New York Times:
Iraq's Shiite and Kurdish leaders quietly adopted new rules over the weekend that will make it virtually impossible for the constitution to fail in the coming national referendum.
The move prompted Sunni Arabs and a range of independent political figures to complain that the vote was being fixed.
Some Sunni leaders who have been organizing a campaign to vote down the proposed constitution said they might now boycott the referendum on Oct. 15. Other political leaders also reacted angrily, saying the change would seriously damage the vote's credibility.
Under the new rules, the constitution will fail only if two-thirds of all registered voters - rather than two-thirds of all those actually casting ballots - reject it in at least three of the 18 provinces.
The change, adopted during an unannounced vote in Parliament on Sunday afternoon, effectively raises the bar for those who oppose the constitution. Given that fewer than 60 percent of registered Iraqis voted in the January elections, the chances that two-thirds will both show up at the polls and vote against the document in three provinces would appear to be close to nil.
I have to say I don't approve of this. I think it is a horrible mistake by the Shiites and Kurds and will make it very tough to convince Sunnis to join in the process.
It also opens up a legitimate question of whether the Shiites and Kurds will follow the rule of law after a constitution is approved and if they have any real commitment to protect the rights of Sunnis.
The main justification for this change seems to be the following:
Other Shiite members of the assembly defended their action. They said that if only people who came to the polls were counted in the referendum, insurgent attacks could frighten away so many voters that the constitution could be rejected on the basis of a small, unrepresentative sample of voters.
That is possibly a fair argument, but if so there are better ways to handle it. Having a minimum turnout requirement for example (say 50% turnout?) or that provinces vote can't be counted might be a fair compromise. That would also have the upside of those who are against the constitution needing to encourage voter turnout.
My guess is that this rule won't stand and a more sane response will be coming out of Iraq on this issue. In the end it will probably be a pretty valuable 'growing pain' for the nascent Iraqi democracy.
It is certainly worth keeping an eye on though.