UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs
IRAQ: Special report on elections
BAGHDAD, 3 January 2005 (IRIN) -
BAGHDAD, 3 Jan 2005 (IRIN) - Elections in Iraq, whether they happen as scheduled on 30 January or not, are sure to be historic.
Interim Prime Minister Iyad Allawi recently reiterated that the elections would be held in January. US President George Bush has also reaffirmed the need for them to take place.
But with the recent killing of three election workers, even Bush is now talking about the relentless violence affecting the vote, something that wasn’t mentioned by officials before.
Regardless, United Nations technical staff are in the country, many of them coming directly from the Afghan election, to help Iraqis get an estimated 9,000 polling stations ready to elect a 275-member assembly.
The assembly is due to write and approve a new constitution. Once the new constitution is approved by voters in a referendum, a vote to elect a new government is expected to be held.
Officials have promised a larger role for women than ever before as a rule written by US-led administrators calls for at least 25 percent of the assembly to be female.
Potential voters on the street complain that all they want is basic infrastructure to work and question if it will be safe to go to the polls. In the north, where things are more calm, voters are to pick an 111-member autonomous assembly on 30 January.
Kurdish parties are also campaigning heavily in other parts of Iraq, looking to pick up more power and influence across the country.
More than 70 political blocs have put together lists, ranging from 15 to 275 candidates, for voters to choose from. Candidates will be chosen proportionally based on how many voters choose their lists.
With all the uncertainty, heading into the campaign season election officials met the estimated 230 parties several times to discuss the rules they had to follow.
"We’re working now with the political parties to make sure they know how to campaign," Abdul Hussain Hendawi, head of the Independent Electoral Commission, told IRIN.
While places like Najaf and Karbala in the south were filled with banners and other election paraphernalia a few weeks ago, the campaign season feels very quiet compared to other places in the Middle East where elections have been held, according to a US official who declined to be named.
Most voters are adamant that the poll should go ahead, no matter how violent it gets. But some wonder if it wouldn’t be better to hold voting over a period of days to create more safety - an idea put forth by Allawi and later retracted.
If fewer people are gathered at polling stations at any one time, they’ll be less of a potential target for suicide bombers, Mustafa Ibrahim, 24, a computer technician, told IRIN.
"If it lasts a week or two, that would be better, because it’s a different situation here every day," Ibrahim said. "If it’s [held on just] one day, insurgents might block the roads or plant a bomb and stop people."
More people will participate if they wait a few days to see how things are going before committing themselves to voting, prospective voter, Adil Mahmoud told IRIN. "If I feel it’s safe for me and my family, I will go," Mahmoud said. "But even if I decide to go, can I let my mum go there? What if she needs to run away?"
The Special Adviser to the UN Secretary-General, Lakhdar Brahimi, said a vote could only take place "if first and foremost security improves". Daily car bombs and mortar attacks around the country have kept residents on edge, along with sporadic electricity that is on for only about four hours per day.
"There should be security for people first, so they should put the election date off. We also need reconciliation between Iraqis first. That will bring security," Mohammed al-Ensari, a Sunni Muslim working on election issues with the Iraqi Independent Electoral Commission, told IRIN.
More than 20 minority Sunni Muslim parties have called for the election to be put on hold, although several registered themselves by the deadline.
At the same time, two main Shi’ite Muslim parties led by Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani have announced a list of 228 candidates after weeks of haggling.
The list also includes some Sunni tribal leaders, some Kurdish members and some Sunni independents.
Members of some groups on the Shi’ite list said their platform would include a call for the withdrawal of US and other foreign troops from Iraq.
"I’m not scared to campaign or to vote, but maybe it’s a good idea to extend voting," Bushra al-Kihani, head of the Iraqi Women’s Union, who is also a candidate, told IRIN. Under voting rules written by US-led administrators, more than 30 percent of the candidates on voter lists must be women.
"People are responding to us and they’re eager to participate, except for some Baathists who had benefits from the former regime," Kihani said.
But extending voting only makes the chance of corruption greater, Andrew Renshaw, a British logistics adviser on Iraqi reconstruction efforts, told IRIN. Voters will have their fingers sprayed with indelible ink visible only under a special light to keep them from voting twice, according to Iraq’s Independent Electoral Commission (IEC).
The ink wears off after a day or two, however. More days of voting also give insurgents more of a chance to figure out how to attack the voters and officials, he said. Not only that, but unless large areas around polling stations are cordoned off, not just the stations themselves, voters will be intimidated, whether the poll lasts a day or a year, Renshaw said.
"There has to be a saturation of soldiers and police all around or else insurgents will drive car bombs at them and mortar them. A huge area around the polls needs to be sanitised so people can go and vote freely and not be intimidated," Renshaw said.
Three days of voting is better than 15 days, Shaffah Majid, told IRIN, as she waited for her friend at a beauty salon. "The longer the voting goes, the more polling stations will be attacked," Majid said.
"We are talking about it in my neighbourhood and worrying about the actual day it happens."
BASIC INFRASTRUCTURE LACKING
Families displaced by fighting, especially from cities such as Fallujah, some 60 km from Baghdad and Mosul in the north, are bitter that they’re not even being considered as the vote goes forward.
"Let Mr Allawi come here and see how we are living, without any running water or heat," Nasser Mehssen, from Fallujah, told IRIN. Mehssen is now living in a tent with his family of eight on a small out-of-the-way plot of land at Baghdad University. "He should help us, not accuse us of being terrorists."
Children play outside the tents in the fading sun as their fathers line up for blankets being distributed by a nearby mosque. A sheikh asked that the exact site not be named for security reasons. Almost 1,000 people were living in the small area now, he said.
"I am not a politician, but we are discussing what we should do here. We live between the Americans and the face of al-Zarqawi," the sheikh told IRIN, declining to be named. The Jordan-based terrorist rumoured to have formerly been holed up in Fallujah is now said to be in Baghdad.
"We can’t go home now, because Americans told us we will be killed or captured if we are between the ages of 15 and 50."
US forces are putting a complicated identification system in place that will scan fingerprints and or the eyes of each person entering or leaving Fallujah. Allawi said some people would return home before Sunday, but none of the families at the university had heard more information.
"We don’t know when it will be safe to return. Of course we’ll vote if we can, but we weren’t told anything," Zainab Jassem, told IRIN. "We know Allawi said something. But we don’t have any TV or radio here, since there is no electricity."
Voter registration is being carried out through Iraq’s food-ration card system in which families receive food monthly from the government. If a family left by November the place where they received their food ration, they didn’t receive registration information being used to create voter rolls.
Violence has kept voter registration on hold in the "triangle of death", a Sunni region of three provinces north and west of capital Baghdad, said US Ambassador to Iraq, John Negroponte.
KEEPING THE PEACE
In addition, an increasing number of people across the country are asking whether civil war is imminent. Ethnic and religious factions are increasingly polarised by fighting and terrorist attacks, some observers say.
"We’re afraid of civil war. I get a headache just thinking about it," Jamal al-Karbuli, secretary-general of the Iraqi Red Crescent, told IRIN.
As many as 90 percent of the Iraqi National Guard forces now working alongside US-led forces in Fallujah are Kurdish people from the north, which is expected to cause tensions between Sunni Muslims and Kurds, al-Karbuli said.
Many Iraqi forces in Fallujah are Kurds, but many others are Shi’ite Muslims and Sunni Muslims, among others, said a Ministry of Defence official on condition of anonymity. "Maybe it should be people chosen from the same area to work as the national guard in an area," al-Karbuli said. "In the Red Crescent, we are all equal - we don’t talk about Shia or Sunni, but there has to be a balance."
If a vote comes off, it could mean that government leaders will face the huge task of getting it accepted by Iraqis across the country. Several Sunni Muslim parties are boycotting the polls and broad swathes of voters have not been able to confirm their registration.
Some Sunni parties, including one led by well-known leader Adnan Pachachi, came into the process at the last minute.
An air of uncertainty now hangs over the country, fuelled by power outages that leave the average Baghdad family with about four hours of electricity per day and petrol shortages that have cut the capital’s horrendous traffic jams.
Most children are still going to school, but insurgents mount daily attacks on police and other Iraqi forces. Suicide car bombs and mortar attacks are so common in the capital, people barely flinch when they hear explosions.
Regardless, election officials continue their work - checking lists to make sure candidates are over 30 years old and a third of candidates on each list are female. They also check to make sure any militia members, ex-Baath party leaders and current army officials are not represented on the party lists.
It’s unclear exactly how big an influence security fears could have on the elections. In southern Iraq, Ayatollah Ali al- Sistani is encouraging people to vote. Sunni Muslims don’t care what their religious leaders want them to do, however, said al-Karbuli.
"There should be security for people first, so they should put the election date off. We also need reconciliation between Iraqis first. That will bring security," Mohammed al-Ensari, a Sunni Muslim working on election issues with the Independent Electoral Commission, told IRIN.
Female candidates are expected to bring a calming influence to the campaign, Hanaa Edward, who will run on the al-Waten (My Country) independent party list, told IRIN. Edward also heads Iraq’s al-Amal aid agency in Baghdad.
"A woman is a life donor as a mother, so she will work with her brain and heart to build a good and safe life for her family and for all Iraqi people," Edward said. "As an Iraqi woman, I think we will be successful in the political life as we are in our usual life."
Other women are nominated as independents, candidates who are running outside of the party list system. In general women are pushing peace, safety and cooperation, several told IRIN. Many are courting the female vote, since women make up an estimated 60 percent of Iraq’s population, following decades of war and the killing of male soldiers.
"I will work hard to win women’s support in the election," Salwa Awadi, a nominated independent candidate, told IRIN. "I trust their wisdom. I’m sure they will choose the best candidates.
Women today are also getting advice and training from the United Nations Development Fund for Women, or UNIFEM. The UN agency is letting women know they are important both as voters and candidates, Bassma al-Kateeb, a UNIFEM spokeswoman, told IRIN.
"It’s important they use their voice in the right way to determine their choices," al-Kateeb said. Almost 100 women were trained in Jordan to work with women inside Iraq, al-Kateeb said.
That training was done with the help of the Minister of State for Women, the Ministry of Labour and Social Affairs and the Ministry of Education, al-Kateeb said.
Officials from the Iraqi Centre for Women’s Rehabilitation and Employment and the Iraq Women’s Network also were involved in the training, al-Kateeb said.
They will spread the word to other women across the country to get involved in the voting process, the director of the women’s rehabilitation and employment agency told IRIN, declining to give her name for security reasons.
"My training courses for women will be about how we run the election campaign, who is nominated, how they can win voters and how to register," the woman said.
Women leaders across Iraq pushed for the 25 percent representation when US officials started organising election rules months ago, several candidates said. Many said they want to change Iraq’s traditional system of male governance.
[This report does not necessarily reflect the views of the United Nations]
ARBIL/SULAYMANIYAH, 5 Jan 2005 (IRIN) - If anybody is to make a success of Iraq’s upcoming elections, set to take place on 30 January, it should be the Kurds, local officials say.
Apart from the devastating double suicide attacks in the northern Iraqi city of Arbil on 1 February 2004, they have been spared the violent fate of southern and central Iraq by a deep distaste for the anti-Coalition insurgency and better security.
Unlike Iraqis living in the centre and the south of the country, neither democracy nor the prospect of life without Saddam Hussein is entirely new to them.
Saved from the Baathist regime in 1991 by Western air power, they celebrated their de facto independence a year later.
Small wonder that Kurdish confidence in the smooth running of local polls has been high. "If we had to, we could have our elections tomorrow," one senior Kurdish official, told IRIN confidently back in September.
As polling day approaches, that confidence has begun to wane a little.
Kurds have no problem with the decision - made by the newly-formed Iraqi Electoral Commission in collaboration with the United Nations - to base voters’ lists on data compiled by the World Food Programme (WFP) for Iraq-wide rations distribution.
They used a similar process in their 1992 elections, after all. What has concerned them are irregularities in the system and time constraints, they say.
The fundamental issue surrounds the verification of information on WFP forms. As elsewhere in Iraq, the idea was for local heads of the electoral commission to hand out voting lists to food stations responsible for distributing rations.
Individuals would be able to check that their personal details and details of their family were correct while picking up their food. In case of error or omission, they were to inform staff at registration centres set up throughout the country.
Generally, the system has worked. But some of those involved in the process complain of a lack of professionalism on the part of staff at the food stations. Others claim some food stations have received voter lists either late or not at all.
"It’s just not good enough seeing that your personal details are wrong on so late on," Hasan Marif Mohamed, manager of the registration centre in Seyyid Sadiq, a town south of Sulaymaniyah, complained to IRIN.
"That gives you just a few days to get people like us to change things," he added, referring to the 15 December deadline for alterations to voting lists.
Kamal Khambar, head of the electoral commission in the governorate of Arbil, estimated that as many as 70,000 people in his area of control may be denied a vote because of such problems.
As in the rest of Iraq, an error somewhere in the preparation process has excluded teenagers born in 1986 from electoral lists. Most 18-year olds IRIN talked to had already visited the registration centre to ensure their first opportunity to vote was not lost.
Following a series of inter-party deals late in November, however, some Kurds are beginning to wonder whether they should bother to vote at all.
Nobody was surprised when the two main Kurdish parties - the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) - agreed to fight elections for Iraq’s new parliament on a single ticket.
A minority with few friends within the country, the Kurds see a united front in Baghdad as their only hope of getting what they want from Iraq’s new constitution.
But the 1 December announcement that the KDP and PUK, plus half a dozen smaller parties, would form a joint list for the Kurdistan regional parliament elections due to take place on the same day was less easy to understand.
"It’s like George Bush and John Kerry running together against Ralph Nader," said Said Mohamed, a student in Sulaymaniyah, capital of the southern, PUK-controlled half of Iraqi Kurdistan. "I hope they win 99 percent of the vote, like that other expert at democratic elections, Saddam Hussein."
They very well may, though an independent list led by Arbil-based philosophy professor Ferhad Pirbal has been accepted to run, local analysts give it little chance of winning widespread support.
Such a result would mean dividing the 111-seat Kurdish parliament along lines already agreed in secret by Kurdish party leaders. The KDP and PUK would take an equal share of 80 percent of the seats. Smaller parties would get the rest.
To outside observers the joint ticket seems a travesty of democracy. Despite growing discontent with the politicians who have ruled them since 1991, the vast majority of Kurds prefer not to see it as such, offering two main reasons for justifying it.
The first is based on fear of their own leaders, who went to war with each other in 1993 and have run two separate, party-controlled administrations ever since.
"The public knows that neither the KDP nor the PUK would accept the other’s election victory," said Stran Abdullah, editor of the Sulaymaniyah-based newspaper Asso. "It supports the deal as a means of delaying a second round of conflict between them."
Though itself undemocratic, he added, the coalition looked set, paradoxically, to improve the quality of Kurdish democracy. It assures the existence of other parties within parliament, and the closed list system devised by the UN strengthens the freedom of individual deputies to oppose their own leaders.
"Under the existing system, party leaders can sack rebellious deputies," Abdullah explained. "They won’t be able to do that any more."
The second justification shows the same Machiavellian pragmatism born of weakness. "The Kurds have to show the Arab world, the US and the Europeans that they are united on the Kurdish issue," Fuat Hussein, a deputy member of the Governing Council that ruled Iraq immediately after the toppling of the Baathist regime, told IRIN in Arbil.
"How can parties in coalition for the national elections possibly fight a Kurdish election as rivals? That’s absurd and self-defeating."
Critical of the coalition, which he sees as a scam by major Kurdish political players to hold on to power, Sulaymaniyah-based journalist Hiwa Osman is nonetheless forced to agree, up to a point.
"If there were elections for three assemblies in Iraq, people throughout the country would vote for new faces," he said, pointing to the 43 percent of respondents to a recent poll in a Kurdish newspaper who said they were thinking of voting for independent candidates.
As it is, questions of security are uppermost, with voters forced to give their support to men with guns who can fight if need be. "These elections are nothing to do with democracy," said Osman. "They’re about fear of domination, and that will consolidate the power of people who are a model of bad governance."
Themes: (IRIN) Conflict, (IRIN) Economy, (IRIN) Education, (IRIN) Gender Issues, (IRIN) Governance, (IRIN) Human Rights
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