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Iraq: Early Voting Gets Under Way

An Iraqi nurse casts her vote, 12 December 2005 (epa) For three groups of Iraqis -- prisoners, hospital patients, and military servicemen -- voting in Iraq’s parliamentary elections got under way on 12 December. For Iraqis living outside the country, polling stations in Iran, Jordan, Australia, Lebanon, Syria, Turkey, and the United Arab Emirates opened on 13 December. Reports suggest that, so far, voting has proceeded smoothly. In all, Iraqi expatriates in 15 countries will be able to vote.

Iraqis living inside Iraq will cast their ballots on 15 December amid very tight security.

The Iraqi government, which has assumed responsibility for security during the election, decreed a five-day national holiday starting on 13 December, and has closed borders and airports, extended curfews, and banned internal travel between governorates. A no-drive curfew will also be in place on election day, and 13,000 concrete barriers have been erected at the main entry points into the capital, Baghdad. The government also announced that 16 security men will be assigned to each polling center, and -- as in January’s election of an interim assembly -- multinational forces will back up Iraqi security forces in areas around polling centers.

While it is difficult to predict the outcome of the election, two things are clear: Iraqis have a tendency either to follow the advice of the religious clergy or to vote with the party line.

While it is difficult to predict the outcome of the election, two things are clear: Iraqis have a tendency either to follow the advice of the religious clergy or to vote with the party line.

If these extensive security efforts work, election day might just prove to be the most peaceful of the campaign. The past month has been marked by violence, with numerous attacks launched and a number of assassinations of political candidates and campaign workers, some of which have been blamed on rival parties and some on the security forces themselves (see "RFE/RL Iraq Report," 9 December 2005). The latest victim was a Sunni candidate, Mizhar al-Dulaymi. He was gunned down on 13 December in Al-Ramadi, the capital of the volatile Al-Anbar Governorate.

Al-Dulaymi had headed an electoral list in the governorate, and was an outspoken supporter of the "honorable resistance," defined by him as groups that only target those members of the Iraqi security forces that support multinational forces in Iraq. Speaking on Al-Arabiyah television, he had argued that this policy distinguished these groups from terrorist groups affiliated with the international terrorist network Al-Qaeda.

The Role Of Clerics In The Election

Contrary to the position they took in January parliamentary elections, Iraq's senior ayatollahs have shied away from lending their support to any particular list, calling instead on Iraqis to vote to candidates they feel are the most qualified to serve them. That advice has been interpreted variously, with some seeing it as giving voters the green light to vote for the candidate of their choice, while others contend it implies voters should choose the best candidates in the eyes of the clergy.

Whom the clergy themselves will vote for is not clear. Some Shi'ite clerics have openly encouraged their followers to support the United Iraqi Alliance, a religious force and the most powerful group in the outgoing parliament. However, other Shi'ite clergy, including Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani -- who backed the Shi'ite-led United Iraqi Alliance in January -- have reportedly grown frustrated with the transitional government's failure to produce real change on the ground this year: the insurgency remains strong, unemployment is widespread, living conditions are poor, and even basic services are lacking.

Al-Sistani's representative in Karbala, Abd al-Mahdi al-Karbala'i, criticized the al-Ja'fari government in his Friday sermon on 10 December, saying it has failed to meet Iraqis’ basic needs (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 12 December 2005). Unless the situation changes, the governing parties could lose the support of the people, he warned.

In a statement released on 11 December, al-Sistani effectively called on voters to vote with their conscience (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 12 December 2005). Another of Iraq’s leading Shi’ite clerics, Ayatollah Muhammad Taqiy al-Mudarrisi, called on Iraqis to vote for the most loyal and credible candidates in a statement issued on 13 December.

The lists representing the minority Sunni Arabs comprise both secular and religious candidates, and most claim at least some support from local clerics in the governorates in which they are competing. Other Sunni clerics have stopped short of endorsing a particular party, but insist that their followers perform their "religious duty" by voting on election day.

An exception is the influential Muslim Scholars Association, which has called for a boycott of the election. However, in an 11 December interview, its leader, Harith al-Dari, told Al-Arabiyah television that the association had not "issued any fatwa [religious edict] banning participation in the election." Sunni Arabs are free to vote, he said, just as they are free to boycott the election,

In this instance, the association seems unlikely to influence many voters. All the indications are that Sunni Arabs will come to the polls in large numbers, and Sunni voter turnout is expected to be higher than it was in the 15 October referendum on the draft constitution.

Media Coverage Of The Election

While it is difficult to predict the outcome of the election, two things are clear: Iraqis have a tendency either to follow the advice of the religious clergy or to vote with the party line. The outcome is most predictable when those two points converge, as they did in the January election, when Sunni Arabs heeded the advice of their clergy and stayed away from the polls, while the majority of Shi'ite Arabs voted for the al-Sistani-backed United Iraqi Alliance.

In this election, there is ambiguity about the positions of both the Shi'ite and Sunni clergy, and voting with the party line has become complicated for the Shi'a, as splits within the Shi'ite-led United Iraqi Alliance have led to the defection of a number of candidates, who subsequently formed smaller political parties.

This has created a cut-throat atmosphere on the campaign trail, an atmosphere that has been reflected on the pages of Iraqi dailies and in the tone adopted by many broadcasters. Many media outlets are tied to particular political parties, and their support for these parties’ agendas has come through clearly in the news reports, commentaries, and advertisements carried in their broadcasts and on their pages. In recent days, campaign advertisements have assumed even greater prominence, particularly on television.

Independent newspapers have provided the broadest coverage and smaller parties have largely had to rely on them to gain some visibility during the campaign.

Though the coverage by most television channels has reflected specific loyalties, some channels have attempted to produce meaningful debates, staging roundtable discussions and interviews focusing on the main campaign issues. And, whatever the biases on show, there is undoubtedly no shortage of viewpoints to be found on the pages of Iraq's 200 newspapers, 70-plus radio stations, and some 45 television channels.

There are also some political efforts to reach out across Iraq’s major communities. Secular Shi'ite lists offer an alternative to Shi'a who do not necessarily support the establishment of an Islamic state in Iraq. Both the largest Shi'ite groupings -- Iyad Allawi's Iraqi National List and Ahmad Chalabi's National Congress Coalition -- boast Sunni Arab candidates, with platforms based on national unity.

Iraq’s Kurdish voters are expected to overwhelmingly support the Kurdistan Coalition List, headed by the region's two largest Kurdish parties, the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), despite criticism of the parties' performance in government and growing allegations of corruption and cronyism.

Indeed, there appears to be growing apathy among the Kurdish electorate, particularly among the younger generation of voters, who see few alternatives to the entrenched KDP and PUK.

In the October referendum, voter turnout in the Kurdish region appeared high, at over 95 percent. Even so, both parties have gone to great lengths to stress the importance of the vote to their constituents, saying it is the patriotic duty of every eligible Kurd to vote.

Certainly, the next government will have the power to decide on two issues of critical importance to most Kurds, an amendment of the draft constitution and the status of the hotly contested Kirkuk Governorate, which Kurds would like to see incorporated into their autonomous region.

Iraqi Legislative Elections 2005

Iraqi Legislative Elections 2005

RFE/RL's coverage, background, and analysis of Iraq's December 15, 2005, legislative elections.

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