Why Iraq’s new political parties law can never work

Iraq’s law on how local parties are funded and founded has the potential to change the political landscape for better. But various parts of the new act seem to contradict one another.

It is less than a year before Iraq holds the next round of significant elections; the provincial elections, which determine who runs Iraq’s increasingly important local government authorities, will be held in early 2017.

But the law that should be being used to regulate who can run in these elections and how, is still not being used. On August 27 last year the Iraqi Parliament approvedlong-awaited and much-debated draft law on political parties in the country. Before that a law set up by the interim US-appointed leadership after 2003 was being used. 

For various reasons, Iraqi political parties have generally been opposed to the new law – often because it might endanger their own standing if it was adhered to. The law delves into permissible sources of funding as well as allowing more state control over who may and may not found a political party.

Senior politicians in Iraq's parliament. Photo: Parliamentary website

The new version of the law contains 61 articles – but even those generally considered to be positive are going to be hard to actually implement on the ground before the next major elections.

Additionally the new law doesn’t tackle any of Iraqi political parties’ most outstanding problems: Funding, donors and a lack of transparency that means it’s possible to buy votes, and even parties.

Should the law actually come into force in any way, the relevant supervising body also leaves a lot to be desired. It will necessarily be created by those in power, which means that staffers making decisions about what political parties can and cannot do, would be sympathetic to their overseers. The same staff would be deciding on whether a political party even has a right to exist.

Should the law not come into any kind of force – and admittedly, it’s hard to enforce laws of this kind in Iraq – then the next elections would be governed by the US-made law from a decade ago. Iraq’s political parties would be subject only to election law and the vagaries of the Independent High Electoral Commission, which supervises Iraqi elections and which has often been criticized for bias.

Below is a summary of some of the most problematic articles within the new law on political parties in Iraq:

Article 2: This ruling allows for the setting up of a “department for political parties” under the auspices of the current government. This department would be linked to the Independent High Electoral Commission, which supervises Iraqi elections. The Electoral Commission has already been criticized by some who say that it’s basically being run by whichever party and politicians are in power and is therefore making biased decisions in favour of its employers. One can only imagine the department of political parties, which will have various powers – some of these are outlined below – to establish or dis-establish Iraqi political parties, would be subject to similar doubts.

Many critics of the political parties’ law say the department would be better linked to a different ministry or to some independent judicial authority, rather than to a body that may act in its own appointer’s interests.

Article 5: This rule says it is not permissible to establish political parties on the basis of racism, terrorism, sectarian or ethnic identities or religious or nationalistic intolerance.

Yet as is well known, most political parties in Iraq are based on one or other of exactly those qualities. None of those qualities – racism or nationalism, for example – are defined either, so this rule would wide be open to interpretation.

Article 8: Political parties shouldn’t be militarised nor should they have an armed wing or be associated with any militia.

Obviously this Article is supposed to ensure that the peace is kept in politics and that no other political parties are intimidated by military wings or weaponized postures. However, as is also well known in Iraq, most of the major political parties do actually have an armed wing or are associated with a militia of some kind. At the moment these armed wings are taking on particular importance as they also make up significant parts of the volunteer militia groups taking on the extremist group known as the Islamic State in Iraq.

Article 9 and Article 10: Parts of these Articles say that senior officials currently serving in the military, the Independent High Electoral Commission or the Iraqi Commission on Public Integrity, an independent commission tasked with investigating Iraqi government corruption, cannot join political parties. However the ruling doesn’t mention senior officials at Iraq’s Central Bank, the country’s media commission or federal auditors. The latter may be especially problematic as these officials would be the ones tasked with deciding if the accounts of political parties are in order or not. 

Article 25 and Article 44: Together these two rules say that a political party may own property, media, real estate and even printing presses. Political parties may also claim funding from the federal government. It is a way of allowing political parties to make their own money and to potentially free them from foreign influencers and funders.

However Article 41 then also adds that a political party could potentially accept funding or equivalent from a foreign body if it gets permission from the “political parties department”.

Article 34: This rule goes further into party finances. It says that political parties must be not-for-profit. But it doesn’t define this and almost all Iraqi parties have an economics committee now that determines party work with regard to contracts and investments. Critics say that if your party member heads a ministry or has some power over the tendering process, it is often another party member or someone otherwise connected – via tribal alliances or family relationships – who will get the contract for the government work.

Article 34 does not oblige political parties to divulge their donors, nor does it specify that party members reveal their own sources of wealth. This means far less transparency than is desirable.

Article 46: This rule says that anybody who funds an unlicensed political party can be fined and sent to jail. However Article 50 contradicts this, saying that anyone who funds any unlicensed political party can be punished unless they have permission from the aforementioned department for political parties. Once again, the department can make up these rules as it goes along.