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Feature

Iraqi elections 101

By Patty Mattern

Published on January 29, 2005

Amid the death threats of today and the promises of the future, the Iraqi people go to the polls Sunday to elect a 275-member Transitional National Assembly. Along with the national election, there will be 18 provincial elections (similar to state government elections) and a Kurdistan Regional government election. In all, 18,900 people are up for election in Iraq. The more than 14 million Iraqis registered to vote in this election will not vote for individual candidates, but instead vote for a party list. More than 100 political parties crowd the ballot and most people remain unaware of who the individual candidates are.

The government compiled voter registration lists from the old food rationing system and the Iraqis registered from November 1 until December 15. Iraqis living in 14 other countries are also being allowed to cast ballots. Their voting began Friday, January 28, and continues through Sunday. About 25,000 Iraqi expatriates in the United States signed up to vote and voting is taking place in five U.S. cities--Detroit, Chicago, Los Angeles, Nashville and Washington, D.C.

Beginning Friday and continuing until Monday, Iraqi authorities implemented curfews, restricted vehicle traffic, prevented movement of Iraqi civilians between provinces, and banned civilians from carrying weapons. To increase safety, security forces are also sealing Iraq's borders and closing Baghdad International Airport, according to the U.S. Department of State.

"If a party gets 50 percent of the vote, then 50 percent of the candidates from that list would go into the assembly," says Ragui Assaad, a professor in the Humphrey Institute of Public Affairs. It's a proportional system, so if one group receives 50 percent of the vote, they would receive about 138 seats. If a group receives 10 percent of the vote, they would get nearly 28 seats. Who takes the positions depends on how high candidates appear on their party's list.

"Some candidates have not wanted to make their names known, because they don't want to be targeted by insurgents," Assaad says. There has been limited campaigning by parties and coalitions of parties with most campaigning happening in more secure regions.

Iraq has gone into a lockdown of sorts for the election. Beginning Friday and continuing until Monday, Iraqi authorities implemented curfews, restricted vehicle traffic, prevented movement of Iraqi civilians between provinces, and banned civilians from carrying weapons. To increase safety, security forces are also sealing Iraq's borders and closing Baghdad International Airport, according to the U.S. Department of State.

Insurgents increased their threats to target polling places, saying they intend to kill people who vote. And, they warn, if they fail to murder people who vote at the polls, they will hunt them down and kill them at home, according the news reports.

Sunnis, Shi'ites, and Kurds The impact on voter turnout because of such threats remains to be seen. However, the boycott by major political parties representing Sunni Muslims is expected to have a big impact as well. The Sunnis were in power under Sadaam Hussein and the Shi'ites were oppressed.

"While it is a historical fact that people in Iraq are having an election, the fact that disenfranchised Sunnis are not participating will bring into question the legitimacy of the election," Assaad says. "It would have been better to wait and bring in that part of the population."

In fact, some moderate Sunnis asked for postponement of the election, but that was rejected, he said. The Transitional National Assembly must involve the Sunnis if the temporary government is expected to succeed in laying the groundwork for a permanent government, Assaad says.

"The insurgency will continue, however the United States will try to bill this as a more legitimate government. I think the election will have relatively little impact in terms of the security presence of the United States," he says.

"While Sunnis represent 20 percent of the population, a lot less than that will vote," Assaad says. "If [the government] just relies on the officially elected people without bringing the Sunnis in, that would be a recipe for disaster."

Shi'ites are pretty heavily registered and they make up about 60 percent of the Iraqi population. The Kurds are looking forward to the election, Assaad says. "They want to make sure they have their continued autonomy in their region, so they want to have enough influence in this election. In fact, two Kurdish political parties have banded together to ensure good representation, he says.

Once voting is completed, votes will be tabulated and the Transitional National Assembly is expected convene in mid-February. The elected government will still be a temporary government and another election will take place at the end of this year. The newly-elected assembly will be a like parliament or much like the U.S. House of Representatives, Assaad says.

"The party or the coalition that wins plurality of support will appoint the next prime minister," says Assaad. There is some question as to whether or not this Presidency Council would appoint current Prime Minister Aya Allawi.

"They say clerics will stay out of the elected and appointed positions," he says. Clerics, however, will be influential behind the scenes, says Assaad.

The Presidency Council along with the prime minister will appoint cabinet members to run the Iraqi government's various ministries, according to the U.S. Department of State. The prime minister and cabinet members must receive a vote of confidence by a simple majority of the assembly to commence their work as a government.

The entire assembly is charged with drafting a new Iraqi constitution. Once drafted, they will put it before the Iraqi people for approval in a national referendum in October. In basic law already agreed upon, if two-thirds of people in three provinces vote against the constitution, it will not pass, Assaad says. If approved, the Iraqi people would go back to the polls and elect a new permanent national government by the end of 2005.

The U.S. involvement in Iraq will likely not change as a result of the election.

"The insurgency will continue, however the United States will try to bill this as a more legitimate government. I think the election will have relatively little impact in terms of the security presence of the United States," he says.

U.S officials have said they will pull forces out of Iraq if the Iraqi government asks them to leave. There is an agreement in place that the United States will not leave until Iraqi forces are prepared to take over and the parties running in this election have indicated that they support that position, says Assaad.

Just holding an independent election in Iraq is a success in and of itself, some say. Assaad has a different view.

"I think a relatively healthy level of participation by the Sunnis would be required to make this a legitimate election," he says. "If that doesn't happen, you make the ethnic divide sharper leading to conflict in the future."