The Right Coast

Editor: Thomas A. Smith
University of San Diego
School of Law

Friday, March 31, 2006

Supermajority Rules in Iraq
Mike Rappaport

Over the years, John McGinnis and I have published numerous articles on supermajority rules.  One of the key questions concerning the desirability of supermajority rules is a tradeoff emphasized by Buchanan and Tullock in their classic, The Calculus of Consent.  On the one hand, supermajority rules operate to prevent a majority from using its power to enact legislation that harms the minority.  On the other hand, supermajority rules make it harder to enact legislation and as a result there may be significant delays in reaching an agreement.  Buchanan and Tullock argued that the optimal voting rule would be the one that minimized these two types of costs. 

Right now, the situation in Iraq is largely dependent on whether a new government can be formed.  That new government, however, must have the support of a two thirds supermajority of the legislature and therefore the costs identified by Buchanan and Tullock are at work.

The requirement that a supermajority support the government seems quite beneficial.  Initially, this was a way that the Kurds and Sunnis could avoid dominance by the Shiites.  Now, with the Kurds and Sunnis joined in a coalition that may have more legislators than the Shiites,  it represents protection for the Shiites.  In general, the supermajority requirement operates to promote coalition government and compromises between the contending religious and ethnic groups.

But it has a cost , and these days it is a big cost.  There is now a deadlock on forming a new government, and that deadlock is the direct result of the supermajority rule.  There seems little doubt that the Shiites or the Kurds and Sunnis could form a government if only a majority were required.   That government, however, would be divisive, since it would not represent the concerns of at least a significant minority of the country. 

Thus, despite the significant costs from the supermajority rule, I believe it is worth it.  What is needed now is sometime external event to force the parties to compromise.  While it would be far from ideal, pressure from the United States might be the best opportunity for breaking the deadlock.

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Mike Rappaport