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Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD)

26/01/2005

Press Briefing


Press Briefing ON ELECTORAL ASSISTANCE ON IRAQ

 


With Iraq's first free elections in nearly half a century just days away, the head of the United Nations Political Affairs office denounced the ongoing threats of violence and intimidation targeting voters and election workers as unjustifiable and "just plain wrong", and encouraged all Iraqis to exercise their democratic rights so that political transition could finally begin in their war-torn country.


Amid last-ditch attempts to disrupt the vote, Iraqis will head to the polls Sunday to choose a 275-seat national assembly and assemblies in 18 provinces.  Under-Secretary-General Kieran Prendergast told correspondents in New York today that it was a "statement of the obvious" to say that conditions were far from ideal:  security was a problem, and some Iraqis did not feel they were ready to vote.


Still other Iraqis felt excluded, were critical of the electoral system that had been chosen, or were suspicious of the impartiality of the Independent Electoral Commission for Iraq (IECI), which the United Nations had helped assemble.  With Iraq emerging from an extremely traumatic period in his history, "I don't think that any of this should be seen as surprising", he said.  But nothing justified intimidating or murdering voters, electoral workers or candidates.


"That is plain wrong and cannot be justified under any circumstances", he said, declaring:  "Elections are going to take place in Iraq on 30 January -- that's a fact."  The United Nations role in the overall process had been technical and advisory.  "From a technical point of view, everything has been done and everything is in place", Mr. Prendergast said, stressing that, however imperfect, elections were the right instrument to begin the process of democratic political transition in Iraq.


He stressed that the elections should not be seen as a "be all and end all event".  Rather, 30 January should be seen as an "important staging post from which an evolving political transition would be launched".  He recalled that the Secretary-General had long taken the view that inclusiveness was the key to a successful transition, and fortunately, there would be other opportunities in 2005 to achieve greater inclusion, starting with the constitutional process, set to begin once the ballot had been held.  That would be followed by a referendum in October, and a second general election next December, provided the referendum accepted the constitution.


"We strongly hope that this election, which should be seen as part of a broader and longer process of political transition, will help to stabilize Iraq in the interest of the Iraqi people.  And we encourage all Iraqis to exercise their democratic rights", said Mr. Prendergast.


Joining Mr. Prendergast today was Carina Perelli, head of the United Nations Electoral Assistance Division.  She briefed correspondents on the complex technical aspects of electoral process.  While the actual date of the elections was 30 January, out-of-country voting would begin on 28 January, guided by the International Organization of Migration (IOM).


She said that 223 political entities and 34 coalitions were taking part in the elections, some 18,900 candidates made up the lists, of which 7,785 were running for the 275 seats in the National Assembly, and 463 were contesting the 111 seats of the Kurdistan National Assembly.


Thus far, there were some 55,000 monitors and observers on the ground and more last-minute registrations were expected, she said, which could mean that, by Sunday, more than one party agent and one national monitor could be assigned to each polling centre or even at polling stations.  "For us, this is important because it shows that beyond the difference of the different political entities that have entered the fray, Iraqi civil society has responded to the challenge and was participating in high numbers, considering the risks", she added.


Overall, the preparations were "on target as expected".  "Of course, the election will face problems -- as any first-time election does -- add to that the threat of violence", she said.  But, nevertheless, the Independent Electoral Commission of Iraq had estimated that there would be 5,300 polling centres -- including 52 planned for Al Anbar -- that would host nearly 29,000 polling stations that could handle almost 500 voters each.


The Commission had also made plans to accommodate voters in conflict areas.  In Nineveh and Al-Anbar, where violence had disrupted the registration process, voters would be able to register on the day of the ballot, and would be allowed to cast their votes wherever they felt safe, either in those provinces or in Baghdad where they might feel less threatened.


Asked when the voting results would be announced, Ms. Perelli laid out the complicated vote counting process, which allowed for challenges at several stages.  She stressed that the Commission would also have to allow for the 19-hour time difference for results to come in from over 14 countries.  So, while preliminary results could be made available rather quickly, there might be a lag in finalizing the numbers.  In an ideal world, preliminary results -- or trends -- would be out in one or two days.  She added that the Commission had not yet decided whether it would announce partial or preliminary results.


To a series of questions about whether the ballot would be declared "free and fair" and whether the United Nations would be asked to do it, Mr. Prendergast said that the Iraqi people would be the ones who would determine whether the ballot was legitimate and credible, and they would have the opportunity to do so.  He would not prejudge the outcome because the process was not yet complete.  "Let's see what's going to happen.  I'm not saying we're going to be silent, I'm saying we're going to wait until the election is finished."


Asked to put the extremely fluid conditions under which this election would be held in perspective, Ms. Perelli said that every election was unique.  As for the violence and intimidation that had haunted the process in Iraq, she said that, sadly, an "election under bullets" was nothing new in her experience -- in Timor-Leste, the vote could have been described as an "election under the machete".  Moreover, this was not the first time that she had worked an election where the pollsters had been targeted.


The massive amount of media coverage added to the difficulties in Iraq, she said, noting that this was her first experience where an election had been discussed in no less than four electoral campaigns around the world.  "But nothing replaces the will of the people", she said, noting that Iraqis would have to face the added difficulty of having to confront their fears, as well as their hopes, and whether they would risk their lives to go and vote.


One correspondent said that, while the polling places were supposed to be kept secret, there had been reports in the press that primary schools were being targeted.  Ms. Perelli responded that, in most elections, public buildings, including schools, were often used.  The reason the plan for polling stations in Iraq had been kept under wraps was because the right buildings had to be identified, and then security assessments had to be made of the actual sites before they could be deemed "firm" locations.


That process was under way, and the Independent Electoral Commission of Iraq was working with the various security forces in order to minimize the risks to voters and for polling staff.  The sites would not remain secret very much longer, she said.  The Commission also had plans to announce the names of candidates, but at the last minute, so that "we don't find any nasty surprises when the polling stations open".  Once they had been cleared by security, the locations would be announced, she said.


She also said the safety and participation of women voters, as well as women candidates and electoral workers was a real concern.  The various entities had been charged with protecting their own candidates.  She added that, since key issues that affected women's status and lives would be decided by the election, it had been her feeling that women were perhaps more keen to participate in the process than men.


Wrapping up the briefing, Mr. Prendergast said that, while the elections were important for the United Nations, they were also important for the wider international community, particularly neighbouring countries, where Iraq's stability had major implications.  "Everyone wants to make the elections a success", he said, adding that, whatever happened over the weekend, he did not see process being abandoned midway.


Although conditions had been far from perfect, he was satisfied that the United Nations had acted with integrity and impartiality throughout the process.  Asked about participation and inclusiveness, he said:  "We are where we are and we all know how we've arrived at this point".  The United Nations would continue to urge broad inclusiveness, he said, reiterating that elections were the right way to start the political transition in Iraq.


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