Secret ballots are the cornerstone of any democratic process. But little more than two weeks before Iraq's first free elections on Jan. 30, the country is finding that secrecy is being taken to new heights.
The identities of many of the candidates haven't been publicly disclosed and are likely to remain secret until after election day, an illustration of the difficulty in mounting an election amid war.
"Not having the candidates' names known is far from ideal for an election, but I think we can all understand the fears over their safety,'' says a foreign election adviser. "Security is a very big issue for all candidates."
Instead of voting for individual candidates in the election to fill the transitional national assembly, Iraqis will select from a list of 111 political parties, each with its own lengthy slate of candidates that can include between 12 and 275 names.
Seats will be allocated to party lists as a proportion of the total national vote, so if all Iraq's estimated 16 million voters part- icipate, a list will get one parliamentary seat for every 58,000 votes it receives. At least 25 percent of the candidates on each list must be women, though there are only a handful of politically prominent women in the country.
Candidates' identities are not the only remaining secret in the election. To help prevent them from being attacked, the location of polling places will not be released until about a week before the election. Party platforms also seem to be kept secret. Campaigning has also been limited, with almost no mass campaign events or rallies. A recent survey indicates that most Iraqi voters are unaware of the party lists' political platforms.
Leaders of the United Iraqi Alliance, the superlist of Shiite political groups that is expected to take the most seats in the new parliament, say they probably won't announce their full slate of candidates until after the election. Many other party lists are following suit.
"Of course, security for our candidates is a big concern,'' says Saad Jawad Qindeel, head of the political bureau for the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI), a member of the alliance and one of the country's most popular Shiite groups. "Participating in Iraqi politics is dangerous - the terrorists have made that clear," he says.
The United Iraqi Alliance, which is running a 228-member slate, has released the names of 34 of its most prominent candidates, about one-sixth of the list. The list was drawn up under the sponsorship of Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, Iraq's most revered Shiite religious figure, and many Iraqis are expected to vote for the list under the assumption that he supports it, though he hasn't given it an explicit endorsement.
"Ayatollah Sistani has said he welcomes the list and if you ask me, that's an endorsement,'' says Mr. Qindeel. "For many Iraqis, it will be enough to know it's Sistani's list. They won't feel the need to know all the names."
Farid Ayar, a member of Iraq's Independent Election Commission, says he's urging Iraq's political parties to disclose all of their candidates' names. "We ask the parties continuously to do this because most voters want to know who the candidates are. But it's not something that's required."
Other matters that are still being worked out are the precise number and location of polling places, security arrangements to protect voters against possible insurgent attacks, and provisions to make it easier for Iraqis to reach the polls in largely Sunni areas of the country, where violence has been highest and voter turnout is expected to be low. Mr. Ayar says there will be between 5,500 and 6,000 polling places across the country, many in schools and government buildings. Polling stations will have an average of five booths. Ayar hopes the locations will be announced to the public around Jan. 22.
On Tuesday, appointed interim Prime Minister Iyad Allawi acknowledged that violence in Anbar and elsewhere may make it impossible for some voters to go the polls. "There are some pockets that will not participate in the election, but they're not large," he told reporters. Nevertheless, four out of Iraq's 18 provinces are extremely violent, and these provinces are home to about 45 percent of the population, and most of its Sunnis.
"I'd like to vote, but I'll be waiting to see if there are big attacks on the morning of the 30th,'' says Faiza Ibrahim, a Sunni woman who runs a small store in Baghdad.
"There may be some various locations where it is difficult for people to vote," said State Department spokesman Richard Boucher at a press conference Wednesday.
According to a senior US Embassy official, recent polling shows that at most 40 percent of Iraq's Sunni Arabs intend to vote, compared with about 80 percent of Shiite Arabs. That is expected to lead to overwhelming Shiite representation in the transitional parliament, which will write Iraq's permanent constitution. In the short term, at least, that is likely to increase Sunni Arab resentment and violence.
"I don't think violence will go down appreciably after the election,'' says the US official. "But what would push the country over the line into civil war would be the determination of one group to lord it over the others." The official says he doesn't think that's going to happen, with indications from Shiite political leaders that they're going to seek to include Sunnis in the drafting of the new constitution, even if they're not well represented in the new parliament.