Let the voting begin

Iraq | Despite violence and suffering, Iraqis have reason to be hopeful as they head to the polls. Here's a balloting preview

Issue: "Abortion: Delta force," Jan. 22, 2005

Come Jan. 30 when Iraqi voters go to the polls for the first multiparty election since 1924, the insurgents, terrorists, and other gangsters who have made life miserable in the country's Sunni corridor will have a big problem. If they follow through with threats to disrupt the elections and attack Iraqis at the polls, their strategy will be just another form of self-immolation. By hitting the most likely targets, those within their own strongholds, they will ensure low voter response in the only areas where they stand to gain on Election Day.

Violence in Iraq grabs headlines, but the ground advantage belongs to the pro-election Shiites and Kurds, who control most of Iraq's geography and stand to win the most from successful polling, having been long excluded from power by the Baathist regime of Saddam Hussein.

That is the simple formula behind Iraqi optimism leading into an otherwise complex final week of election campaigning. Iraq's High Commission for Elections has certified 7,200 candidates to run for 275 seats in the National Assembly. The extraordinary tally of contenders hail from 73 single political parties-nearly all formed since liberation-and include 25 independent candidates. To help voters, the names will be assembled into 107 lists, with voters choosing slates rather than individuals (except in the cases of independent candidates) to represent them.

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Once the National Assembly is convened, its members will choose a prime minister to convene a new government before turning to its chief end: drafting a permanent constitution before a scheduled referendum on Oct. 15. Assuming that deadline is met, nationwide elections will be held again before the end of 2005 to install a comprehensive government under the new constitution.

The election commission estimates that 14 million people will vote in Iraq, based on the number who received ration coupons through the UN Oil for Food program, going back to 1996. Additional tens of thousands of new returnees are also expected to vote, and qualify if they can produce an Iraqi passport.

Surprisingly, hundreds of thousands of Iraqi exiles still living outside the country are eligible to vote. The election commission working with the International Organization for Migration will administer "out-of-country voting" Jan. 28-30 in 14 countries: the United States, Canada, Britain, Holland, France, Germany, Denmark, Sweden, Australia, Iran, Turkey, Syria, Jordan, and the United Arab Emirates.

Syria has announced that it will not allow such elections. Iran, which hosts 200,000 Iraqis, most of whom fled after Saddam's invasion of Kuwait and gas attacks on the Kurds, is offering to cooperate. Experts suspect that Tehran's Islamic regime will "encourage" its exile population to vote Shiite-particularly the list favored by Iraq's supreme Shiite leader, Ayatollah Sistani. But overall exile voting is a win-win for the country. Most Iraqis living in the West, including at least 100,000 from its Christian minority, will be inclined to vote for candidates who represent the kind of Western democracies they have grown accustomed to and who support religious and other personal freedoms.

Key candidate lists:

The Iraqi National Alliance

Foremost among the party coalitions, the Iraqi National Alliance represents the Shiite majority-with stamped approval from Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani-but has candidates divided equally with independents. These include Sunnis, Kurdish Shiites, Turkmen, and Yazdis. Its political parties include several extremist Islamic parties, including Iranian-backed Hezbollah, but not the fanatical movement of Muqtada Sadr, the cleric who staged armed campaigns against U.S. forces in central Iraq.

Lead candidates: Ahmad Chalabi, head of the Iraqi National Congress and one-time U.S. ally; and Hussein Shahristani, a former nuclear physicist who was imprisoned for refusing to participate in Saddam's mass weapons program.

The Kurds

By many accounts the second most-likely-to-succeed list after the two key Kurdish parties, the Kurdistan Democratic Party and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, agreed to campaign jointly. The two once met each other in armed conflict in the north but vowed to unite in support of a "federal democratic Iraq"-and also in recognition that only together could they credibly challenge the Shiite majority.

Lead candidates: KDP's Massoud Barzani and PUK's Jalal Talabani.

The Iraqis (al-Iraqiyoon)

The Iraqi list "al-Iraqiyoon" is headed by the interim Prime Minister Ayad Allawi and regarded as the most secular leading slate. The list includes leading Shiites as well as Sunni tribal chiefs and current government officers. Its candidates offer the most defined platform for political, economic, and social change, with emphasis on restoring security ("Certainly, we haven't succeeded," was Mr. Allawi's reply to a reporter's question on how he rated his government's security record). Mr. Allawi has promised to reduce Iraq's dependence on its oil sector and diversify its economy.


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