- The Washington Times - Tuesday, November 23, 2004

At least 122 political organizations have registered to run in Iraq’s Jan. 30 elections, thrilling organizers but setting the stage for tough bargaining over the next eight days.

Many of the parties are expected to combine in loose coalitions as they seek to maximize their seats in a new national assembly. Such alliances must be declared to the Independent Electoral Commission (IEC) by the end of this month.

Even so, voters will face a bewildering array of choices. There are religious parties representing Shi’ite Muslim, Sunni Muslim and Christian voters; secular parties with religious affiliations or regional interests; parties organized around sheiks and clerics; and parties devoted simply to justice, democracy or equal rights.

“We have so many parties, so many people wanting to participate,” said Farid Ayar, a spokesman for the IEC. “It is wonderful. I am happy.”

The IEC announced Sunday that the elections will be held Jan. 30, and Prime Minister Iyad Allawi pledged yesterday they would proceed on schedule despite continuing violence in many parts of Iraq.

Gunmen yesterday assassinated Sheik Faidh Mohamed Amin al-Faidhi, a member of the influential Association of Muslim Scholars, which has called for a Sunni boycott of the elections in protest of this month’s U.S.-led assault on Fallujah.

There were fears that the slaying would further alienate Sunnis, who long ruled Iraq under Saddam Hussein but are unlikely to muster more than 20 percent of the vote on Jan. 30.

Several Arab states proposed yesterday at a conference in Sharm el-Sheik, Egypt, that the election be postponed for a few weeks while the Sunnis are persuaded to participate. But in the end, all are expected to sign on to a draft communique urging the Allawi government to hold the ballot on schedule.

“The forces of darkness and terrorism will not benefit from this democratic experience and will fight it,” Mr. Allawi told the Associated Press yesterday. “But we are determined that this experiment succeeds.”

The welter of competing parties and candidates, meanwhile, has made political forecasting virtually impossible.

A poll by the International Republican Institute in early October found no single party holding a positive image among most voters, and no one figure enjoying widespread political support.

Under rules drafted by the American occupation authority and the now-defunct Iraqi Governing Council, each party or coalition of parties will submit a list of candidates for a 275-seat assembly that will draft a new Iraqi constitution.

Voters will cast their ballots for one or another of these slates, with seats distributed proportionally; that is, if a party or coalition receives 25 percent of the votes, it gets 25 percent of the seats in the new legislature.

If a coalition were to win 30 seats, the seats would go to the top 30 candidates on the coalition list. That makes for hard bargaining within potential coalitions as candidates jockey to get their names as near as possible to the top of each list.

The most significant coalition-building appears to be going on under the protective cloak of the revered cleric Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Husseini al-Sistani, who has been trying to unite all Shi’ite groups on a single slate to maximize their political power. But it is not clear that the effort will succeed.

The two largest Shi’ite parties — Dawa and the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq — have forged an alliance of their own and seem reluctant to join the bigger group.

In the north, two competing Kurdish parties are expected to slug it out in regional elections but create a combined slate at the national level, vying for the loyalty of an estimated 11 million Kurdish voters. Still, the parties have not yet decided whose names will go at the top of the combined list.

“My sense is that they’ve got a long way to go,” said a Western diplomat. “If it was that easy, we’d have it by now.”

Sunni Muslims, who represent up to 20 percent of the population, remain a wild card because of the insurgency and the Association of Muslim Scholars boycott.

“The Sunni community is so fractured now, I think we’ll get some Sunnis voting, but I don’t know how many,” the diplomat said. “I think they understand how important it is to have a genuine voice in the constitutional drafting process, but the problem is, you have to get past a lot of emotion right now.”

In one of the stranger twists, Ahmad Chalabi, the secular Shi’ite expatriate who was once Washington’s favored candidate to run Iraq, is pursuing a political alliance with the renegade Shi’ite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, according to observers and news reports. Both have strong ties to Iran.

Because the new parliament will draft Iraq’s permanent constitution, organizers are hoping the process will produce a broadly based legislature that will give voice to the nation’s many religious, ethnic and other interest groups.

Some of that could occur through coalition-building after the vote, says one Western observer.

“You only need, what, 33,000 votes to get a seat,” he said last week. “We could easily get a lot of independents and a lot of different associations in the council. That means they’ll need a real coalition, in terms of getting anything done.”

So far, the “big six” political parties, which were first organized under the U.S.-led Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA), have shown little interest in joining forces.

There had been concern that the 20 high-profile members of those parties who served on the CPA and grandfathered themselves into the transitional legislature of 100 would find a way to dominate the process.

But Mr. Ayar of the IEC said last week that the only way for the current assembly members to remain in government was to join a party or start their own.

“Their mission will be finished when the new assembly is elected,” he said. “They have not registered to make one big group, and they cannot make a rule to go forward with their own power.”

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