IRAQ: Postpone the election?

January 26, 2005

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Current political and economic issues succinctly explained.

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Who is calling for the Iraqi elections to be delayed?

A variety of Iraqi political organizations and parties, as well as some Western experts. Both are concerned that elections held without adequate security will further marginalize Iraq’s Sunni Arab minority and create conditions for civil war. Among Iraqis, Sunni-led and secular parties have spearheaded the call for postponement, with the sometime backing of prominent Kurdish parties. The political momentum, however, appears for the moment to be with the powerful forces urging that the January 30 elections occur on time.

Who backs holding the elections as scheduled?

The Iraqi interim government of Prime Minister Ayad Allawi; prominent Iraqi Shiite leaders, representing Iraq’s largest sectarian group; the U.S. government; and the Independent Electoral Commission of Iraq, the body organizing the scheduled vote for a 275-member transitional National Assembly, a 105-seat Kurdistan National Assembly in the semi-autonomous north of Iraq, and provincial councils in each of Iraq’s 18 provinces.

What are the main concerns?

  • Continued violence: The ongoing insurgency has slowed election preparations and will likely make campaigning and voting dangerous. This could keep voters away from the polls—especially in Baghdad and the Sunni heartland of central Iraq, the nation’s most violent areas. U.S. forces will increase to 150,000 to help secure the election, assisted by some 125,000 Iraqi forces, according to U.S. officials. Despite these precautions, most experts expect some Election Day attacks.
  • Sunni exclusion: If major Sunni parties decide to boycott the vote, or if insurgents prevent Sunni Arabs from getting to the polls, Iraq’s Sunnis—some 20 percent of the population—will be underrepresented in the transitional National Assembly. Because the assembly will draft a new Iraqi constitution, select a president and prime minister, and set the rules for the new Iraqi state, excluding Sunnis would undercut the government’s legitimacy. This could set the stage for increased violence between Sunnis, who dominated Iraq under Saddam Hussein, and the majority Shiite Muslims. With 60 percent of the population and a unified coalition slate, Shiites are likely to dominate the assembly.
  • Logistical problems: The Iraqi Independent Electoral Commission says voting preparations are on schedule, but some experts and officials close to the process doubt that preparations for a free and fair election will be ready on time. Security concerns have limited voter registration and delayed voter education campaigns. Officials are still deciding how to include some 1.5 million expatriate Iraqis in 14 other countries in the elections. "The logistical difficulties of setting up the 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.

Who has the authority to delay the vote?

It’s unclear. The Iraqis are organizing the vote under the terms of the Transitional Administrative Law (TAL), or interim constitution, passed in March 2003 by the now-defunct Iraqi Governing Council and U.S.-led occupation government. The TAL states that Allawi’s interim government cannot amend the election timetable. Though the Independent Election Commission of Iraq set the election date, its leaders say they lack the authority to postpone it past January. Some experts say delaying the vote could require a new U.N. Security Council resolution. U.N. Resolution 1546, which passed unanimously in June, says that elections must be held no later than January 31, 2005.

What are the various election options?

  • Hold elections January 30 despite the difficulties. Proponents of on-time elections generally say that no matter the challenges, holding the elections will be better than delaying them, which could alienate Shiites and hand a victory to insurgents. "The capacity of these killers to stop an election would send a wrong signal to the world, and send a wrong signal to the Iraqi people themselves," President George W. Bush said December 6. This scenario generally commits Iraqis to accepting the results of the January 30 vote even if it is marred by violence or low turnout in some areas. It hinges on continued efforts by U.S. and Iraqi forces to rout insurgents before Election Day and secure polling sites during the vote. U.S. officials who support moving forward—such as U.S. Ambassador to Iraq John Negroponte and U.S. Agency for International Development Administrator Andrew Natsios—say they believe Sunni Arabs will campaign and vote once it’s clear the elections will proceed as planned.
  • Hold rolling elections. On December 7, two European newspapers, Belgium’s Le Soir and Switzerland’s Le Temps, quoted interim Prime Minister Allawi as saying the vote could be held over two or three weeks across the country, so limited security forces wouldn’t have to try to protect every polling place on the same day. "Everyone—Shiites, Sunnis, Christians, Kurds, Turkmen—should be able to take part in the vote," Le Soir quoted Allawi as saying. "That is why I think we can see elections spread over 15 days or 20, with polls spread over different dates according to the provinces." But two days later—after the Iraqi Interior Ministry had publicly backed the plan—a spokesman for Allawi said he had been misquoted. The idea has since faded into the background.
  • Postpone elections for six months. A group of 17 political parties, led mostly by Sunni Arabs, called November 28 for a six-month delay to give the interim government additional time to fight insurgents, prepare polling stations, educate voters, and negotiate with Sunni leaders who say they will boycott the vote. Among those who urge a delay: Adnan Pachachi, a former foreign minister and secular Sunni Arab, and the Iraqi Islamic Party (IIP), a Sunni religious party that dropped out of the interim government last month to protest the U.S. military operation in Falluja and that continues to threaten an election boycott. In addition, the two top Kurdish parties—the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan and the Kurdistan Democratic Party—joined in the call but later retracted their support. But each of these groups has also registered to participate in the January balloting if it moves forward.
  • Save seats for Sunnis. Among the scholars supporting this idea is Juan Cole, an Iraq expert and professor of history at the University of Michigan. In a recent op-ed, he wrote that the interim government "must pass a decree ordering a onetime set-aside of a generous 25 percent of seats for predominantly Sunni Muslim parties. This sort of quota is regrettable, but it is the only solution to the crisis." The idea is to insure that Sunnis will still be represented in the National Assembly even if voter turnout in Sunni areas is low. "To exclude Sunni Arabs from [constitutional] discussions is a recipe for civil war," he wrote.
  • Restructure elections. Some scholars argue that Iraq’s overall election framework—which treats the entire nation as a single election district—should be scrapped and replaced with a plan that guarantees each province proportional representation in the assembly. In this way, regions where there are many insurgents—such as in Mosul and the so-called Sunni triangle—would earn representation in the assembly, even if few voters brave the polls. Laith Kubba, senior program officer for the Middle East and North Africa at the National Endowment for Democracy, says this plan is preferable to a set Sunni quota, which would reinforce sectarian identities and tensions. However, Kubba also admits that it is probably too late to implement this plan.
  • Hold only provincial elections. Robert Malley, the Middle East and North Africa program director at the International Crisis Group, and Joost Hiltermann, the group’s Middle East project director, argue that instead of rushing to national elections—which could result in an Iraq disproportionately dominated by Shiites—Iraq should only have provincial elections in January. The resulting councils should be given genuine power and access to oil revenues. The national vote should be rescheduled and the extra time used to "put in place a strategy aimed at drawing Sunni Arabs into the political process," they wrote.
  • Hold regional elections in the Shiite and Kurdish areas only: Leslie H. Gelb, president emeritus of the Council on Foreign Relations, and Peter Galbraith, former ambassador to the Republic of Croatia, argue that holding elections January 30 will only intensify Sunni Arab resistance. They recommend a dramatic change of course: transform Iraq into a loose confederation of at least three self-governing entities—one each dominated by Kurds, Shiites, and Arab Sunnis. Multiethnic Baghdad would be considered a special capital district. Instead of holding national elections in January, Gelb and Galbraith recommend regional elections move forward in semi-autonomous Iraqi Kurdistan and that provincial elections occur in Iraq’s southern Shiite-dominated provinces. No elections would be held in the Sunni heartland of central Iraq until it is transformed into a self-governing region. "The underlying problem is that Iraq’s new electoral system suffers from the same conceptual flaw that has characterized U.S. policy since Saddam Hussein’s fall—an incorrect assumption that Iraq’s three main communities share a common sense of being a nation. In fact, all three think primarily in terms of their own ethnic or confessional community. These differences cannot be reconciled in a national vote based on a pretense that there is a unitary state," they wrote.

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