Iraq election to offer voters legions of candidates

By Mariam Karouny
Published October 29th 2005 in Reuters India
BAGHDAD (Reuters) - Iraq's Dec. 15 parliamentary poll will be contested by more than 200 parties and coalitions, promising a splintered campaign that could run very differently across a country riven by religious and ethnic faultlines.

Five groups are likely to dominate the race: the Shi'ite Islamist Alliance, the Kurdish bloc, at least two blocs of Sunni Arabs parties and a secular coalition unveiled on Saturday by former Prime Minister Iyad Allawi.

The election will produce the first full, four-year parliament since the 2003 ouster of Saddam Hussein, a step Washington hopes will cement Iraq's new democracy and eventually allow it to withdraw its troops.

Hussein Hindawi, head of Iraq's Electoral Commission, said on Saturday that 21 coalitions and 230 political parties and entities had registered for the ballot by Friday's deadline.

Under a new system of proportional representation, voters in Iraq's 18 provinces will see 18 different ballot papers.

"We are giving the voter a chance to elect people they know so that people will get more involved in the candidate's programme for his province," Hindawi said.

Some groups such the "Kerbala Coalition" may only field candidates in their home bases, while others such as Allawi's list are expected to seek support across the country.

Allawi, a secular Shi'ite, unveiled a slate on Saturday that included prominent Sunnis such as Vice-President Ghazi al-Yawar, parliamentary speaker Hajem Hassani and Adnan Pachachi.

The Kurdish bloc and the Shi'ite alliance, partners in the current government, are unlikely to go head-to-head in many provinces since most Kurds live in the north and most Shi'ites in the south and east.

Few Kurdish or Shi'ite politicians can be expected to campaign in the Sunni Arab heartland, particularly the vast western province of Anbar that is the focus of a bloody insurgent campaign against the U.S.-backed government.

The biggest issue in Anbar will be security. Turnout there was just 32 percent in a constitutional referendum on Oct. 15 and several polling sites came under attack from insurgent groups who urged people to shun the political process entirely.

Washington, which has some 160,000 troops in Iraq more than two and a half years after the invasion, hopes the participation of more Sunni parties in the December vote will undermine the insurgency and bring more Sunnis into the political fold.

Sunni Arabs, who represent about 20 percent of the population, have lost influence and they voted overwhelmingly against the constitution, narrowly failing to veto it.

The barometer of the election may be the ethnically and religiously mixed capital city, Baghdad, where the parties will contest 59 of the 230 seats allocated to the provinces.

Parliament will have 275 seats, of which 45 will be distributed nationally as "compensatory seats" to parties that do not win seats in the provinces yet do score enough votes for at least one seat at a national level.

"This election law, which is special for countries with religious and ethnic minorities, aims for a fair distibution of seats," Hindawi said.

The extent to which smaller parties can chip away at the big blocs may be crucial. The Shi'ite alliance won nearly half the votes at Jan. 30 elections for the current transitional parliament, but now faces disillusionment about insecurity, poverty and corruption.

It is also unclear whether the Alliance will win the blessing of Shi'ite spiritual leader, Grand Ayatollah Ali

al-Sistani, who in January was widely accepted to have backed it.

Sistani has told aides not to engage in politics but could swing millions of votes behind the Alliance if he chose. If not, other Shi'ite parties could benefit.