Trading Bullets for Ballots
By: Valerie Thomas
Despite the daily threat of bombs, bullets and kidnappings, on January 30 democratic elections are scheduled to take place in Iraq. For many Iraqis, this will be the first time they are allowed to choose their own leaders. It is also the first step in shifting from a government controlled by one person (Saddam Hussein) to an institutional system in which many people share power.
Unlike here in the US, the Iraqis will vote for the group of people they like best rather than one particular person. Most candidates are on a long list submitted by a political party or coalition. Two important groups are the United Iraqi Alliance, a political coalition, and the Iraqi National Accord. Some of their notable candidates are:
United Iraqi Alliance
- Abdel-Aziz al-Hakim, the head of SCIRI, Iraq’s largest Shi’ite party
- Ahmad Chalabi, a former exile with ties to the US
- Sheikh Fouaz al-Jarba, chief of a powerful Sunni Arab tribe
Iraqi National Accord
- Ayad Allawi, the current interim Prime Minister
These candidates and others are mainly trying to join the 275-member Transitional National Assembly, which will take over from the current government. First the new Assembly will appoint a president and a prime minister, then they will need to write a constitution in which they establish a parliament that will replace the Assembly. The elections for that permanent parliament are scheduled for the middle of December 2005.
The 275 seats in the new Assembly will be allocated by proportional representation; that means if a list of candidates gets 40% of the vote, they get 40% of the 275 seats in the Assembly. One-third of the candidates on each list must be women. Banned from the race are former senior Ba’athists from Saddam Hussein’s regime and members of the Iraqi military or armed militias.
The Shia Muslims make up about 60% of the population, so they will likely have a great deal of control over the new constitution and government. The Sunni Muslims, including the influential Association of Muslim Scholars, intend to boycott the elections; this will make the elections seem illegitimate and may cause even more instability and violence. Under Saddam’s regime, the Shia majority was repressed while the Sunni minority enjoyed special privileges.
There are worries that the elections will usher in an Islamic government rather than a secular democracy. The Shia Muslims have fairly strong ties to Iran and the rest of the Muslim world, and religion is an important part of their daily lives. The influence of Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani on the list of candidates from the United Iraqi Alliance would also argue that religion has and will have a powerful influence on state issues.
Whatever the outcome, simply holding elections is a huge step forward for Iraq. Even the controversial cleric Muqtada al Sadr, whose followers violently resisted the US occupation, urged the candidates to run “a clean election process that will honor us and take this country from darkness to light.”