IRAQ: Election Plan

January 27, 2005

Backgrounder
Current political and economic issues succinctly explained.

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Will Iraq’s January elections occur on schedule?

President George W. Bush and Iraqi Interim Prime Minister Ayad Allawi insist they will. The Iraqi government has an independent electoral commission, the foundations of an election law, and the framework of a system to register some 12 million voters for the January 2005 election (ElectionGuide). But there is extensive work yet to be done, and the planning is taking place against the backdrop of a violent insurgency that many observers say could delay the election or compromise its results. “You cannot have credible elections if the security conditions continue as they are now,” U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan told the BBC September 16.

Could the most unsettled areas of Iraq be excluded from the election?

Yes, U.S. officials and Allawi say. “Let’s say you tried to have an election, and you could have it in three-quarters or four-fifths of the country, but some places you couldn’t because the violence was too great. Well, so be it. Nothing’s perfect in life,” U.S. Secretary of Defense Donald H. Rumsfeld told a congressional committee September 23. Members of the independent Iraqi electoral commission, however, have objected to this possibility, arguing that denying the vote to the most restive parts of Iraq—places like Falluja, Ramadi, and other insurgent-held sections of the so-called Sunni triangle—would severely weaken the legitimacy of Iraq’s first elected legislature, which is charged with writing the country’s new constitution. “If there is no election in some cities, there will be no election at all,” said Farid Ayar, the spokesman for Iraq’s electoral commission. “Our goal is to make the Iraqi people understand freedom.”

What positions are up for grabs?

In the January election, voters are to choose candidates for three types of assemblies:

  • All Iraqis will cast votes for the 275-member 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 governorate 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 make-up or size of these councils, experts say.

Are election plans on track?

Technical preparations, such as setting up the electoral commission, devising voter-registration procedures, and hiring election officials, are on schedule, according to the United Nations Electoral Assistance Division. However, experts say the schedule is vulnerable to disruption, especially if insurgent attacks persist. One critical variable: public confidence in the electoral commission, says Makram Ouaiss, senior program officer at the Washington-based National Democratic Institute, which is training political parties in Iraq. If enough Iraqis want the elections to proceed, they will go to the polls despite the insurgency, he says.

Which agency is organizing the election?

The Independent Electoral Commission of Iraq, which was created by an order of former Coalition Provisional Authority administrator L. Paul Bremer III on May 31, 2004, about one month before the end of the occupation. Of the panel’s nine commissioners, seven are voting members—all of them Iraqis—who set election procedures. There is also a U.N. representative, Carlos Valenzuela, who offers guidance and other assistance, and an Iraqi chief operating officer, who will direct the elections bureaucracy that is being built from scratch. Security concerns are affecting the commission’s work, experts say; the commissioners rarely venture out of the Green Zone, the heavily protected area in the center of Baghdad.

What are the commission’s tasks?

Designing a system to register voters, establishing polling places and other infrastructure, and hiring and training election workers. It will also finalize political party rules and educate Iraqis about voting procedures. Running the elections is a massive job: U.N. experts have estimated that 30,000 polling stations staffed by 120,000 to 130,000 workers will be needed to help with the voting, counting, and tallying. The United Nations, the United States, other nations, and a number of nongovernmental organizations are helping the Iraqis. But the ultimate responsibility for the elections lies with the commission.

Who are the Iraqi commissioners?

The six men and two women include lawyers, academics, and a diplomat, and represent Shiites, Sunnis, and Kurds. They were selected—based on personal character and professional experience—by U.N. officials from a pool of 1,800 applicants, said Carina Perelli, the director of the U.N. Electoral Assistance Division, in a June press conference. They are: Ibrahim Ali Ali, Mohammed Allami, Abdul Hussein al-Hindawi, Hamdi Abbas al-Husseini, Mohammed al-Jabouri, Fareed Michael, Mustafa Safwat Rashid, and Izzadine Mohammed Shafiq.

What is the United Nations’ role?

U.N. Security Council Resolution 1546, passed June 8, assigned the United Nations a “leading role” in assisting with the elections. U.N. officials are working with Iraqis to create an electoral administration, educate voters, and decide on election rules. But the United Nations is limited by the hazardous security conditions, said U.N. Special Representative for Iraq Ashraf Jehangir Qazi in a September 14 address to the Security Council. At the moment, the U.N. Assistance Mission in Iraq is limited to 35 people, far below the number required to be fully operational. More than 50 additional U.N. staffers are operating from Amman, Jordan; others wait in Kuwait for the security situation to improve. The current staff “is operating at the outer limit of acceptable and prudent risk,” Qazi said.

Is the United Nations supposed to have a special force to protect it?

Yes. Resolution 1546 authorized the creation of a force to protect U.N. personnel in Iraq. On September 27, Fiji became the first nation to step forward with troops, announcing that it would contribute 155 soldiers and 24 bodyguards for U.N. officials beginning in October. Security for U.N. personnel in Iraq is a highly sensitive issue: the U.N. mission in Baghdad was bombed by insurgents in the summer of 2003, killing the then-special representative in Iraq, Sergio Vieira de Mello, and 22 others.

What rules govern the election process?

The election’s legal framework consists of two sets of documents:

  • Orders signed by Bremer during the occupation of Iraq, generally with the advice of the now-defunct Iraqi Governing Council (IGC). There are three orders that specifically deal with the election: Order 92, which established the independent electoral commission, Order 96, the electoral law, and Order 97, the political parties law. Some international law experts question the legal standing of orders passed under the occupation. But the electoral commission has so far been willing to accept these rules as a basis on which it can build, experts say.
  • The Transitional Administrative Law (TAL), also referred to as Iraq’s interim constitution. Signed by both Bremer and the IGC, this law defines the responsibilities of the National Assembly and establishes the timetable for Iraq’s transition to a permanent government. Electoral commission members say they are committed to following this document as closely as possible.

How will voting procedures work?

According to Order 96, instead of choosing a certain number of legislators to represent each province—a geographically based system similar to that used in the United States—all voters will elect the entire legislature. Each voter will choose a political party, and each political party will be awarded seats in the National Assembly according roughly to the percentage of the national vote it wins. Political parties will submit lists of candidates and legislators will be drawn from the top of the list. In election-speak, this is called a closed list, single district, proportional-representation system.

Why are the Iraqis voting this way?

U.N. electoral assistance director Perelli suggested the system because it may give an advantage to smaller parties, and thus may be more inclusive than other forms of voting. Another key consideration was the candidates’ security. “I’m very much aware that one of the problems this election might have is intimidation of candidates,” Perelli said June 4. “It is for this reason that choosing proportional representation at a national level—removing the politics from just the local level where people can be easily identified and taken down—is an extra layer of security for the candidates.” If some dangerous areas are left out of the voting—as Rumsfeld says they might—Iraqi officials won’t have to appoint parliamentarians to represent Falluja and other restive cities, because there will be no solely regional representatives.

What are the arguments against proportional representation?

In this kind of system, successful candidates don’t owe their election to a specific district and so might have little incentive to respond to local voters’ concerns. Some towns or regions could be denied a voice in the National Assembly, and—considering Iraq’s volatile mix of ethnic and religious groups—that could breed violence, critics say. In addition, some reports indicate that the major Iraqi political parties may form a large coalition and run with a single, unified list, thus limiting voter choice and, in all likelihood, smothering smaller political parties. Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, the country’s most powerful Shiite cleric, is reportedly concerned that such a coalition will dilute the power of Shiites, who form a majority in the country. Sistani has consistently spoken in favor of elections, and his influence pushed the U.S. occupation authority to move up the original schedule for elections by a year. But his aides say that if he deems the voting procedures to be unfair to Shiites, he may withdraw his support for the January vote.

What rules govern political parties?

Order 97 sets a low bar for political parties: they need just 500 signatures to register. There has been an explosion of political activity in Iraq since March 2003: some 380 political parties have been identified by the National Democratic Institute, Ouaiss says. Among them are the larger, more organized parties, such as the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq—a Shiite-based party—and Allawi’s party, the Iraqi National Accord. There are also many small parties just learning how to organize. Parties with ties to militia groups are banned from participating in the elections, according to Bremer’s order. But this law may not be strictly enforced; many of the major parties have militias associated with them, experts say.

What system will the commission use to register voters?

U.N. officials say that the voter rolls will be based on U.N. Oil for Food lists created in the 1990s to distribute food to needy Iraqis. These so-called “public distribution” lists are imperfect; they list households, rather than individuals, and do not include all families. U.N. officials say they expect the Iraqi electoral commission to open up the list for revision for approximately one month to allow Iraqis to make corrections and additions. There is not enough time before January to conduct a proper census, experts say.

What will the Iraqi Transitional National Assembly do?

Once elected, it will choose a president and two deputy presidents from among its own members. This so-called presidency council will appoint a prime minister and other government ministers. The National Assembly will be able to pass laws; it will also 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 the document, elections for a permanent government will be held in December 2005. If the constitution is rejected, the National Assembly will be dissolved and a new transitional assembly will be elected in December 2005 to take another stab at constitution-writing. It is unclear what will happen if, after another year, still no decision is reached.

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