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Iraq: Ambitious Election Process Moves Ahead

United Nations officials have launched the crucial process of selecting Iraq's election commission. The seven-member body will be responsible for preparing the country for three separate elections to be held by the end of January 2005. The UN expert directing the process says if security conditions in Iraq do not improve, the UN will advise against elections. But she noted eagerness on the part of Iraqis to move ahead toward elections and seize the chance to decide their own destiny.

United Nations, 4 May 2004 (RFE/RL) -- At a time of preoccupation over security conditions in Iraq and uncertainty over political transition, a few positive signals have emerged about preparations for January's elections.

The director of the UN's electoral-assistance division, Carina Perelli, told reporters yesterday that her team is ahead of schedule in preparing for national, regional, and provincial elections eight months away.

The process for choosing Iraq's independent election commission has begun. A team of international experts will choose the seven-member commission by the end of May. The nationwide organization of elections will then get under way.

But Perelli acknowledged enormous challenges lie ahead. Chief among them, she said, is providing a secure environment for candidates and voters.

"Obviously, if the security situation does not improve, one of the things that is clear is that the UN will not participate in making those elections. Neither would we advise any nascent institution to go into elections that will not really represent the will of the people," Perelli said.

"Let's not expect to have instant political parties, fantastic democratic leaders, and a firm belief in the power of liberal representation [during] a transition." -- Carina Perelli, director of the UN's electoral-assistance division
The U.S.-led military coalition in the country will remain in charge of security after the 1 July transfer of power to an Iraqi caretaker government. The coalition has faced a surge in attacks in the past month, primarily in the so-called Sunni Triangle and the Shi'a Muslim city of Al-Najaf.

The impact of security problems on transitional elections can also be seen in Afghanistan, where officials recently postponed nationwide polls from June to September.

And like Afghans, Iraqis are emerging from war and dictatorship, trying to implement the institutions of democracy in a short timeframe.

During her team's recent three-week visit to Iraq, Perelli said there was a sense of "now or never" among some groups struggling for control ahead of elections.

A number of Iraqi groups, she said, tended to wrongly assume that the size of an ethnic or religious population would translate directly into proportional legislative representation.

She said many Iraqis involved in the election process “believe that, basically, people only vote based on identity politics, which is a proven mistake in all the transition elections I have participated in.”

In selecting the election commission, the United Nations has instructed that candidates should be nonpartisan and sign a statement that they will not be politically active or join a political party while they serve as commissioners.

The election commission, joined by a nonvoting international expert, will be an oversight and policy-making body with the power to adjudicate disputes. Once it is formed, the commission is to set up offices in all 18 provinces and make sure they are served by professional staff.

Perelli said Iraqis have so far shown little support for the concept of political parties, after being traumatized by decades of Ba'ath Party rule. But she said it is crucial that citizens learn the value of representative politics through the exercise of multiparty elections.

"Let's not expect to have instant political parties, fantastic democratic leaders, and a firm belief in the power of liberal representation [during] a transition. Those are part of the things you build up block by block as you go along in the process," Perelli said.

In her consultations so far, Perelli said she has been struck by the eagerness of Iraqis to engage in the electoral process. In the end, she said, it is their political will that will determine the success of elections.

"Basically, what I have seen is a very strong desire and commitment to have their voices heard for the first time and to have them heard very loudly," Perelli said.

Iraq's transitional administrative law calls for simultaneous elections on 31 January 2005 for a 275-seat National Assembly, Kurdistan regional elections and provincial elections.

Still to be decided, Perelli said, is the plan for choosing the head of the executive branch of government.

Iraqis can submit nominations to the election commission through 15 May at the following CPA governing sites: Irbil, Al-Hillah, Baghdad, Al-Basrah, Dahuk, Ba'qubah, Al-Aamarah, Samawah, Mosul, Tikrit, Al-Sulaymaniyah, Kirkuk, and Al-Nasariyah.

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