Caught between a political process of questionable legitimacy and a dire security situation, Iraqis go to the polls on Sunday. Omayma Abdel-Latif
For months the question of whether or not to vote has been the major concern of Iraqi politicians. But as the countdown draws closer to point zero -- Sunday, 30 January -- the emphasis has now shifted back to the precarious security situation to which the whole political process remains hostage.
Iraqi voters, caught between the terrifying threats of Abu Musaab Al-Zarqawy and the hollow promises of faceless and nameless candidates, are bracing themselves for an avalanche of attacks.
If they are held, Sunday's elections will be the second step of the transitional phase stipulated by the Interim State Administration Law (IAL), ratified in March 2003. The aim is to elect a national assembly which will then appoint a government, president and prime minister.
One of the main tasks facing the assembly will be to write a permanent constitution. The date set for the end of this process is 15 August. A referendum is scheduled two months after that and if the constitution is ratified it will be followed by elections to elect a fully constitutional government by 30 December.
The IAL stipulates that should the constitution be rejected by three or more of Iraq's 18 provinces it will be blocked.
According to the Higher Election Commission, 111 electoral lists have been registered containing 7,000 candidates who will compete for membership of the 275-seat assembly. That the whole country has in effect been turned into a single constituency is largely a result of the failing security situation. And while much of the media hype has focused on the National Assembly election a parallel electoral process, in which Iraqis will elect the regional councils of the 18 provinces, is scheduled to take place at the same time.
As election day approaches Iraqi society is increasingly polarised. Many view the entire process as illegitimate given it is taking place under occupation. Others question its fairness in the absence of international observers. And if the absence of enthusiasm among the general public is anything to go by, a majority appear to question the very relevance of next Sunday's vote given the pressing problems the country faces.
According to a poll conducted last week by the Ministry of Planning 62.5 per cent of respondents said they would vote only if the security situation improved. And three of Iraq's 18 provinces may not even be party to the election show. According to the Iraqi Islamic Party, which has boycotted the elections, voting is "impossible" in the predominantly Sunni Salah Eddin, Mosul and Al-Anbar provinces.
"There is not a single balloting station in any of these provinces yet they are home to 40 per cent of the Iraqi population," Iyad Al-Samara'i, of the Islamic Iraqi Party, told Al-Ahram Weekly on Tuesday.
There are 55 lists that are considered Sunni. But Al- Samara'i believes the real problem is not over the number of Sunni candidates contesting seats but about how many Sunni voters will be able to actually exercise their right to vote. According to Independent Election Commission figures, 15 million Iraqis are eligible to vote. The most optimistic estimates predict less than half this number will actually turn out.
Security has topped the agenda in most electoral campaigns, including that of Iraqi Premiere Iyad Allawi and of the Unified Iraqi Alliance led by Abdel- Aziz Al-Hakim. Allawi, the candidate with the highest media visibility, is repackaged in his campaign commercials as Iraq's new saviour. He promises an Iraq free of violence, corruption and with thousands of new job opportunities. But to most Iraqis Allawi's promises ring hollow. This week charges of corruption against his government were coupled with accusations of widespread abuses committed by the Iraqi National Guard against Iraqis detained during Allawi's seven-months rule.
For months the Bush administration has portrayed elections as the beginning of a process that will usher Iraq towards democratic rule. "The problem is that the Americans viewed the election as an end in itself rather than part of a process," says Wamid Nadhmi, an Iraqi professor of political science. "What happens before or after the elections concerns them not one iota. What matters is that the elections become a good PR exercise for the Bush administration."
Critics of the elections agree that they are unlikely to be the harbinger of a viable political process. But while some Western commentators predict that the elections will push Iraq into civil strife, Bashir Nafie, an Arab historian, disagrees. "Iraq," he says, "has never had a civil war per se. Iraqis never engaged in an all out war along sectarian lines."
Nonetheless, Nafie predicts that the elections are likely to result in more chaos. "It might get worse in the post-election period because elections as such will only exacerbate the sectarian tensions institutionalised by the type of governance imposed on Iraq in the post- occupation period." But even if the national assembly ends up not being representative of Iraq's sectarian and ethnic composition this in itself, he believes, "would not be a sufficient cause for the break out of civil war". The National Assembly system is based on quotas so no one group will hold a majority. "It will depend primarily," Nafie says "on the striking of alliances."
Another major post-election hurdle will be how to deal with the absence of Sunni legislators. An American proposal to appoint representatives was turned down by the Sunni parties. According to Al-Samara'i, the problem has little to do with numbers in the assembly. Though the Islamic Iraqi Party is boycotting elections, Al-Samara'i did not rule out participation in writing the constitution. "It is not about how many Sunnis there are in the assembly but rather whether the legislative will conduct itself in a way that is representative of the interests of all Iraqis," Al-Samara'i points out.
US withdrawal will naturally top the agenda of whatever government emerges. Many Iraqi observers believe Washington's insistence on the elections being held in the absence of a national consensus is part of its search for an exit strategy.
"They want an elected government that is seen to be legitimate in order to sign agreements over US military bases and other strategic US interests that will be binding on any future, fully constitutional government," explains Nadhmi.