Baghdad: Many lawmakers are calling on Iraq`s parliament to start using electronic voting, arguing that the current system conducted by a show of hands allows leaders of political blocs to manipulate the results.
The parliament building, located in Baghdad`s heavily fortified Green Zone, was equipped with an electronic voting system in its legislative chamber about three years ago. It has been tested successfully but never used for a vote.
With the Iraqi government on the verge of critical decisions like the possible extension of the US troop presence in Iraq beyond a December 31 deadline, more legislators are demanding that parliament give them a little privacy in their voting.
"I am afraid to say that our parliament has nothing to do with (serious) decisions. They are in the hands of a few senior lawmakers," said Safia al-Suhail, an independent lawmaker.
"Many lawmakers cannot stand against the will of their leaders. This may even threaten their life," she added.
"Technically, the system is ready. The problem is with the heads of the blocs. They are rejecting it," an official at parliament said on condition of anonymity.
Legislators, watched carefully by their leaders, raise their hands. For some votes, officials count the raised hands. For others, the speaker simply eyes the room and declares a majority in favor.
"A law is passed when the heads of blocs agree on it beforehand and vice versa, regardless of the stand of other lawmakers ... this is a fact," the official added.
When the 325-member parliament made its long-awaited decision on Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki`s cabinet last December, voting for individual ministers passed so quickly that no one could possibly have counted the votes.
With the computerized system, a button at each seat sends a signal to an electronic tally board and the vote is documented in a separate, secure center. It would be more difficult for leaders to immediately know which members were voting.
"Raising hands enables the head of blocs to monitor lawmakers and, if needed, compel them to vote according to the bloc`s will, not theirs," said a Shi`ite lawmaker who asked not to be named because of the sensitivity of the issue.
"For the heads of blocs, voting against their will is completely unacceptable," he said. "Running the (electronic) system will make them lose their control over the bloc."
Many leaders do not trust the loyalty of their lawmakers, particularly on certain issues, officials said. The decision on whether US forces remain beyond year-end is one.
"I say most of the blocs and lawmakers support the extension behind closed doors, but publicly they say something different," lawmaker Kadhim al-Shimari said. "They are afraid of the voters."
Junior lawmakers say the show-of-hands vote undermines "real democracy." But some powerful legislators disagree.
"Blocs should control their members and should know how they vote. Their stand should comply with the stand of the bloc," Bahaa al-Araji, the head of Sadrist parliamentary bloc, said.
But a Shi`ite independent lawmaker recalled how a leader once stood during a vote to watch his members.
"He ... ordered his lawmakers ... to raise their hands saying; `You, raise your hands,`" the lawmaker said.
"Can you imagine that? What kind of democracy is this?"