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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.

January 28, 2005

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.

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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.

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.