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Iraq Chooses a Permanent Government


On December 15th, Iraqis will elect permanent members of parliament who will then choose the country’s national leaders. In this balloting the political landscape is far more fragmented and contentious than it was in the January 30 interim election.

Many New Political Voices and Choices

The Iraqi political scene has been radically transformed since Saddam Hussein was toppled in April 2003. After years of dominance by Saddam’s Ba’ath Party, Iraqis have created numerous new political groups based on ethnic, secular and religious lines. That fragmentation is expected to make this Thursday’s voting for a permanent National Assembly spirited and complicated.

Phoebe Marr, with the U.S. Institute of Peace in Washington, expects a broader turnout for this election than the one last January.

"Certainly, there is as vigorous campaigning as there can be," she says. "Candidates are getting their views out on television, on radio and in the press. And certainly the dynamics are coalescing around certain alliances and parties. On January 30th, most Sunnis boycotted the election. Some of them have come to the conclusion that that was a mistake."

Guaranteed Assembly Representation Regardless of Voter Turnout

When voters approved Iraq’s permanent constitution in October, the way National Assembly members are chosen was changed. Unlike the parliamentarians elected on January 30th who ran "at large," the new constitution guarantees seats for every province. Because of that, Sunni Arab areas such as Anbar and Salahadin will have National Assembly representatives regardless of how many of them vote. Iraqi and U.S. officials say Sunni political participartion is key to reducing support for the insurgency that has challenged Iraq since the 2003 war.

Iraqi Parties Seek Support Beyond Religious and Ethnic Lines

As for where Sunni votes may go, Joost Hiltermann, the Middle East Project Director for the non-governmental International Crisis Group, says a number of parties are appealing to them.

“Sunni Arab votes will go to both Sunni Arab parties and will go to non-sectarian parties, for example the list of the former Prime Minister Iyad Allawi. But it’s very hard to estimate how much the Sunni Arab parties this time will be able to win,” he says.

Sunni Arabs aren’t the only group with divergent interests. In the interim election last January, Iraq’s Shi’a put forth a single candidate list, the United Iraqi Alliance, which won 140 out of a total of 275 seats in the National Assembly. The UIA was led by two Shi’a religious parties, SCIRI, the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq, and Daawa, whose leader Ibrahim al-Jaafari became prime minister. But in this election, Shi’a voters have also been courted by secular parties, including the Iraqi National Congress of Ahmed Chalabi and former prime minister Iyad Allawi’s Iraqi List.

Abbas Medhi, a secular Shi’a living in the U.S. state of Minnesota who is with a group called the Union of Independent Iraqis, says these internal divisions among the Shi’a will produce different results in this election.

“I don’t think they’re going to get the same numbers. They will score high, but not the same. Remember -- in the last election, most didn’t even know their candidates. Either a religious leader or a tribal leader is controlling the situation now.”

Iraq’s Kurds also presented a unified list of candidates in the January interim election. They took 26 percent of the vote and 75 assembly seats, despite Kurds being only roughly 20 percent of the population. But Kurdish official Qubad Talabani, the son of Iraqi President Jalal Talabani, says this election’s dynamics are different.

“Whether we can reach the same number of seats that we reached the last time -- I’m not sure," he says. "Because this time, we do anticipate a greater Sunni Arab participation which will undoubtedly take away some seats from the Kurdistani Alliance as well as the United Iraqi Alliance.”

Political Fervor Also Breeds Violence

The ongoing violence in Iraq has spilled over into the political process. John Moore, who is in Baghdad monitoring election violence for the non-governmental group the International Foundation for Election Systems, says there has been trouble across the country in the run-up to Thursday’s vote and that insurgents do not bear all of the blame.

“What is unique this time around in comparison to January and October is the seeming rise in violence between parties. In the south, we’re seeing Shi’a conducting attacks against each other, whereas in the central region, it’s insurgents attacking political candidates and party members. In Kurdish regions, the number are not as frequent as we’ve seen elsewhere. But they are occurring,” he says.

The Pentagon says both U.S. and Iraqi troops have been out in force in the days leading up to the election. And Iraqi officials have declared a nationwide curfew for Wednesday night to hopefully prevent attacks.

New Lawmakers Will Choose Iraq's National Leaders

Once National Assembly members are elected, those lawmakers will then choose Iraq's prime minister, president and two vice presidents. Joost Hiltermann with the International Crisis Group says the deal making is different now than it was after the January 30th interim election.

“The big battle is going to be between the Shi’a and a non-sectarian alliance still in the making between the list of Iyad Allawi, the Kurdish list, and maybe some of the Sunni Arab parties. If the Shi’a fail to gain an absolute outright majority, but have a plurality, they may still have the first opportunity to create a government. But without Kurdish support, they may not be able to form that government,” he says.

Survey: Iraqis Vote With Mixed Feelings

A just-released public opinion survey of more than 1,700 Iraqis by Oxford Research International in Britain found that only 25% of them have confidence in their politicians. Despite decades of abuse under Saddam Hussein, the survey found that roughly half of those questioned say Iraq still needs a strongman as its leader. And the poll found that 69% of those surveyed believe that things will be better overall in the

future.

Iraq’s December 15th elections for a permanent government completes the national postwar political reconstruction process. But Iraq still faces the arduous task of reconciliation among its factions to become a stable and productive member of the world community.

This story was first broadcast on the English news program, “VOA News Now.” For other “Focus” reports, Click Here.

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