An Iraqi election primer

Thursday, 15 million Iraqi voters have the chance to participate in their first free parliamentary election. They'll select a new assembly, called the Council of Representatives, that over the next four years will set the course of the new Iraq.

Why is this election so important?

Thursday's election is going to establish the formal balance of political power in Iraq until 2010.

The parliament that sits after this vote will preside over an almost certain decline in America's military presence on the ground and a dramatic increase in Iraq's own responsibilities.

About 93 percent of Iraqis intend to vote Thursday, according to a poll conducted by the US-funded International Republican Institute (IRI) released Thursday. (Interviews for the poll were conducted in all governorates except the mostly Sunni Anbar.) And 61 percent of them say the new government's top priorities should be infrastructure and economic development.

While the temporary government grappled with lame-duck status from practically the moment it was formed at the end of April, the new parliament will be in a position to make political compromises that could help bring peace to Iraq. But if the Shiite bloc, certain to be dominant, maginalizes minority Sunni Arab politicians, the new parliament could add fuel to an already fierce rebellion.

US political influence will also inevitably decline as Iraqi politicians with popular support take their seats in the assembly and begin making decisions with far-reaching consequences about the role of Islam, revising the Constitution, and sectarian power sharing.

How many candidates are running?

More than 6,650 candidates are vying for Iraq's 275 parliamentary seats. Most of them belong to one of 307 political parties and 19 political coalitions (alliances among parties, such as the Shiite Islamist list).

Who is likely to come out ahead?

The United Iraqi Alliance (UIA), a coalition of Shiite Islamist political parties, will probably do best. They took 51 percent of the seats in January.

But this time, Iraq's Sunni Arabs, most of whom boycotted the last election, will vote in much greater numbers, inevitably clawing some seats away from the Shiite Islamists and others.

There has also been a great deal of disappointment with the current UIA-led government, which will probably see some of their voters defect to other groups. But simply based on Iraq's demographics and the way seats are apportioned - 47 percent of the seats are up for grabs in the Shiite south and in Baghdad (about 60 percent Shiite) - the UIA should end up with 40 to 50 percent of the new parliament.

The ethnic Kurdish bloc will take somewhere between 13 percent and 20 percent of the seats. The secular- leaning party of former Prime Minister Iyad Allawi took 14 percent of the seats last time and he could do about the same again, though he no longer has the advantage of incumbency.

Former US favorite Ahmad Chalabi is the wild card. He has formed a party with Sherif Ali bin Hussein, a descendant of Iraq's British-appointed monarchs. Mr. Hussein's party took 0.13 percent of the national vote last time.

How much representation are Sunni Arabs likely to have?

Iraq's last election was organized as a single district, which meant that low turnout in Sunni Arab bastions like Anbar Province meant they ended up with no representatives.

This time, the three Sunni- dominated provinces (Anbar, Nineveh, and Salaheddin) are guaranteed 36 seats (13 percent of the total), which makes turnout much less important.

Sunni Arab politicians, opposed to the recently passed Constitution and the US presence in Iraq, should end up with at least 10 percent and as much as 18 percent of parliament.

The IRI poll shows how differently Sunnis and Shiites see Iraq at the moment. In the mostly Sunni Arab province of Salaheddin, 89 percent of respondents said Iraq is headed in the wrong direction. In the Shiite Arab stronghold of Najaf, 68 percent said the country is headed in the right direction.

How will the prime minister and president be selected?

After the parliamentary election results are announced (tallying the vote will probably take weeks), a president is to be selected with a two-thirds vote in the legislature. But if the assembly deadlocks and a president is unable to get enough votes, the decision will then be put to a simple majority vote.

The president then appoints a prime minister, who names his cabinet. The new government will need a simple majority vote of confidence.

After the last election, rules that required a two-thirds majority to form the government led to a squabbling and a four-month delay in naming the government. This time, the process is more streamlined, though substantial delays are possible.

Shiite Islamists are the only group likely to hold a simple majority. Even if they hold 50 percent of parliament, their leaders say they are aware that forcing their will on their rivals could lead to even more violence and ineffective government.

What are the safety precautions for election day?

Security measures are among the tightest for any election in human history.

All car traffic is banned and Iraq's borders have been sealed, which has significantly reduced violence in the run-up to the poll. In some parts of Anbar Province, polling places will be guarded by Marines, but in most of the country Iraqi police and soldiers will be patting down voters to prevent suicide bombers from getting into polling places. There are about 6,500 polling locations.

What are the key issues that the new parliament will tackle over the next year?

Iraq's Constitution is imprecise on a number of contentious issues, and the Sunni Arabs in particular will push to amend the document. Most of the disputes center on how Iraq's oil wealth will be shared between the center and the country's diverse regions.

The parliament will almost certainly debate asking for a US withdrawal when it sits - something that polls show most Iraqis support.

Finally, the new government will have to make progress on ending the war if it's to maintain public support.

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