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IRAQ: Election Politics

Author: Sharon Otterman
December 31, 2004
This publication is now archived.

Why have Iraq's Shiites opted to form a single electoral slate?

Iraqi Shiites--some 60 percent of Iraq's population--have never held political power and see the January 30 election as a way to attain the dominant voice in the new government. To ensure their voting power is not diluted, the leading Shiite political parties have agreed to join forces in a single electoral slate of candidates. The list, called the United Iraqi Alliance, is dominated by powerful religious Shiite groups: the Islamic Da'wa Party and the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI).

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Who is behind the idea of a unified Shiite slate?

The country's most influential figure: the senior Shiite cleric, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani. Sistani issued a fatwa commanding his millions of followers to cast ballots and is running a massive get-out-the-vote effort through mosques and shrines. His devotees will most likely support the United Iraqi Alliance, which could result in a Shiite electoral landslide. "Everyone is saying the Sistani list is going to be the clock-cleaner in this election. No other list is even going to come close," says Kenneth Katzman, senior Middle East analyst at the Congressional Research Service, the nonpartisan research arm of Congress.

What is an electoral slate?

A list of candidates. The rules of the January vote to elect a 275-member transitional National Assembly requires that, instead of voting for legislators to represent particular local districts--as in the U.S. voting system--all Iraqis will choose from a single national ballot. The ballot will contain various lists, or slates, of candidates. Each voter will choose one slate, and each slate will receive National Assembly seats according to the percentage of the nationwide vote it wins. Candidates will be seated according to their position on the list, with those at the top seated first.

Is the United Iraqi Alliance exclusively Shiite?

No. The Sistani slate includes some independent Kurds, Sunnis, and other minority groups in an apparent attempt to give it the broadest possible appeal to Iraqi voters. But the list is dominated by Shiites, who make up at least two-thirds of the candidates, press reports say. The two main Kurdish parties--the Kurdish Democratic Party and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan--have created a separate slate and are expected to win the majority of the Kurdish vote. The raging insurgency in Sunni Muslim areas, meanwhile, has raised concerns that Sunni Arabs will not turn out to vote on Election Day. The Iraqi Islamic Party, a Sunni religious party, registered a 275-member candidate list December 9, but announced December 27 its withdrawal from the election for security reasons. Dozens of Sunni leaders have called for a six-month postponement of the election, but the U.S. and Iraqi governments are insisting it take place on time. Iraq's population is approximately 15 percent to 20 percent Kurdish and 20 percent Sunni Arab.

Which Shiite groups and individuals are on the unified slate?

The 228-member slate was submitted to the Independent Iraqi Election Commission on December 9, but most of the names of the candidates on the list remained secret. Its main participants are:

  • SCIRI: This large, popular Shiite religious party opposed Saddam Hussein's regime, predominately from exile in Iran. It is led by Abdul Aziz al-Hakim, who reportedly holds the top slot on the Sistani-backed list. His brother, Ayatollah Mohammad Baqr al-Hakim, headed the party until he was killed in a Najaf car bombing in August 2003.
  • Da'wa: Da'wa was a major Shiite opposition party under Saddam Hussein. Thousands of its members were executed by the regime. This religious party has strong support among Shiites in southern Iraq. Its leader, Ibrahim al-Jaafari, is vice president of the interim Iraqi government and is reportedly second on Sistani's list. Da'wa and SCIRI have a history of working together; at one point, it was thought they would break away to form their own independent list.
  • Iraqi National Congress (INC): The INC is headed by Ahmed Chalabi, the controversial Shiite exile and banker whose coalition of anti-regime exile groups received U.S. support before and after the fall of Saddam Hussein. Chalabi--No. 10 on the Sistani list--lost his official U.S. backing in May amid accusations he had passed U.S. secrets to Iran. He denies any wrongdoing. He has recently emerged as a champion of Iraqi Shiite interests; previously, he advocated a Western-style, secular Iraqi democracy. In July, he organized the Shiite Political Council, an umbrella organization of some 38 Shiite parties, as a rival to SCIRI and Da'wa.
  • The Shiite Political Council: Until December 7, this coalition of small Shiite parties had threatened to run its own slate of candidates. Last-minute negotiations reportedly shifted some of its representatives closer to the top of the United Iraqi Alliance list, which appeared to satisfy council leaders. On November 30, the group's spokesman, Hussein al-Mousawi, criticized the Sistani list, calling the slate's top-tier candidates "extremist Shiite Islamists who believe in the rule of religious clerics." After joining the list, he seemed resigned to the reality of power politics: "I don't think the Shiite Council can make a difference to the equation either way," he told The Chicago Tribune.
Is Shiite cleric Mutqada al-Sadr on the list?

Apparently not. Despite lengthy negotiations, Sadr--the youthful, anti-occupation cleric whose militia battled U.S. forces in Baghdad, Najaf, and other southern cities in April and August--did not create a political party or register as part of the Shiite coalition. "We have not participated in this list and we are still suspending our participation in the elections. We have been subjected to a campaign of suppression, and the arrests against Sadr's followers are continuing," said Ali Shemeism, an aide to Sadr, according to the British newspaper, The Independent. A letter written by Sadr was read December 10 in a Baghdad mosque urged followers not to participate in the vote, because "the elections aim to separate the Iraqi from his religion." But some of the list's organizers--such as former nuclear scientist Hussein al-Shahstrani, reportedly No. 7 on the list--say that Sadr is supporting the alliance. Adding to the confusion, some INC representatives say Sadr supporters have joined the list as independents.

Which minority groups are represented on the slate?

About one-third of the total seats are reportedly allotted to Kurds, Sunnis, and Turkmen, including:

  • Independent Sunni candidates from the northern city of Mosul, recently the site of heavy fighting and insurgency attacks.
  • Representatives from the Shammar tribe, one of the most powerful Iraqi tribes.
  • So-called Faili, or Shiite Kurds. Most Kurds are Sunnis.
  • Yazidi candidates, representing a small, primarily Kurdish, pre-Islamic religious sect.
What role will women play?

Every third candidate on every slate is a woman, as mandated by the Transitional Administrative Law (TAL), or interim constitution, that was approved in March 2003 by the now-defunct Iraqi Governing Council and U.S. administrator L. Paul Bremer III. Women will also be permitted to vote.

Which well-known politicians are not on the unified slate?

Among them:

  • Interim Iraqi Prime Minister Ayad Allawi's Iraqi National Accord appears likely to head a separate slate of secular Sunnis and Shiites. One reason Allawi was not invited to join the unified Shiite list: some influential Shiites feared that Allawi would insist on remaining as prime minister if the list won, Katzman says. Allawi has the strong backing of the United States and Britain.
  • Sheik Ghazi al-Yawar, the interim president and a Sunni tribal leader, announced November 23 that he had formed a new party to run in the elections. Called the Iraqis' Party, it is made up of secular Sunnis and Shiites, including the current ministers of defense and industry.
Will the election occur on time?

It's still unclear. The Shiite majority, Allawi, and the Independent Electoral Commission support an on-time vote. The U.S. government also favors moving forward as scheduled. However, a number of hurdles could cause a delay:

  • Continued violence: If the insurgency doesn't quiet down, it will be difficult and dangerous to register voters, campaign, and vote. An increasing number of voices are raising the possibility of a security-related delay. Special Adviser to the U.N. Secretary General Lakhdar Brahimi said December 4 that the vote shouldn't proceed unless "first and foremost, security improves. The situation does not work. We have to find something which does," he told the Dutch newspaper NRC Handelsblad, according to a Reuters translation.
  • Sunni participation. If major Sunni parties decide to boycott the vote, there will be limited representation of Sunnis--who make up some 20 percent of the population--in the transitional National Assembly. An influential Sunni clerical organization, the Muslim Scholars Association, called for a boycott, and a coalition of some 15 Sunni-led political parties advocates a six-month delay in the vote. Because the Assembly will draft a new Iraqi constitution, the exclusion of Sunnis could raise sectarian tensions and threaten civil war, experts warn.
  • Organizational impasses. While U.N. Special Envoy to Iraq Ashraf Qazi said November 22 that January elections were technically feasible, some other diplomats and election organizers have expressed concern that preparations will not be completed in time. The commission has hired about 600 regular Iraqi staff so far, but some 150,000 poll workers have to be hired and trained by Election Day, says Jeff Fischer, the director of the Center for Transitional and Post-Conflict Governance at at the International Foundation for Election Systems, which is helping to organize the vote. Voter registration began November 1, but in recent weeks 90 of the 540 registration centers have closed because of the threat of violence. Voter education campaigns are just beginning, and many details about how voting will occur remain to be worked out. "The logistical difficulties of setting up an election have been severely underestimated by most observers," says Noah Feldman, a former constitutional adviser to the Coalition Provisional Authority, the U.S.-led occupation government in Baghdad. "And the challenge of securing polling places has not yet been addressed in any substantive way," he adds.
How many political parties have registered?

More than 220 parties and individuals, Fischer says. The groups span Iraq's political landscape: Sunni, Shiite, Kurdish, Turkmen, Assyrian-Chaldean, and communist. The Baath Party of Saddam Hussein is banned from participating in the election, as are candidates who held high rank in it.

Which posts are being chosen?

Voters are to choose candidates for three types of assemblies:

  • All Iraqis will cast votes for the transitional National Assembly, which will serve as the legislature until elections for a permanent body are held.
  • Iraqis who live in the semi-autonomous northern region will also cast votes for the 105-member Iraqi Kurdistan National Assembly, the regional lawmaking body.
  • Voters will also elect councils in each of Iraq's 18 provinces, which will provide the framework for elected local government. The electoral commission has not yet decided on the makeup or size of these councils, experts say.
What will the transitional National Assembly do?

Its first act will be to choose a president and two deputy presidents from among its own members. This so-called presidency council will also appoint a prime minister and other government ministers. The National Assembly will be responsible for drafting a constitution by August 15, 2005. According to the tight timetable laid out in the TAL, Iraqis will vote in a referendum on the constitution by October 15, 2005. If they approve it, elections for a permanent government will be held in December 2005. If they reject it, the National Assembly will be dissolved and an election held for a new transitional assembly that would try again to write a constitution.

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