that loophole with their rule change. The legislature decided that a simple majority of those who cast votes means the constitution's victory but that two-thirds of registered voters must cast "no" ballots in three provinces to defeat it.

That interpretation had raised the bar to a level almost impossible to meet. In a province of 1 million registered voters, for example, 660,000 would have had to vote "no" even if that many didn't even come to the polls.

That "loophole", as the AP describes it, exists in every democracy. Without it, governments could simply call plebescites and then decree that any absence of a vote counted as support for their position -- and then take action to keep people from showing up at the polling stations. A 30% turnout would transform into a 70% mandate for a government position, a ludicrous proposition but one attempted by the Shi'a and the Kurds, who really should know better.

This provided a rare occasion for the UN and the US to band together out of mutual interest and not just political necessity. In order for the Iraqi constitution to achieve any kind of legitimacy, it has to get accepted by the Iraqis in a manner which lends authenticity to their favorable reaction. That means giving them an achievable manner in which to reject the pact. Requiring two-thirds of the people to vote "no" in at least one-quarter of the provinces does that, but the rule change would have rigged the election.

No matter how desirable the outcome, the process matters more. If the Iraqis get democracy, they cannot get it through fraud, or they won't really have it at all. The National Assembly did the right thing in reconsidering their previous decision, and the US and UN acted correctly in pressing them to revisit it.

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Posted by Ed Morrissey at October 5, 2005 6:28 AM

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» Changing The Rules from A Knight's Blog
Looks like the Shiites and Kurds are changing the rules to make sure the new Iraqi constitution passes. From CNN: Shiite and Kurdish lawmakers quietly passed a rules change that would make it almost impossible to vote down the draft constitution in ... [Read More]

Tracked on October 5, 2005 6:57 AM

» Changing Rules in the Middle of the Game - UPDATE and bump from Big Lizards
UPDATE: See below. Whenever I hear frustrated Americans complaining about the seemingly slow process of Iraqi democratization, I tell them, "give Iraq a chance; they are not used to this democracy thing; it will take time; they have a lot... [Read More]

Tracked on October 5, 2005 6:11 PM



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