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Iraq: Many Challenges To Be Overcome On Road To January Elections

Iraq is planning a first round of elections in January to choose a National Assembly that, among other things, will undertake the writing of the country's first post-Saddam constitution. There are many challenges to be met in the run-up to the poll. One of the biggest is securing restive areas of Iraq sufficiently enough to ensure full nationwide participation. But there are a host of other issues as well, ranging from forming candidate lists to informing voters about the polling process.

Prague, 11 November 2004 (RFE/RL) -- With just over two months to go, many key details about Iraq's upcoming election remain to be agreed, including the date itself.

Vice President Ibrahim al-Jaafari said this month that the country's Election Commission has decided on 27 January. But that date still must be approved by the cabinet, and it is unclear when, or if, that will happen.

The final timing could hinge on the success of the U.S.-led operation now taking place in Al-Fallujah. That is because the government has vowed to establish control over restive areas of central Iraq ahead of the election to assure nationwide participation. Any setback in the operation, or severe public backlash, could force the government to choose between delaying the election or opting for a less-than-complete poll.

Still, general outlines of election procedures are beginning to take shape after a cascade of rulings by the Election Commission in the past few weeks. Among the most important of these is a decision to conduct the election as if the whole country is a single voting district.

Rend Rahim Francke, the Iraqi representative to the United States, described the decision by saying: "Iraq is going to be one single electoral district. This is a recommendation that was made by the United Nations, which the Iraqi government has agreed to and the Election Commission has agreed to. The idea remains to make sure, really, that every vote does count."

Francke said the decision has set off a race among Iraqi political parties, associations, and independent personalities to form coalitions capable of gaining enough votes nationwide to win representation in the National Assembly.

Under election rules, each coalition must draw up a single candidate list, and each voter can cast his or her ballot for only one list.

The sudden race to build election coalitions includes a bid by Iraq's preeminent Shi'a cleric, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, to form a single list of candidates acceptable to Shi'a religious authorities. A spokesman for al-Sistani has called the "Sistani list" open to all Iraqis, including leaders of secular political parties, as long as they agree not to support legislation opposed to Shari'a law.
Under the election rules, a "political entity" can vary in size from a major party to any individual who can muster signatures from at least 500 supporters.

Others groups are said to be working on developing a "consensus list" that includes several of the U.S.-backed parties now in the government.

There are also efforts to build a "democratic list" of parties in and out of government that could appeal to Iraq's educated professionals, and an "independents list" made up of prominent independent figures across the spectrum of Iraqi society.

The interest in list-building is great because any coalition that secures a portion of the total national vote is assured of at least one seat in the National Assembly.

Baha Aldin Abdul Qadir, a member of the election commission of the Iraqi Islamic Party, described the way the assembly's 275 seats will be awarded.

"The system of the elections will be on the basis of proportional representation, which means that every party or every [political] entity that gains some votes will gain seats in proportion to the percent of its votes," Qadir said. "If [the party] gains 20 percent of the votes, it will gain 20 percent multiplied by 275, so it will gain 55 seats in the parliament. So, the parliament will be a mix of several lists."

Qadir said in a visit to RFE/RL in Prague this week that the Election Commission has put no limits on the number of coalitions that can be formed. He also said parties are free to include some of their leaders in one coalition list and some in another to increase their chances of representation.

So far, no one has been able to predict how many different lists could result as Iraq's some 400 registered "political entities" jockey to form alliances. Under the election rules, a "political entity" can vary in size from a major party to any individual who can muster signatures from at least 500 supporters.

Francke said she worries voters could be confronted by an overwhelming number of lists.

"Theoretically, a voter could walk into the booth and be confronted by 250 lists, and a voter can only vote for one list," Francke said. "On the positive side, a voter will have choices. On the down side, what it means is that all these lists are going to have to be formed relatively soon because they are going to have to conduct an information campaign so that on the day the voter goes into the booth, [the voter] should already have decided, or at least eliminated the majority [of the options]."

To simplify things, the Election Commission has decided that each coalition will have to identify its candidate list by a symbol. The hope is that this will make it easier for voters to locate the list they support on a ballot that could run several pages long.

Once coalitions are formed, their biggest challenge will be how to publicize their existence and expand their core support before election day.

Some politicians say that -- given the short time frame and Iraq's security situation -- there is little chance of doing that through traditional campaign techniques, such as television advertisements or national speaking tours. Instead, most candidates may have to hope their existing reputations alone will be enough to attract votes.

Sallama Abdulla, an independent female politician who has joined the "Sistani list," said during a visit to RFE/RL this week that Iraq's big names will dominate the process. She said ordinary Iraqis wanting to get into politics may have to wait for later elections:

"Let's be realistic about this point. It will be only famous names which have been known in their positions, in their governorates, or have been known around Iraq," Abdulla said. "Having a campaign in Iraq at this time, I think, will be very difficult. Only the big parties can do that."

Abdulla and Qadir were part of an Iraqi delegation visiting the Czech Republic this month to observe and learn about election proceedings. The visit was hosted by a Czech nongovernmental organization.

Conditions for voting are considered adequately secure in Kurdish-controlled areas of northern Iraq and in much of the predominantly Shi'a south of the country. But it remains uncertain to what extent voters in the Sunni-dominated center of Iraq will take part, even as some restive areas are now being brought under government control.

One influential Sunni organization that has refused to participate in the Iraqi government -- the Muslim Clerics' Association -- called this week for all Iraqis to boycott the January elections over the current U.S.-led military action in Al-Fallujah.

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