With seven weeks to go before landmark polls, Iraq’s electoral body is stepping up a campaign to inform voters of their rights, but widespread ignorance remains amongst the electorate, interviews show.
Via a multi-million-dollar campaign on television and radio, newspapers, billboards, posters and seminars, the Independent Electoral Commission is trying to reach out to Iraq’s estimated 14 million potential voters, some 55 percent of the population.
It wants to inform them about how the electoral process will work and generate enthusiasm for an event many fear could be severely disrupted by insurgent attacks or the threat of them.
The elections, scheduled for Jan. 30, will be Iraq’s first fully democratic polls in decades -- the last proper vote before Saddam Hussein came to power was in the late 1950s.
The commission, formed with the help of the United Nations in May, is responsible for overseeing the elections, three of which take place on the same day -- for a national assembly, a Kurdish regional government and provincial councils.
“After decades of tyranny and authoritarian regimes, Iraq has lost its electoral knowledge,” Hussain Hendawi, the head of the electoral commission, told Reuters last week.
“It will take many years to build the democratic process and that knowledge,” he said, but added that “big steps” had been made in informing voters over the past three months.
While U.S. and Iraqi authorities will worry about security at the 9,000 polling sites, interviews with potential voters show the commission has its work cut out to generate awareness.
The key institution to be elected is the 275-seat national assembly, which will oversee the formation of a new government and appoint a commission to write a permanent constitution.
Yet asked what Iraqis would vote for on Jan. 30, Maithem Modher, a 24-year-old computer company employee, was unclear.
“We will vote to choose a president,” he said. “If any person gets a majority, he will win the presidency.”
Others were not sure when the election would take place.
“On Jan. 15 we will elect a number of members and they will elect a constitution and a president,” said Mortadha Hussein, 34, a shopkeeper.
“I don’t know how many members will be elected ... I only know that there are more then 200 political parties,” he said. “I would be lying if I said I knew the parties or candidates.”
While 230 parties have registered for the election, most of them are grouping into coalitions that will put forward a list of candidates. The number of votes for each list will determine the number of candidates on the list that get seats.
Others seem confused about the nature of a free vote.
Iraq’s most influential Shiite cleric, Ali al-Sistani, has issued an edict saying all Shiites, who make up 60 percent of the population, must vote, but hasn’t said for which party.
Others believe the outcome’s already decided.
“Iraq will be one constituency and the parliament seats will be allocated according to the ethnic and sectarian majority,” said Amir Ghazi, 23, a university science student, who believed Shiites were already destined to get 120 seats.
Despite the confusion -- and the fact many others say they won’t vote while U.S. troops remain on Iraqi soil -- Hendawi remains upbeat.
“We’re still trying to inform people about the process,” he said. “(But) we believe a large percentage will participate. We’re confident the process will be historic all over Iraq.”