Elections 101, Iraqi-style

Ahead of the Dec. 15 vote, the US takes its voter education drive to Iraq's Sunni Arabs.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

Like proselytizers trying to sell a gospel of democracy to hidebound skeptics, two Iraqi election commissioners sit before a select crowd in the northern city of Mosul, and listen to complaints.

They come swift and unrelenting, mostly from minority Sunni Arabs who have little faith in the process as Iraq prepares to vote in nationwide elections for a third time on Dec. 15.

Polling stations are too few and in the wrong places; people in remote areas have no way to get to ballot boxes; party monitors aren't issued the correct badges; and security fears in the volatile city are exaggerated, they say.

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"There is a problem in the election commission itself - security is only a pretext not to open polling centers," complains one man, jabbing his finger accusingly at the commission. "I don't want to criticize you, but it is too much."

"The first [elections] experience was successful to some degree," says Adil al-Lami, head of the Independent Electoral Commission of Iraq (IECI), in a bid to mollify the anger and uncertainty. "There were some mistakes, there were some negatives," he says. "But to be very idealistic is far away from our daily lives."

In a bid to boost participation by minority Sunnis, disenfranchised by the fall of Saddam Hussein and the most sympathetic to the insurgency, US officials are organizing a string of similar "outreach" meetings.

Here in Mosul they have much to overcome. Two Christians were shot to death Tuesday while putting up election posters. The entire Nineveh Province is ethnically mixed, but Sunni Arabs outnumber Kurds two-to-one.

In keeping with a Sunni boycott earlier this year, only 10 percent of eligible voters cast ballots last January; 60 percent turned out for the October referendum. Now, many Sunnis say they recognize the need to take part, and they expect a far larger turnout Dec. 15.

"The whole point of this is to give the commissioners face-to-face time with their constituents, to hear the concerns and complaints of the people," says an American official with the group who said he could not be further identified. "It's specifically targeted at Sunni Arab areas."

But the one-day effort in Mosul shows the difficulty of even discussing democratic principles in Iraq, under the shadow of insurgency. Iraqi and US officials navigated an expensive, 17-hour tangle of logistics involving three aircraft flights, four helicopter rides, and back-and-forth in an armed convoy to gain just 45 minutes of discussion with local residents.

Most meetings last two hours or longer, and require only a couple airlifts, regular participants say. Commissioners are normally able to answer questions, without having to leave early and abruptly, as they did in Mosul; Americans from US Democratic and Republican Party democracy groups are meant to have time for voter education sessions.

But already, participation sanctioned by Iraq's Sunni leadership has improved the dynamic. "Last January, we could not find one single person to work with the IECI, and were forced to bring 1,500 from outside to work here," says Election Commissioner Safwat Rashid. "When you have the local people working with you ... it makes a big difference."

Still, Mosul residents did not blunt their criticism. Even before the floor was opened to questions, the commissioners promised more polling centers for the upcoming vote, and that those who violated electoral laws would be punished.

The province is slated for 520 polling centers, but insecurity meant that only 94 opened last January; 320 in October.

Residents clearly don't trust the system. One man called for better coordination between the police and military forces, and suggested that "probably strangers [units from outside the province] would be better, to avoid any bias."

"For example, if the police or security forces would not be able to secure a polling station, what will they do, shut it down?" asked another man. "Security is not a reason to not open a polling station, because when you close a station, you deprive people of their voting rights."

"I observed police and guards carry weapons inside the [polling] stations," said one women, among the dozen in the audience of 50 who spoke up. "They shouldn't do that."

"I hope the previous mistakes that were made will not be repeated," says another man. "They refuse to open a polling station, not because they are highly risky areas, but because there was not enough security."

Wearing a bullet-proof vest while waiting for a helicopter, Mr. Lami looked slightly frazzled after the session. "We do many things, and they forget what we do," says Lami. "The next election is too dangerous, because it is for parliament for four years, with more than 300 political entities."

Unlike the referendum, which approved a new Constitution, the December vote "means seats, which means power, which means money," says Lami. After two rounds of voting so far, "people have the knowledge, and we want to build their capacity to advertise the knowledge of democracy: 'I have one vote. This is my future.' "

He expects the current violence to ease as Iraq's political process takes root, "because the appeal of terrorists is less and less," Lami adds, and "people feel more for democracy than terrorism."

Still, complete reliance on US logistics to get places is not ideal. "Believe me, we are not happy that [US forces] protect us and move our things," says Lami. "We are trying to do it by our hand, but we have no choice."

The result: not enough for one resident, from a conservative Sunni political party. "This is the eighth time we are meeting with representatives of the [election] commission," he reminded the commissioners. "We appreciate your help ... but we have many concerns. Promises are easy, but please, we need some action."

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