How Iraq's election will work

Iraqis are preparing to vote in their first-ever free election on Sunday. The transitional government they choose will craft the country's new constitution. Dan Murphy, of the Monitor's Baghdad bureau, answers key questions about the process.

Who devised Iraq's election system?

The United Nations did most of the work on Iraq's electoral procedures, and the election is being supervised by the Independent Electoral Commission, an Iraqi group assisted by a United Nations official.

Who is eligible to vote?

All Iraqis 18 years or older are eligible, provided they can prove their citizenship. Iraq has no official census, so voters were registered through ration cards used for the UN oil-for-food program, which began in 1996. Iraqis whose ration-card information was correct were considered registered.

Iraq has a population of more than 25 million people, but 40 percent of them are under the age of 14 (in the United States, 20 percent of the population is 14 or younger). This young population leaves just 15.5 million Iraqis eligible - and 1.2 million of them live outside the country.

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Overseas voting is being coordinated and supervised by the International Organization for Migration. Only 250,000 of the 1.2 million eligible expatriates have registered to vote, meaning their maximum turnout will be just 21 percent.

What will this election determine?

The national election will establish a 275-member transitional national assembly that will select a cabinet, a prime minister, and a president. The national assembly will work much like a parliamentary system, though its principal job will be to write a constitution and have it ratified by Iraqis before the end of 2005. If it fails to do this, it can extend the process for another six months. If a constitution is not ratified by then, its mandate will expire, and fresh elections will be held for a new assembly that will start the process again.

How will voters select the government?

When Iraqis vote Jan. 30, they won't choose a specific name from a list of candidates. Nor will they select a political party, in the traditional sense. Instead, voters will choose one of the 111 "lists" that have been certified by the Independent Electoral Commission.

The most popular of these lists are not parties per se, but loose coalitions of multiple political parties and interest groups. They may contain as few as two names or as many as 275. To choose a list, voters will step behind a curtain, check a box on a single ballot with the name, number, and identifying logos of the 111 lists, and then drop the ballot into a plastic box. A lottery determined the order in which lists appear.

Because insurgent violence has made campaigning so difficult, and since there are so many similar list names, voters have been told to remember their preferred list's number. The Sistani-sponsored list, for instance, is No. 169.

There are no voting districts - just a single country-wide election. This controversial plan was chosen because it's easier to organize than drawing up electoral districts based on Iraq's cultures and ethnicities. However, there will be a separate ballot for provincial councils in Iraq's 18 political regions, called governorates. In Iraq's Kurdish region, there will be a third ballot for the Kurdish National Parliament.

How will seats be assigned?

Seats in the national assembly are distributed according to the proportion of votes each list receives. For example, if list "X" gets 32 percent of the vote, then that list is entitled to 32 percent of the assembly's 275 seats, which is 88 seats. To fill those seats, list "X" would put forward the first 88 names on its list. (Candidates vied intensely for high placement on lists during registration.) The UN mandated that every third name on lists is a woman to ensure that there would be female legislators.

What turnout is expected?

US officials say they will consider turnout of more than 50 percent a success. A poll by the International Republican Institute from early January projected that 65 percent of Iraqis were likely to vote, though diplomats say violence since then could push those numbers down. In transitional elections not beset by war, turnout typically tops 70 percent.

As of this writing, full details of the election had not been released. Most Iraqis are just now being told where they will vote. Most of the secrecy is an attempt to guard against insurgent attacks.

Why do insurgents oppose the election?

Iraq's insurgency is diverse and decentralized. US and Iraqi intelligence officials say fighters include foreign jihadis drawn by the chance to strike at America and the hope that they can establish a religious state in Iraq; local Iraqis who share the foreign fighters' ideology; members of the old military and the Baath Party who hope to win their way back to power; and nationalist Iraqis who simply want to strike out at the occupation, or avenge family members killed or arrested during the war. What they have in common is that almost all of them are Sunni Arabs, and feel threatened by the looming ascendancy of Iraq's majority Shiites. Virtually all of them feel the election will further cement this trend.

Will voters and candidates be safe?

Security is very high for the election. There are major restrictions on movements around election day. Starting Friday, travel between Iraq's provinces will be allowed only by special permits, and most civilian travel will be barred on Jan. 30 to prevent car bombs. Layers of security will surround polling places, manned by about 100,000 Iraqi police and 60,000 Iraqi National Guardsmen. Behind them will be the 150,000 US troops and 10,000 British soldiers. How successful this approach will be remains an open question. Insurgent leaders have vowed attacks on voters both during and after the election.

Why do Shiites and Sunnis differ on the election?

The principal difference between Islam's two major sects stems from a dispute over the correct succession to the prophet Muhammad nearly 1,400 years ago. Over time, differences have evolved into cultural issues, rather than disagreements about basic tenets of the faith.

Almost all modern Shiites follow closely the advice of a chosen religious scholar. Sunni religious authority tends to be more fragmented, with a greater emphasis placed on individual understanding of the Koran. Some Sunnis see the Shiite practice of celebrating Imams' birthdays and praying at their shrines as inappropriate.

Put simply, Shiite Arabs are the big winners in the new Iraq and Sunni Arabs the big losers. For most of the history of Iraq, from the Ottoman Empire until the fall of Saddam Hussein, Sunni Arabs have made up the country's administrative and governing elite. The Arab Shiites have been second-class citizens, and periodically rose up against the Hussein government only to be crushed by regime forces. Sunnis feel they're losing place and power through the election, while Shiites see it as a chance finally to take their position as Iraq's most powerful faction.

Which lists are expected to do well?

Three lists - the United Iraqi Alliance, the Iraqi list, and the Kurdish Alliance - are expected to draw 50 percent or more of the vote. (See story.) Because of Iraq's demographics, the election system may well yield a national assembly that exaggerates the power of the country's majority Shiites, and, to a lesser extent, the Kurds in the north.

The five most violent Iraqi provinces are home to most of Iraq's Sunni Arabs, who make up about 20 percent of the country. While polling shows that nearly 80 percent of the Shiites, who make up about 60 percent of the population, and around 70 percent of the Kurds, who make up about 15 percent of the country, say they are "very likely" to vote; only about 20 percent of Sunni Arabs say the same.

In practice, this will probably lead to a legislature in which both Shiite Arabs and Kurds take seats in proportion beyond their national numbers In the short term, this will enhance Sunni fears about their place in the emerging society. Since the insurgency is led mostly by Sunni Arabs, this could lead to more violence.

Generally, Iraq's elections are not turning on party platforms, but on sectarian and ethnic interests.

But it is unlikely that any of these lists will present a cohesive front once their members are in parliament, since they don't have detailed and shared platforms. A possible exception is the Kurds, who are united by their desire for autonomy from the rest of Iraq and eventual independence.

Who will monitor the election?

About 7,000 representatives of Iraqi political parties and nongovernmental organizations have registered to observe voting, and each list has the right to have members present while votes are counted, which is the responsibility of the Independent Electoral Commission. Most foreign observers have decided to watch the election from Amman, Jordan.

When will results be known?

Iraqi officials of the Independent Election Commission say they hope all the paper ballots will be counted within 10 days of the election, and say some provisional results could be released after seven days.

What happens after the votes are counted?

Election results could be confirmed by mid-February. If so, the new assembly could sit by the end of that month. Its first order of business will be to form a government and select a president and two vice presidents. This three-member council will then appoint a prime minister, who will appoint the members of his cabinet.

Then the assembly will begin work on a constitution. The current timetable is for a draft constitution to be finished by Aug. 15, and be submitted for a referendum by Oct. 15. If the constitution is passed, new elections for a more permanent government will be held on Dec. 31.

How do regional nations see the election?

How Iraq's neighbors see the elections is largely related to where they sit. Iran is comfortable with the prospect of a Shiite majority taking power in Iraq and replacing the Baathist regime, with which it fought a ruinous war for much of the 1980s. While most of Iraq's emerging Shiite leaders appear to disagree with Iranian-style Shiite clerical rule, many lived in exile in Iran and have close ties to the country. In Sunni- dominated Jordan and Saudi Arabia, there is some apprehension about the elections and how they will reshape the region's sectarian power balance. Saudi Arabia, which has a large Shiite minority of its own, is particularly concerned about this.

How will results affect the US presence in Iraq?

Election results will have less impact on how long US troops stay in Iraq than two other factors: the staying power of the insurgency, and American public opinion. Few analysts expect the election will do much to stem the insurgency in the short term, and with rising American frustration over the situation in Iraq, it is unclear how long the US will sustain its current level of military commitment. US military planners say they expect to have at least 120,000 troops in the country for the next two years.

Iraqi election statistics

• Iraq will have about 5,200 polling centers throughout Iraq's 18 governorates. Most Iraqis are just now being told where they will vote. More than 140,000 volunteers will work at these polling places.

• 100,000 police will guard polling places, backed up by about 60,000 Iraqi National Guards and American troops.

• Number of candidates competing for seats on the 275-member national assembly: 7,700.

• The vote will cost more than $150 million; the US, Japan, and the European Union have pledged nearly $120 million.

• 1.2 million of Iraq's 15.5 million eligible voters live abroad.

Source: Independent Electoral Commission, AP, and the US State Department.

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