The interim Prime Minister of Iraq, Iyad Allawi, is suggesting that national elections in January could be staggered over a period of 15-20 days, to provide better security.  With polling on different dates in different provinces, Mr. Allawi believes greater security can be provided, and more voters will go to the polls.  When Iraqis get the chance to the polls for their first free elections, they will find a large array of choices. 

On January 30, when Iraqis are scheduled to vote in elections to select a 275-seat interim national assembly, they will not be voting for individual candidates.  Instead, they will choose from a list of more than 200 political parties.

The chief United Nations election official in Iraq is Carlos Valenzuela.

"There is no way you can have a list of candidates on the ballot," said Mr. Valenzuela.  "It is a proportional representation system.  You do not vote for a candidate, you vote for a list of candidates that is presented by a political entity.  Now, these lists of candidates are made known, made public.  But in the ballot, you would not be able to have a ballot, you would need to have a phone book for a ballot, and that is not what you have."

So, Iraqis will make their choice from ballots that will only contain the names and symbols of each political party.  Those political parties will be responsible for informing the public about their candidates.

According to Mr. Valenzuela, the system will help ensure that all voices in Iraq get a chance to be heard in the national assembly.

"You distribute the number of seats in the proportion of the valid votes that each political entity received," he added.  "So, if a particular political entity received 10 percent of the votes, then it will receive 10 percent of the seats.  And, even small parties, if they have a small proportion of the vote, they still will be able to get a small proportion of the seats.  They will still be able to be included in parliament."

To qualify for inclusion in the January elections, each party must put forth the names of at least 12 candidates, and no more than 275.  Each party will rank its lists of candidates, with the higher ranked candidates having the greater chance to be seated in the assembly.

Mr. Valenzuela says Iraq remains on schedule to hold elections in January.  But he says the political parties have not done enough to inform the public about who their candidates are and what they hope to accomplish.  He says this could leave many Iraqis confused about who and what they are voting for.

Many Iraqis have said they have no idea who any of the candidates will be.  In fact, many think they will be voting for a prime minister, which will not be the case.  That will come later, when a permanent government is elected based on the constitution the National Assembly will write.  Those elections are scheduled to be held at the end of next year.

Some Iraqi political groups have threatened to boycott this election, citing security concerns.  But Mr. Valenzuela says he hopes that does not happen.  He says this election gives all Iraqis a chance to have a say in their future, and he hopes they take advantage of it.