Iraqis Vote as Political Climate Eases. ANALYSIS. War's end brings freer politics, but no new parties are competing in tomorrow's election
FOLLOWING their counterparts in the Soviet Union, Iraqi citizens are going to the polls this week. While there is no sign of an Iraqi Boris Yeltsin, Baghdad is still anxious to show that glasnost-on-the-Tigris can generate some political breakthroughs of its own.Skip to next paragraph
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Tomorrow Iraqis will elect their third National Assembly. More than 960 candidates, including 62 women, are reportedly vying for 253 seats. These figures reflect increases since the last election, held in 1984: a 20 percent increase in candidates overall, a 30 percent increase in the number of women running, and the addition of three new seats in the assembly.
According to the four-year schedule established by the previous National Assembly elections in 1980 and 1984, this week's vote should have occurred last October. Everything changed, however, after last August's cease-fire in the Iran-Iraq war. It confronted Iraqi President Saddam Hussein and his ruling Baath Party with the challenge of shifting the difficult-to-govern population of Kurds, Shiite Muslims, and Sunni Muslims back to a peacetime footing.
Iraq, like the Soviet Union, has a long history of political rigidity and suppression. In nearly 70 years of existence, the Iraqi state has given its people very little freedom. Moreover, it is widely recognized that the Baath Party, which has governed Iraq since 1968, has surpassed its predecessors in effective and brutal elimination of political challengers.
The harshness of political conditions in Iraq led some observers to speculate that the narrowly based Iraqi regime would collapse under pressure from Iran. Other analysts sensed that President Hussein had sufficient political support among the Iraqi people to survive the war. Nevertheless, they argued that the political atmosphere would have to be relaxed once the conflict ceased, if the government hoped to claim any meaningful support within the postwar society.
Accordingly, since the end of hostilities, Mr. Hussein and the ruling Revolutionary Command Council (RCC) have gone to great lengths to create the impression that a new era has dawned for Iraq, one that extends to the arena of national politics. The first major step came last November, when Hussein pardoned political prisoners at home and political refugees abroad, and opened the way for the establishment of new political parties to break the monopoly held by the Baathists.
In January, Hussein announced that a committee had been set up to prepare a new constitution to replace the provisional Constitution of 1970.
The new document, he stated, would stimulate political life in Iraq and ``consolidate the revolutionary, democratic experiment'' the Baath had begun 20 years earlier. It would also reportedly be submitted to a popular referendum.
Since January, two more commissions have been set up to study the establishment of the multiparty system in Iraq and the expansion of press freedoms. All three bodies are required to complete work by the end of this year.
In addition, it was announced in Baghdad that as part of the constitutional reforms, consideration was being given to holding presidential elections by public ballot, and apparently taking this task out of the hands of the RCC.