WASHINGTON — To hold a free election, Iraq will need some 120,000 poll workers, 30,000 reasonably safe polling places and millions of voters undeterred by fear of bombs or bullets.
The nation’s factions will have to compromise on matters big and small, from what formula will transform votes into 275 National Assembly seats to how the ballots should look — all by the interim constitution’s Jan. 31 deadline.
It’s a daunting prospect, but there is a world of ideas to draw on.
Mexico drafted 800,000 citizen poll workers by lottery to help clean up its elections. East Timorese voters chose independence by marking one of two flags, an aid to those who couldn’t read. Nigerians ended military rule by inking their thumbprints onto the ballots.
In the early, rough drafts of democracy, the details don’t matter so much as the impression they leave.
“The important thing is that the players all agree the process is fair, that the people accept it and believe in the outcome,” said Lindsay Lloyd, director of the Iraqi aid program at the International Republican Institute, a GOP-affiliated pro-democracy group.
Of course, one good election does not guarantee democracy will take hold. And a rushed or mistrusted vote can aggravate troubles or even lead to war, as the histories of Angola, Liberia and Bosnia attest.
In Iraq, for now at least, grinding violence colors everything.
“It’s a palpable fear,” said Jason Roe, a congressional aide who joined an IRI mission to advise fledgling political parties popping up across Iraq. Roe recalled traveling to political meetings with an Iraqi intellectual who switched cars after each stop, in hopes of foiling assassins who have killed hundreds of civic leaders and police.
The head of a U.N. team visiting Iraq, Carina Perelli, said Monday that better security in Iraq is vital for elections.
“We need to make sure that between now and the 31st of January there is a modicum of security that will make Iraqi people feel they can go to the polls, that they can run as candidates, without extreme fear,” Perelli said.
Iraq’s security problems may be extreme, but voters have braved danger elsewhere. Perelli cites the U.N.-supervised vote in East Timor in 1999. Roving militias used murder and terror to intimidate citizens into staying home or supporting continued union with Indonesia.
The East Timorese voted overwhelmingly for independence, nonetheless.
“For them, being able to express their opinion about the future of their country was more important than running risks,” Perelli said earlier this month, before visiting Iraq. “We are not there yet in Iraq.”
To embrace an election, she said, Iraqis need answers to basic questions: who is eligible to vote, how districts will be drawn, what authority will enforce the election rules, count the votes and ensure fairness.
U.N. experts say to meet the January 2005 deadline, Iraq’s political players need to reach consensus by the end of May, a month before the U.S.-led coalition hands sovereignty to the Iraqis. Coalition troops will stay to help with security.
“Otherwise the date might be compromised,” Perelli said Monday.
Mohsen Abdel-Hamid, a Sunni member of the U.S.-appointed Iraqi Governing Council, whose members met Monday with the U.N. team, said council members spoke about how to protect the elections.
U.N. election specialists anticipate Iraq, with a population of 27 million, will need to train four workers each for some 30,000 polling places.
With no time for a census, ration cards from the U.N.’s oil-for-food program might form the basis for voter registration rolls.
Ballots will probably be paper and counted by hand, the simplest, cheapest method.
“It is next to impossible to do it in a way that you and I would perceive to be a proper, well-run manner,” said Leslie Campbell, Middle East director for the National Democratic Institute, the Democratic Party’s international election group. But “you can have an election without the technology, without the bureaucratic procedures, without almost anything.”
As happens around the world, polling places could be tailored to address Iraq’s circumstances, from easing security fears to reassuring conservative Islamic women who hesitate to vote.
“There are places where men and women are segregated when they vote,” Lloyd said. “Other places, family voting is the norm, with Mom and Dad and everyone else” in the voting booth.
Already, more than 150 political parties have appeared in Iraq, ranging from a few fairly sophisticated Islamic and Communist groups to “five guys who put a sign in front of their house,” said Roe.Top