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.
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.
This, however, is only part - and some would argue the less important part - of the reformist context in which tomorrow's National Assembly election will take place.
The other part consists of the sweeping economic reforms which Hussein began introducing more than a year before the cease-fire. The hallmark of these reforms is the eradication of much of the socialist economic structure set up by the Baath and its revolutionary predecessors, from 1958 to the mid-1970s.
The success of these economic reforms, according to informed Iraqis and outside observers, is tied to the political climate.
To foster entrepreneurial activity in an increasingly privatized economy; to draw private capital into the marketplace and ease stress on a government that carries over $60 billion in foreign debt; to attract skilled Iraqis outside the country to return home, all require a much more open and free political setting than Iraq has had in the past 20 years.
This argument - that gestures of political liberalization are really incidental to economic reforms - is but one obstacle to the Iraqi government's efforts to depict the National Assembly elections as a first step toward ``democratization'' of the country.
An added impediment is the fact that the election, while postponed, is still taking place before any of the major political reforms charted by the regime have taken place.
In particular, there is no evidence that any new parties organized to participate in the election despite the announcement five months ago that multiple parties would be allowed.
In this light, it is inevitable that the response to the National Assembly election will be guarded, if not skeptical. It is more likely to be viewed as part of the unexciting series of assembly elections begun in 1980, rather than proof that Iraqi politics are being permanently democratized.
At the same time, the wider trend of potential political reform in Iraq bears close observation. At the very least, it affirms that the government is taking into some account the postwar political aspirations of the Iraqi people. At most, it suggests the possibility of an eventual shift to a parliamentary political system, and an end of Baath Party domination.
There is the added pressure of regional precedent. A democratization ethic of sorts is abroad in the Arab world. It is perhaps best exemplified in Egypt and Tunisia, where political and press freedoms are helping to contain, if not yet solve, serious social and economic pressures.
For Iraq, however, the relevant example may be Algeria, where explosive riots broke out just six months ago.
As a result, that rigid, one-party state was forced to embark on a large-scale program of political and economic reform, similar in scope and content to the one now being discussed in Baghdad. IRAQ AT A GLANCE Leader: Saddam Hussein has been president since July 16, 1979. Population: 17 million (est.). Religion: 96 percent Muslim. Official languages: Arabic, Kurdish. Area: 170,000 square miles, about the size of California. Neighbors: Iran, Turkey, Syria, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, and Kuwait. Memberships: Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries, Arab League. Political status: Independent since 1932. Government: A constitutional government replaced the monarchy overthrown in a 1958 military coup.