The Bush administration’s hopes for Iraq rest heavily on whether Iraqis can shape their political future through elections, but it could be difficult for them to vote on Jan. 30, as now planned.
Analysts who have studied the Iraqi elections process cite worsening violence, logistical problems as mundane as printing and distributing ballots on time, and the fear that many of the nation’s potent Sunni Muslim minority will boycott the polls, undermining the legitimacy of the vote.
Iraqis, with U.S. help, “would have to greatly accelerate security improvements and technical preparations” to hold elections on time, says Daniel Serwer, director of Peace and Stability Operations at the U.S. Institute of Peace, an independent, U.S. taxpayer-funded organization in Washington that promotes conflict resolution. “What you’ve got here is a very tight schedule that would be difficult to meet even under ideal circumstances. It’s just not clear if it can physically be done.”
Larry Diamond, a democracy expert at Stanford University who served in Iraq for three months this year with the U.S.-led civil administration, says elections might be postponed if there is a likelihood of a massive boycott by Sunni Muslims. Otherwise, he says Iraqis will be “asking themselves, what do we gain by having elections in which a whole sector of the country might be disenfranchised?”
On Sunday, Iraq’s Independent Electoral Commission set the nation’s voting for Jan. 30, the day before an elections deadline set by a United Nations resolution last June.
“Our very credibility is really on the line,” Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshiyar Zebari told CNN on Monday. “We have to meet this deadline.”
Iraqi interim Prime Minister Ayad Allawi said he was confident that only a small minority of Sunnis would boycott the elections
“The forces of darkness and terrorism will not benefit from this democratic experience and will fight it,”Allawi told the Associated Press. “But we are determined that this experiment succeeds.”
The elections are for a 275-member assembly that will choose a new transitional government.
Most importantly, the assembly will write a constitution that will determine the powers of the central government and the country’s main ethnic regions: Kurdish, Arab Sunni and Arab Shiite.
Iraq has never had free elections for its leaders; it was ruled by a British-backed monarchy for the first half of the 20th century and then by Sunni dictatorships. Saddam Hussein, who took power in 1979, staged elections that he invariably won.
The Bush administration sees elections as crucial to justifying the U.S.-led invasion and as a way to tamp down violence and lay the groundwork to begin withdrawing U.S. troops. Installing a democracy in Iraq, Bush has said, would also help reduce hatred of the United States in the region, where many blame Washington for propping up dictatorial regimes.
“The Iraqi people, like the people of Afghanistan before them, are embracing a democratic future, even in the face of threats and intimidation,” Bush said in his weekly radio address Nov. 13. He said the elections would be “held on schedule in January.”
The obstacles to a January vote are daunting, however. Among them: Security
Iraq’s ongoing violence could make campaigning or voting death-defying acts. Insurgent attacks have intensified in areas where Sunni Muslim Arabs predominate, largely in the Sunni Triangle north and west of Baghdad. Though Sunni Arabs represent just 20% of Iraq’s population of 26 million, they have historically dominated the majority Shiites and ruled Iraq. They comprise most of the insurgents now fighting U.S. and Iraqi government forces.
The U.S. assault on Fallujah this month was meant to destroy the insurgency’s base. But rebel leaders appear to have escaped, and violence has escalated in other Sunni cities and towns.
While most Iraqi officials seem determined to keep to the Jan. 30 election schedule, the violence is bad enough that Iraq’s representative to the U.N. won’t rule out a delay to get better control of the insurgency. “We cannot exclude that possibility, but we cannot at the same time start signaling right now that this is going to happen,” Samir Sumaidaie told Reuters on Monday. “This would give comfort to the terrorists.”
A Sunni group responsible for many attacks, kidnappings and beheadings of foreign hostages warned Iraqis last week not to vote and politicians not to run, essentially saying they would be killed if they did. A statement from the Ansar al-Sunnah Army said that anyone who participated would be considered “an infidel and an apostate seeking to rule in defiance of God’s orders and in compliance with the will of the Americans, the crusaders, their allies and their apostate agents.”
Anthony Cordesman, a Middle East expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, says that although the fighting in Fallujah led to the death or capture of hundreds of insurgents, it will probably make it easier to recruit more fighters.
The fighting “has almost certainly increased the slow but steady polarization of Iraqi Sunnis into a group that feels disgraced and deprived of power and wealth,” Cordesman says.
Even before the Fallujah battles, several Sunni groups vowed to boycott the elections.
A predominantly Sunni group called the Iraqi National Founding Congress (INFC) issued an open letter Oct. 27 calling for the “immediate cessation of all military operations by the occupation forces and the interim government against Iraqi cities and towns.” Otherwise, the letter said, “the elections will be regarded as fully invalidated.”
Last week, 47 groups ranging from Saddam’s old Baath Party to Islamic fundamentalists organized by the INFC met in Baghdad and declared that they would not participate in the vote because of the U.S. attacks on Fallujah and other Sunni population centers.
A communiqué issued after the meeting said the January election would not speak for the Iraqi people because it was “imposed” by the U.S.-backed interim government.
At a meeting of political parties in the northern Iraqi resort of Dukan on Nov. 19, Sunni parties asked for elections to be postponed to give them more time to prepare, says Nashirwan Mustapha, a senior official of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, one of two main Kurdish groups that hosted the meeting. “Shiites asked for the opposite,” he says. “Nothing was agreed.”
In deciding the timing of the elections, Iraqis are caught between the desires of its main ethnic groups.
Majority Shiites want elections as soon as possible because with 60% of the population, they are almost certain to win. Sunnis, on the other hand, know that whenever voting takes place, their minority status will be confirmed.
Under a tight schedule worked out by the U.N., parties must register by Nov. 30. Candidate lists must be certified by Iraqi election authorities by Dec. 6 so that ballots can be printed securely outside the country, then brought back and distributed to 28,000 polling places. There also has to be time for candidates to campaign.
The deadline for voter registration is Dec. 15. There are 542 registration centers at locations where Iraqis receive food ration cards. In most cases, registration will be a matter of verifying names on food distribution lists, says Carina Perelli, director of the U.N.’s electoral assistance division. Registration began Nov. 1 in most of the country but has been delayed where fighting has been intense.
An added complication is the decision by the U.N.-appointed Iraqi electoral commission to allow Iraqis outside the country to vote. The U.N. advised against this, Perelli says, because it will add to the expense and complexity of the election, and it will be difficult to prevent voter intimidation and fraud.
No one knows how many Iraqi expatriates there are, where they are and how many will vote. The presumption is that many will be inclined to support secular, pro-Western candidates, but there is no guarantee. Polls have shown that a plurality of Iraqis inside the country say they will be inclined to back candidates favored by Islamic clerics.
“The Iraqis have been … ‘spoken for’ up until now,” Perelli said at a briefing at the U.N. “How they are going to participate, we don’t know.”
Limited U.N. staff
In contrast to Afghanistan’s October elections, for which the U.N. deployed 266 election workers, there are only 10 U.N. staffers now in Iraq, a number expected to increase to 25 in December. U.N. officials say they don’t need as many personnel in Iraq because Iraqis are more sophisticated than Afghans.
“Our role is similar to yeast,” Kiernan Prendergast, U.N. undersecretary general for political affairs, said at the U.N. briefing earlier this month. “The dough can’t rise without the yeast, but you actually don’t need very much of it.”
But U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan has also made clear that the lack of security is the biggest constraint on deploying U.N. staff. While fighting continues in Afghanistan, the level of violence there is much lower than it is in Iraq. The world body has had a minimal presence in Iraq since last year, following the death of 22 U.N. personnel in a suicide bombing.
In addition to U.N. advisers, there are a small number of election experts from nongovernmental groups such as the International Federation of Election Systems, which helps organize polling in nations emerging from conflict. Jarrett Blanc, IFES project director in Iraq, said in a phone interview from Baghdad last week that elections can take place on time “if there is a will to have them.”
While elections are a high priority for the Bush administration, reducing violence is the top issue for Iraqis. In a late September poll of 2,000 Iraqis conducted by the International Republican Institute, a U.S.-funded group that promotes democracy abroad, 34% of respondents said the best way to calm the country would be to strengthen Iraqi police. Only 22% said holding elections as scheduled would be the optimal way to stop the attacks.Top