“Parliaments are Not Selected. They Must be Elected”

Wadi Facilitated a New Democratic Process for Iraqi Youth Parliament / By Hannah Wettig (Text and Pictures)

Lvin Magazin – sbeiy – MESOP 12-12-2012  – “This must be a practice in real democracy,” Falah Muradkhin from the non-governmental organization Wadi told the audience at the Mamuzin Hotel in Suleymania. Representatives of youth organizations met Tuesday to choose delegates for the governorate Suleymania to be send to Erbil, the capital of the Kurdistan Autonomous Region  of Iraq, where representatives for the new Youth Parliament of Iraq are to be selected. When the women and men between 18 and 35 were listening to the opening speeches they didn’t know yet that this youth parliament would be different from many others.

“Without the youth there would have been no Arab Spring,” Wadi’s general director Thomas von der Osten-Sacken said in his speech. “People younger than 35 make up the majority of societies in the Middle East. Yet, they are scandalously underrepresented in all institutions.” Even the newly elected parliaments in Egypt, Tunisia and Libya made no difference in this aspect. “You are mostly represented by old men,” von der Osten-Sacken said, arguing the Youth Parliament could be a first step for change.

The idea for a Youth Parliament in Iraq was put forward by the United Nations Development Program (UNDP), which has been setting up youth parliaments worldwide to bring forward youth issues. In the Arab region a Lebanese National Youth Parliament was launched in 2009. „It is comprised of 64 gender-balanced members, selected from public and private schools,“ can be read in the „Regional Overview: Youth in the Arab Region“ by ESCWA. An Iraqi Youth Parliament was set up the same year, but representation from the Northern region was insufficient.

Thus, three years later the UN restarted the program asking local NGOs to help with the process. The German-Iraqi NGO Wadi was chosen as UN-partner in the governorate of Suleymania. But instead of selecting young men and women as it has been done for youth parliaments in most countries, Wadi decided to work out something new. “Parliaments are not selected. They are elected,” explained von der Osten-Sacken.

Local student and youth electoral bodies lack completely in the region. Therefore no structure existed upon which to build a true democratic representation. Since it was not part of the UN-program to call all youth to the ballot, Wadi’s employees had to find an alternative. If not everyone had a vote, at least everyone should get the chance to participate, they decided. Wadi contacted 400 civil society organizations as well as party youth and informed the media. Everyone in the governorate between the age of 18 and 35 was able to register and was invited to come to the conference.   On Tuesday morning 57 men and women took their seats to choose 17 among themselves as delegates to travel to Erbil on December 13th. After the opening speeches Falah Muradkhin explained the procedure. First, the participants were to decide on their own electoral law: Was there to be a women’s quota? What representations would each district get? In how many rounds would the delegates be elected?

Immediately a lively discussion developed. Suggestion for a women’s quota of 25 percent were quickly dismissed. “That’s like in the national parliament,” one woman said. “Even the Kurdish regional government hat 30%. We must be more progressive.”

In the end it was decided to have a quota of 35%, which meant that five women were to go. The districts outside Suleymania also got five delegates. This left seven seats to the city of Suleymania. In working groups the participants discussed who would be best to attend the conference in Erbil. After weighing the pros and cons for each candidate each group made their decision.

While the working group of the smaller districts decided in an open discussion on which delegate they preferred, the women opted for a secret ballot. For the male representatives of Suleymania decision making turned out to be tough. The party youth organizations had mostly send members from the city and they all claimed a right to a seat. Yet, with only seven seats available and many independents and civil society groups also present from Suly, there were simply not enough seats for all. Self-promoting speeches were interrupted by angry rebuttals. In the end they chose their delegates in an open crucial vote. Yet, at lunchtime, scheduled before the final election, everyone seemed to be happy. “This was something completely new to people”, one participant said. “This felt like real democracy and it was fun.”

For the final election each groups represented their chosen delegates who were then elected by a simple majority vote. The conference also decided with a majority of 95% to opt in Erbil for having a Youth Parliament for the Kurdish Region instead of participating in the so far dysfunctional Iraqi Youth Parliament. Wadi will overlook the further process and help the young delegates as a facilitator. The event got wide media coverage with journalists of four satellite-channels among them the most popular NRT, three radio stations and many print and online outlets reporting, among them Livin Magazine and Sbeiy.