Twist in Iraq's democracy: anti-American party pushes electoral reform

Ahead of January elections, supporters of the Sadr movement cast ballots for individual candidates – rather than parties – for the first time in a primary poll.

In an unexpected twist for Iraq's nascent democracy, an anti-American party is speeding ahead with electoral reform while the Iraqi parliament is gridlocked over how to run national elections slated for January.

On Friday, supporters of radical Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr voted directly for candidates in a primary poll ahead of national elections, calling it a milestone in the democratic process. The vote is believed by Iraqi officials to be the first time that choosing candidates for any party outside Iraqi Kurdistan has been placed in the hands of ordinary Iraqis.

"I can say that the Sadr movement achieved the highest level of democracy," says Sheikh Salman al-Furaiji, in charge of the Sadr offices on the Rusafah side of Baghdad, where 53 polling sites were open on Friday. Some 300,000 registered voters were to vote for almost 700 candidates in south and central Iraq.

But in the national elections slated for January, it's not certain that citizens across Iraq will be able to follow suit. The Iraqi parliament is still wrangling over an election law that would determine whether voters will be able to vote for individual candidates on an "open list" or retain the closed-list system of 2005 elections, in which voters are told only the parties' names and not the candidates.

A closed list would likely favor incumbent politicians expected to lose support at the polls for failing to deliver essential services and cut down on corruption. Iraq's most influential Shiite cleric, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, recently issued a rare public pronouncement urging an open list for the next elections. And Sadr, who has been pursuing his religious education in Iran, has issued a decree directing followers not to participate in a closed list, some of his supporters said.

"If parliament does not pass an open list, we will not vote," says retired government worker Ali al-Lami, one of hundreds of men who had rolled out prayer rugs for Friday prayers on closed streets and sidewalks in Sadr City, Baghdad's biggest and poorest neighborhood. Some of the men brought umbrellas to shield them from the sun. Others wandered through the crowd spraying the worshippers with a cooling mist of rose-scented water.

Iron fences surrounding newly planted grass gleamed with fresh purple paint, but piles of garbage choked the streets. Electricity here is cut off for hours each day, and almost half the population has no jobs – a concern voters wanted candidates to address.

"The most important thing is for them to provide jobs," says Atheer Mohammad Hashim, a laborer who dropped out of school in the second grade when his cousin was executed, his father imprisoned, and their food ration card revoked under Saddam Hussein. He voted for an official in his neighborhood.

15-year-olds can vote

Inside the main Sadr office in Sadr City, hundreds of men and a few women lined up to cast their ballots. Lists posted behind the ballot boxes displayed numbers and names of the 301 men and 25 women who were running.

Voters dipped their index fingers in a jar of purple ink before putting their balance in a transparent box. Officials from Iraq's Higher Electoral Commission helped organize the vote. Reflecting Sadr's appeal to disaffected young people, the voting age was set at 15 – three years younger than the required age for participation in national elections.

"This is a historic day," says Thualfiqar Salah Jumaa, a bakery worker who was also providing security for the voters. He said he had voted for a Health Ministry official who had once been detained by American forces because he was a Sadrist.

Candidates were not required to be members of the Sadr Party but had to be at least 35 years old, college educated, and never have worked with the Americans.

"The important thing is a candidate should have integrity," says Rasool Rahman, a high school history teacher. He says he voted for a Baghdad municipality official who has worked to provide public services.

Why parliament is gridlocked over election law

Sadr, whose armed followers fought the US military in the streets five years ago, has become a crucial player in Iraqi politics after agreeing to a cease-fire with American and then Iraqi forces.

Sadr himself will choose which of the existing members of parliament should run for reelection, with the remainder of the candidates selected in the voting on Friday, says a Sadr official.

The January elections are seen as crucial to building the stability needed for US troops to be able to leave Iraq by 2011. The UN and Iraq's electoral commission have warned that the poll might have to be delayed if parliament does not pass the law within the next few days, while US Gen. Ray Odierno and Ambassador Chris Hill urged that it be passed quickly.

The law has become mired in the issue of how voting would take place in Kirkuk, where Arabs and Turkmen want special provisions to counter an large influx of Kurdish residents after Mr. Hussein was toppled. All three groups lay claim to the oil-rich city.

"We still haven't been able to agree on the wording," says Saleem al-Jabouri, spokesman for the biggest Sunni bloc in parliament, al-Tawafiq, who had come to see the voting. He says some parliamentarians were threatening to leave the session without enough members for a vote so that the old law would stand. "If they use a closed list, it will betray the people."

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