As Iraqis go to the polls on Jan. 30, it will be a daunting first exercise in democracy.
With more than 110 parties or slates — some 7,700 candidates all told — competing for places in the 275-member National Assembly, the ballot will look more like a phone book.
But despite the dizzying array of choices, experts say the general outcome is virtually a foregone conclusion. When faced with a boggling list of names, most of them unfamiliar, voters are expected to choose along religious and tribal lines, potentially deepening the divisions in Iraqi society rather than bringing people together under a federal umbrella.
Policymakers already are discussing ways of easing these divisions, and debating whether winners in the Shiite majority are going to play nice with the underdogs, Sunni Muslims.
"The question now is how do you repair virtual nonrepresentation of significant parts of the country?" says Larry Diamond, a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution who was in Iraq in early 2004 to advise the Coalition Provisional Authority, the U.S.-led military coalition governing Iraq at the time. "It's going to take some very creative political engineering or outreach." Otherwise, he says, "the prospect is for deepening polarization and violence."
Each of some 14 million voters in Iraq — plus about 1 million Iraqis living outside the country — has one vote to cast for a party or list. Each party will get a number of seats in the Transitional National Assembly proportionate to the votes it garners at large. After that, the 275-person body will be in charge of choosing a government and writing a constitution.
Because the United States was adamant that elections should be held by the end of January 2005, there wasn't time to conduct a census or draw up districts that would have clearly allowed representation from predominantly Sunni and Kurdish areas, says Thomas Melia, director of research at Georgetown University's Institute for the Study of Diplomacy.
Absent districting, "they could have still added in some requirements — every fourth name should be a Sunni, every sixth a Kurd, and so on ... so that the lists themselves would be ethnically and religiously inclusive," says Melia.
With a strictly proportionate voting system, the fear is that the power balance will simply reflect the deep chasm between Shiite and Sunni Muslims, with Shiites, who make up about 60 percent of the population, holding the majority of assembly seats.
Sunni Muslims, who held power for decades and are associated with Saddam Hussein’s Baath Party, make up only 20 percent of the population. Even if they turn out in full force, they will be unable to garner more than 20 percent of the seats. Their fear that they will become second-class citizens, as the Shiites were in the past, fuels insurgent violence and pessimism among civil and religious groups, which have called for a boycott, or at least a delay, in the vote.
"The upshot of this is that if you elect a legislature that Sunnis don’t think represents them, they opt out of it. Think Northern Ireland," says Melia. "Catholics never could win … so they opted out. That’s where the IRA got support."
Attacks on Sunnis willing to participate — as candidates, voters, security officers or poll workers — are expected to keep turnout low in Sunni areas, particularly Nineveh, Anbar, Salahadin and parts of Baghdad.
Moreover, the withdrawal of the main Sunni bloc, the Iraqi Islamic Party, ensures that choices will be limited for Sunni voters who choose to take the risk.
To be sure, there are Sunni candidates who are willing to try the system. Interim president Ghazi Yawar is running, as is the urbane Adnan Pachachi, who returned to Iraq from exile in London after Saddam's fall. Sharif Ali bin Hussein is a Sunni candidate from the Constitutional Monarch party and a relative of the last king, Faisal II; his campaign has bravely traversed the violence-ridden Sunni Triangle. But these candidates may not have the clout needed to offset a boycott, or lure Sunnis to take a risk of voting.
The Sunni candidates also have practical problems — little experience compared with the Kurds and the Shiites, who spent decades in opposition.
"With the collapse of the Baath, the Sunnis are the one community least prepared for coming up with (politically viable) alternatives," says Michael Fischbach, a professor of history at Randolph-Macon College in Ashland, Va.
What do they stand for?
Among Shiite parties, the most prominent is the United Iraqi Alliance, which has the weighty support of leading Shiite cleric Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani. The alliance will certainly produce many members of the assembly, and, more than likely, the new prime minister.
But the party's agenda remains to be seen. While the alliance's candidates include some minorities, the top-ranking members — who would be first to win assembly seats — are religious Shiites like Abdul Aziz al-Hakim, who is head of the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq, and Ibrahim al-Jaafari, head of the religious party Da'awa.
Neither man is stumping for an Islamic theocracy as exists in Iran, where a powerful group of Muslim clerics hold a central role in governing. And their main backer, al-Sistani, is widely seen as more moderate than his counterpart in Iran, the Ayatollah Khomeini.
Fischbach notes that the United Iraqi Alliance, unlike Islamist groups in elections elsewhere in the Middle East, has chosen a non-religious slogan for its campaign: ""In order to allow our children a better country."
It is possible that the party may put forward a prime minister who is more of a technocrat than a religious figure, such as Finance Minister Abdel Mehdi.
Still, the party's agenda won't be clear until after the election, says Diamond, of the Hoover Institution.
"I don’t think the Islamists on the (alliance's) list are going to pursue an Islamic state like you have in Iran today. They will realize they don’t have the strength. But I think they will try to move the constitution in that direction. … They may try to remove some of the minority vetoes and power-sharing arrangements."
Defusing Sunni anger
The Bush administration has been adamant that the elections be held on schedule, despite dire warnings that the outcome will escalate the violence. The elections will not be perfect, administration officials have conceded — in fact, they've dispatched thousands more U.S. troops to keep violence at bay on polling day — but they argue that the vote is urgently needed to launch democracy in Iraq.
Pundits in Baghdad and Washington are pondering ways that will help close the likely gap between Shiites and the minority Sunnis, such as including Sunnis on the committee that will draft constitution, or appointing a Sunni to the presidency or the cabinet.
Even then, notes Amen, of Seattle University, which Sunnis to choose is a dilemma, and will any accept such risky positions?
"What seats in the government should they have, what roles? Who are those individuals going to be," he asks. "The minute they're identified, they will then become targets. It’s going to be tough to recruit them."
A State Department official who spoke on condition of anonymity denied a report in The New York Times that it is working on ways to allocate assembly seats to Sunni groups.
The administration believes the Shiite leaders will themselves be practical enough to share power with the Sunnis to avoid a slide into civil war, and experts said they believe that Shiites are diverse enough to hold a healthy debate on governance.