10/09/2009 10:32 PM | Agencies
Baghdad: A feud over how much choice voters will have in Iraqi elections in January has held up passage of an elections law, highlighting a clash between party interests and voters' desire to hold politicians to account.
Iraq's fractious parliament has been unable to agree on whether to use an open list system in the January 16 national elections, allowing voters to select individual candidates, or a closed list that gives voters only a choice of parties which in turn determine who occupy the seats they win.
The open list system holds members of parliament accountable to their constituents while the closed list rewards party loyalty and shields individual candidates from democratic pressure.
If no agreement is reached, Iraq would be forced to revert to the closed list system used in the last polls in 2005, likely fuelling resentment among already disaffected voters and angering powerful clerics who support an open list.
"The closed list will deter voters and cause a political crisis in the country," said lawmaker Abdul Karim Al Inizi.
January's elections are seen as a crucial test for Iraq's fragile democracy just as US forces prepare to withdraw.
Violence has dropped sharply, but the polarised political scene is in a state of uncertainty as sectarian alliances that have dominated Iraq since 2005 are abandoned to make way for new blocs politicians are betting will win them votes.
The use of a relatively open list system in provincial polls last January was praised as a milestone in solidifying a transparent, accountable democracy in Iraq.
The system worked well for Prime Minister Nouri Al Maliki, whose law-and-order message resonated with voters fed up with years of bloodshed and a persistent lack of basic services.
Gains for Al Maliki's Dawa party came at the expense of rivals like the Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council (ISCI), a formidable Shiite party whose popularity has waned as Al Maliki's has grown.
It is no great surprise then that Sadiq Al Rikabi, a top political adviser to Al Maliki, says the prime minister has from the start backed an open list for January's national polls.
Senior Shiite cleric Grand Ayatollah Ali Al Sistani, whose influence among Iraq's Shiite majority is unparalleled, has issued a stern warning against a closed list system. Washington also favours an open list. On Tuesday, US President Barack Obama urged Iraq to pass the election law soon.
While few Iraqi politicians are willing to openly buck such pressure and push for a closed list system, there is resistance to an open list from large, well-organised parties who believe their chances at the polls are better with the status quo.
Wathab Shakir, a Sunni lawmaker, said some parties publicly calling for an open list were clinging tightly to the closed list system behind the scenes.
Three months before the vote, a showdown is expected between Al Maliki's State of Law coalition and former partners such as ISCI and supporters of anti-American cleric Moqtada Al Sadr, who recently formed a new bloc, the Iraqi National Alliance (INA).