Election frenzy
Published January 5th 2005 in Al-Ahram

Ahead of elections Nadhim Al-Jasour surveys Iraq's confusing political scene

For the first time in Iraq's modern history the political scene teems with political parties, groups, movements -- so many, indeed, that the public is confused by both their background and goals. And they are weaving a tapestry of alliances that is even harder to grasp. The country has more than 8,000 civil society groups, of which women's societies alone number 800. The electoral system gives women 25 per cent of seats in the National Assembly to be elected on 30 January. No party list in which women do not represent 25 per cent of the candidates can contest the elections.

Fourteen parties are fielding 499 candidates in the bid for the 111 seats on the Kurdistan National Council. In the governorates 382 lists fielding 7,850 candidates are competing for seats on the councils of 18 governorates. The Baghdad governorate council will consist of 51 members while other governorates will have councils made containing 41 seats each.

In endorsing proportional representation the Independent Higher Commission for Elections has made the entire country one electoral zone rather than separate constituencies. In doing so it provided an incentive for all parties to run for the elections of the National Assembly which will serve for a transitional period of nine months, during which it will write the constitution and enact electoral and political party legislation.

Proportional representation ensures that all groups have a chance to be represented in the assembly. To secure a seat a party has to win 26,000 votes. The likely result will be that the 275-member National Assembly will be a mosaic reflecting the country's diverse political scene.

According to the Independent Higher Commission supervising the elections 83 electoral lists, put forward by 47 parties and 27 individuals and involving 7,200 candidates have been fielded. Since many candidates are unfamiliar to the public, the lists most likely to win include those of incumbent Prime Minister Iyad Allawi and Hussein Al-Sadr (seven groups with 233 candidates); the Kurdistan Alliance (12 groups with 165 candidates); the Unified Iraqi Alliance, also known as the Shia list although it involves Turcoman and Kurdish candidates, (16 groups with 228 candidates); and the Peoples Union (276 candidates, including 91 women). The latter is an alliance of leftist and pro-democracy movements from across the sectarian and ethnic spectrum, led by the Communist Party.

The incumbent president, Ghazi Al-Yawar, is running with an independent list. He has accused foreign parties of trying to influence the choice of Iraqi voters through the provision of funds to certain candidates. The National Mesopotamian list (Assyrian), the Justice and Future list (Kurdish), and the Turcoman Front list are also contesting the elections, along with the National Iraqi Movement and the Independent Alliance of Civil Societies (an alliance of women, human rights and cultural societies).

The Islamic Iraqi Party (mainly Sunni) had a clear chance of winning many seats in the National Assembly but is boycotting the elections -- a move that is certain to weaken Sunni representation in the government. In a desperate attempt to impart legitimacy to the new order the Americans are thinking of fixing a quota for Sunnis in both cabinet and parliament.

The security situation remains unstable, with bombings in Karbala and Najaf, Falluja in ruins and Baghdad bereft of any credible law enforcement. As a result voter turn out is likely to be low though many Iraqi politicians and clerics have urged the nation to go to the polls.

The writer is head of the Centre for International Politics at Al-Mustansiriya University in Baghdad.