With the conclusion of the Iraqi National Conference last month, the next milestone for Iraqi democracy will be the January 2005 elections for a 275-member Parliament. Already, the electoral system chosen for Iraq could dampen the prospects for a representative and democratic vote. On June 15, 2004, in response to a recommendation by Carina Perelli, director of the UN's Electoral Assistance Division, Coalition Provisional Authority administrator L. Paul Bremer decreed that Iraq would be a single electoral constituency, with seats allocated through proportional representation (PR) based on national lists. Perelli's decision to avoid multiple districts was colored by technical considerations. Treating all of Iraq as one district bypasses questions of internal boundaries and simplifies ballots. The entire nation would need only one ballot, rather than separate ones in each district.

Such a system is bad for Iraq. Voting is only one aspect of democracy; another is accountability. Under a PR system, parliamentarians are not tied to a specific district, but rather to a party list. Instead of being responsible to a town's voters, representatives will be loyal to party leaders. The pitfalls of such a system have led Poles to seek a constitutional amendment to replace PR with districts. While more than ninety countries use some form of PR, its application to single national districts is seldom without complication. Many Israelis complain that single-district PR allows radical small parties to hold their political system hostage. In Germany's Weimar Republic, single-district PR helped bring the Nazis to power.

In Iraq, PR will breed radicalism. It is easier to forbid women from taking certain jobs, for example, if a politician need not answer to women in his district. If elections are based on 275 different districts, then each district would have only 87,000 people. Representatives would be closer to the people. Districts already exist, although Iraqis are keen to reverse Baathist gerrymandering. Even in disputed areas like Kirkuk, Iraqis say they can reach consensus to put Kurdish, Arab, and Turkoman neighborhoods into different districts.

Failure to base elections on districts may mean that some areas have no representation. This could breed violence. Residents of Basra and Mosul accepted the former Iraqi Governing Council (IGC), for example, because IGC members hailed from their towns. Since Fallujah and Sadr City had no such political outlet, they more quickly turned to violence. Under the UN plan, if local candidates are not listed high enough on the party slate, whole towns may have no representation. Iraqis recognize the importance of geographical representation. It was geography, not personality, that led the Iraqi Governing Council to recommend Ghazi Al Yawar, a tribal leader from Mosul, over Adnan Pachachi, a former foreign minister, as its president. Any political body that did not include Iraq's second largest city had little chance of success.

While Perelli has said that a single national district would allow geographically "broken" communities to vote together, it is simplistic to assume that all religious or ethnic groups want to vote as a bloc. Such a system sets Iraq down the slippery slope toward Lebanese-style communalism. Multiple districts would still represent Iraq's diversity. Fallujah would elect Sunnis, and Najaf, Shiites. The real difference would be in protection of religious minorities. With local districts, Chaldeans would win seats in Al Qosh and Yezidis in Sinjar even if they chose not to run on a religious platform. Under a national district system, the risk of disenfranchisement would be greater. Because religious minorities divide themselves politically, they may not gain enough votes nationally.

The UN plan will also invite corruption. It is easier for outsiders to buy a party list than to channel money to 275 different candidates. When constituents know their candidates, it is harder to hide outside money.

Some specialists have argued for replicating in Iraq of what worked in Cambodia, East Timor, and Nigeria. But it is a mistake to treat Iraq as analogous. Iraqi history suggests that a system privileging party lists over independent candidates will be counterproductive. Older Iraqis blame political parties for inciting riots in the 1950s and 1960s. The younger generation associates organized politics with the abusive Baath Party. In Iraqi Kurdistan, many students say that corruption revolves around the party structure. Some polls suggest that only 3 percent of Iraqis have faith in parties. While the UN plan allows independents to run in theory, Iraqis saw how party machination and backroom deals marginalized independents at the Iraqi National Conference.

The Iraqi election commission—and not outsiders—should decide Iraq's election system. The UN choice is not the only option. After all, countries like Australia and Jordan combine multiple districts with proportional representation and bring representatives closer to the people. There is still time to listen to Iraqis.

Michael Rubin, a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute and editor of The Middle East Quarterly, spent seventeen months in Iraq between 2000 and 2004.