Accessibility links

Iraq: Will Voters Be Able To Cast Informed Votes In Constitutional Referendum?

  • Valentinas Mite --> Iraqis reading copies of the draft constitution along with monthly food rations in Baghdad on 10 October A national referendum on Iraq's draft constitution will be held on Saturday. A four-day national holiday has been declared starting on 13 October, and the country's borders will be closed and a nighttime curfew imposed for a few days surrounding the vote. Some 70,000 Iraqi police and soldiers are being enlisted to ensure that voting is peaceful. However, the political wrangling that led to the draft was long, and the final version of the constitution was published only recently. Can Iraqis cast an informed vote?

Prague, 10 October 2005 (RFE/RL) -- Baghdad's streets are plastered with posters announcing the country's constitutional referendum. The country's television stations regularly broadcast items explaining the text. And newspapers publish detailed analyses for their readers.

The United Nations was tasked with printing some 5 million copies of the draft to distribute to voters, but many say they have not yet seen the document. They say the draft was adopted too late for everyone to become familiar with it in time for the 15 October vote. Parliament only signed off on final revisions on 18 September.

An Iraqi food ration agent, Salim Abdul Hassan, summed up the frustrations of many in the country when he spoke to Reuters at an office of the Trade Ministry in Baghdad: "We have come [to the ministry] to receive copies of the draft constitution. [The copies] have not been distributed, even though they have been here for five days now. If they are not distributed, people will know nothing about it. There is little time left. The constitution is important to us. It's important to the Iraqi people."

Authorities say the adoption of the constitution will help lead to the establishment of law and order in the country, where a largely Sunni insurgency has been targeting the Kurdish and Shiite-dominated government and U.S.-led coalition forces.

Yahia Said, a researcher at the London School of Economics, returned from Iraq two days ago. He confirmed that many Iraqis appear not to have had a chance yet to read the document.

"I've just come back from Iraq, and I have yet to meet someone who has read the document," Said said. "Most Iraqis [only] know what the different political parties and different groups tend to emphasize. So some people think it's a very divisive constitution. Some people think it's great for human rights. And it all depends on what the media has chosen to emphasize in the constitution and on the political parties."

Forty percent of the Iraqi population is considered literate, so many people rely on the interpretations of others. Even for the educated, it is not an easy document to read and understand. The document's 150 paragraphs are written in a legalistic style that spread over six pages.
"Anecdotal evidence suggests that people are reluctant to collect the printed copies of the constitution from the food shops because of a fear of insurgent retaliation."

Said said that for many, it's a courageous act simply to get hold of the document itself.

"Anecdotal evidence suggests that people are reluctant to collect the printed copies of the constitution from the food shops because of a fear of insurgent retaliation," Said said.

Iraq's Shi'ite, Sunni, and Kurdish communities will support or reject the constitution for different reasons and are hearing different information about the draft from their leaders.

Said said Shi'ites will likely listen to what their religious and political leaders say.

"There are television debates and programs like that that try to address the substance of the constitution. At the same time, there is an attempt -- specifically by the Shi'a political parties -- to try to repeat their success from the last election by casting the vote of 'yes' for the constitution as a religious duty," Said said.

Kurds also appear to be largely in favor of the draft. AFP reports that street banners in northern Kurdish villages proclaim: "A 'yes' vote supports autonomy," and "A 'yes' vote guarantees keeping the peshmerga," in a reference to the local militiamen who would form a future security force for Iraqi Kurdistan.

The attitude of the Sunnis is different.

Sunni fears over the constitution were increased when parliament adopted what were considered discriminative legal measures. But parliament voted on 5 October to reverse the controversial amendments, which would have made it harder for Iraq's Sunni Arabs to defeat the constitution at the polls. The changes had been criticized by the UN and the United States for not meeting international norms.

David Hartwell follows the Middle East for the London-based organization Jane's Information Group. He said that although Sunnis are informed about the draft, they are opposed to it, since they fear federalization and the possible breakup of the country.

"I think it's unlikely that there will be a large turnout in Sunni areas," Hartwell said. "They may have wanted to turn out prior to the sort of Shi'a 'playing around' last week. But they've probably become even more suspicious that the whole process that's been going on is really only designed to ensure that the Shi'a and the Kurds maintain for a long time in the future a dominant say in what happens in the country."

If the measure is rejected by two-thirds of voters in three of Iraq's 18 provinces, a new government must be formed and the constitution process would begin again.

See also:

RFE/RL Special: Iraq Votes