Iraqis Discuss Voting, Or Not, in Elections Held Amidst Chaos

Baghdad — Despite the continuing escalation of violence here, Iraqi officials insist the country’s first-ever general assembly elections remain on schedule, even if preparations have fallen well off track in many areas where rebels have caused grave disruptions. While most Iraqis are consumed with the ever-present tasks of keeping their families safe, finding fuel for their cars and looking for jobs, there is much talk around Baghdad of the polls set for January 30.

On Election Day, among eligible Iraqis who do not cast ballots, it will be hard to differentiate between those holding off for any of various reasons. There are many who will simply be too afraid to go to their local polling places. Others will observe organized calls to boycott the elections in an attempt to withhold legitimacy from the process. And then there are still more who are just plain disgusted with the system, how it has been organized and what they see as an utter lack of legitimacy in even a best-case outcome.

But today, throughout the Baghdad area, there are plenty of Iraqis willing to express why they will or will not be voting later this month.

“If the US wants, we will have elections,” said Aimin, a 43-year-old owner of an internet café in a predominantly Sunni area of Baghdad, “because they are planning on installing a pro-US government that will not oppose any of their policies.”

There have been numerous calls for a postponement or outright boycott of the polls. Mostly from a range of Sunni Arab groups that fear utter disenfranchisement as a minority, the call has been echoed even by a prominent mainstream Sunni political figure, Adnan Pachachi, whose own party is engaged in the campaign.

Especially among the Sunnis of Iraq’s populous central region, the sense for some people that their country is going somewhere without them is everywhere, and the desperation that accompanies such a shift is manifesting itself in different ways for different people. A growing minority is responding with violence, while the great majority seems to have resigned to helplessness, trusting in neither the gun nor the ballot.

But according to the US-imposed interim Iraqi Constitution, the ball is rolling down the path to Iraqi “democracy,” and nothing can stop it. The elections must occur before the end of this month. Nearly everyone agrees that, according to the letter of the law, the Independent Commission for Elections in Iraq is not qualified to call the polls off or even to postpone them; neither are the Iraqi or United States governments.

Yet some Iraqis dispute the practical authority of the year-old document, insisting that bending rules is what “the Americans” do best. If the US-led coalition can overthrow a sovereign government in Iraq and the United Nations can rubber stamp that process, they argue, surely either Washington or the UN can alter temporary rules established to permanently replace that regime with a new one.

Some also say that if Iraq is truly sovereign in the wake of last summer’s much ballyhooed “handing over,” the interim government could step up and admit the process is too flawed to go forward under the current conditions of chaotic insecurity. But such a move would surely open Prime Minister Allawi and his government up to the opposite criticism: that they are resistant to relinquish the positions they have gained through undemocratic means. Besides, many of those currently in power are situated to obtain seats in the next phase of Iraqi political history.

“We are not against elections,” said Saif, an 18-year-old Shiite biology student at Baghdad University, “but we are against the timing of them. Look at the security,” he exclaimed.

Asked if he expected to vote, Saif promptly responded: “Even though the elections will happen, they will not be legitimate, and they will be a disaster. Anybody elected will be a puppet of Bush.” He then concluded, “I will not vote, nor will anyone I know.”

Charges that the United States has unduly influenced the elections are fairly standard in Baghdad. Since many of the best-known candidates have worked directly with Washington since long before the March 2003 invasion, or with occupying forces thereafter, Iraqis look upon them with deep-rooted skepticism. US-funded nonprofit organizations have been heavily involved in the development of political parties, and there is widespread suspicion that back room arrangements have been put in place for months now.

Aimin, the internet café owner, said that the way the elections are being handled is grounds for consternation, reflecting widespread fear that even those votes which are cast could be tampered with.

Indeed, the only international “observers” scheduled to assess the fairness of the polls two weeks from now will be operating out of Amman, Jordan, according to UN and European Union plans. Those groups’ mission is to ensure that the Iraqi vote lives up to “international standards,” as the head of the UN’s small mission put it last November. How they will live up to that mandate from such a remote location remains to be seen.

Direct observation of the elections themselves — which will be held across some 5,000 to 9,000 polling places if the Independent Commission’s plans come to fruition — will be monitored by Iraqis hastily trained and retrained by international organizations, including American partisans funded by US tax dollars. The number of polling places changes based on which official is consulted on what day, and their locations are being kept secret until Election Day, reportedly in order to discourage planned attacks.

“All of my friends are criticizing the elections and everyone involved with them,” Aimin added sternly, echoing a sense in some areas that what could be considered “apathy” is actually rooted in beliefs held by large parts of entire communities. “I will not be voting,” Aimin concluded.

But not everyone shares Aimin’s pessimism. “There will be legitimate elections because everyone nominated will bring Iraq to peace,” said Alia Khalaf, a 24-year-old biologist who is looking forward to the elections. “I will be voting for [current Prime Minister Iyad] Allawi,” he added.

What Khalaf, a Shiite, actually meant is that he will be voting for the list of 240 candidates of which Allawi is a leading figure. Though some individuals are running independently, most candidates only come in sets, which is one of the factors leading to tremendous confusion and frustration among even those who are committed to voting at month’s end.

Again depending which authority one asks, political parties, coalition slates and independent candidates, have fielded somewhere between 83 and 256 slates. In many cases, the names of candidates have been withheld for fear of retribution by rebel groups intent on ruining the election altogether. Each list reportedly contains the names — or the “anonymous” placeholders — of up to 275 candidates.

Among those names that are made public, Iraqis struggle to recognize anyone they can put their support behind. With over 5,000 candidates listed, anonymously or by name, and no one running as a representative of a particular locale, the task of deciding whom to back is too much for some. Many Iraqis say they cannot even figure out the differences between the platforms set forth by various political groupings.

“I have seen the lists, and I don’t know any of them,” said Mustafa, a 20-year-old physics student at Baghdad University. “I don’t know if I’ll vote yet because we don’t know any of these people. I can’t vote for someone I don’t know.”

Because a form of proportional representation will be used to select how many members of the most popular slates will earn seats on the 275-member National Assembly, even for those Iraqis who find agreeable candidates on winning slates, there is no guarantee that their favored politicians will ever hold office.

A 52-year-old tailor in Baghdad, Ibrahim Aziz, shared his aggravation concerning the chaotic electoral process. “Up until now we, I don’t know anything concerning the elections,” he said while mending some suit pants in his small shop. “Even the government doesn’t know who is nominated. We don’t know these lists with no names on them.”

“If there are to be true elections there must be names of people we would be voting for,” added Ahmed, a customer at Aziz’s tailor shop.

For its part, the Independent Commission tasked with orchestrating the elections from start to finish, has offered little sympathy for those voters and candidates alike who feel excluded from the process for any reason.

Asked during an interview with the United Nations’ IRIN news service what the Commission planned to do to help Iraqis learn more about the numerous options on the ballot, spokesperson Farid Ayar responded: “Since 15 December last year parties have been able to promote themselves. If they haven’t done it yet, it’s not our problem, we don’t want to involve ourselves in this issue and add problems to ours.”

Ayar also dismissed the significance of reports from Iraq’s Interior Ministry that police officers are abandoning the force in droves during the lead up to Election Day. “Even if policemen are resigning, the [Defense Ministry] will offer the same security,” he said.

Ayar added, “Any delay of elections can only make things worse, and when the insurgents see that there is an improvement in the country after it, they will think twice before attacking wrong places or innocent people,” reflecting assertions previously made that the capture of former dictator Saddam Hussein, and then the handover of partial sovereignty from the US occupation government to Iraq’s current government last June, would lead to increased security.

Like the government and the Electoral Commission, some Iraqis hold out hope, insisting that the elections present the only prospect for peace in their troubled homeland.

“The elections will happen, and I think they are a good idea,” said Intisar, a 21-year-old college student in Baghdad. “We need a real government, and this will help with security,” she added.

“I think the elections are good and I will vote,” said Jassim, a 36-year-old grocery store owner in Khadimiya, a predominantly Shiite Muslim district in Baghdad. “I hope everybody votes, because the elections will help, I think.”

Still, if current trends continue, there is a significant chance that far fewer than half of eligible Iraqis will cast a vote on January 30. The reasons for what could technically be called “apathy” are of course far more complex than those faced by most countries. The direct threat of retaliation by rebels, the constant threat of random violence by terrorists and even concerns that US or Iraqi security forces will attack or detain voters in certain places all provoke fear among everyday Iraqis.

Whether from the vantage point of Baghdad or New York, accurately reporting specific details of each day’s events — or of the overall situation — is often close to impossible. Discrepancies are the norm as unverified claims and rumors abound on television, the internet and the streets of Iraq alike.

Injecting another level of confusion into the process, several prominent Iraqis have switched their stances on the elections, changed their alignments or maintained vague positions in he past two months. Officials involved with Shiite leader Muqtada Al-Sadr’s popular movement have recently made deeply contradictory statements. While some have said Al-Sadr wishes to distance himself from the elections, others are themselves listed as candidates. More still have participated in promoting the vote, and one Baghdad area Al-Sadr spokesperson told The NewStandard on condition of anonymity that the widely admired cleric has not ruled out calling for a boycott.

Meanwhile, the most powerful Iraqi Shiite figure, Grand Ayatollah Ali Al-Sistani, has not wavered in his support for the elections, which he has been calling for since last January; but Al-Sistani has so far held off from specifically endorsing even the slate of candidates that some of his top aides helped assemble in the venerable cleric’s own name. That has not stopped the group from taking advantage of Al-Sistani’s perceived support, going so far as to include his revered image in some of their campaign posters.

It is also difficult to gauge the extent to which widespread attacks by rebel groups have damaged the potential for elections to even be held in substantial areas of Central and Western Iraq, as well as the northern city of Mosul, in large part presently under siege by US forces. In fact, the number, frequency and severity of attacks are likewise hard to determine, with reports of voter registration sites and materials coming under assault circulating on a daily basis.

Even determining how many lists of candidates will actually appear on the January 30 ballot is an elusive task, with the Independent Commission originally reporting 83, the UN claiming 256 during a ceremonial ordering of the ballot on December 20, and the Iraqi Independent Commission spokesperson putting the number at 111 during the recent IRIN interview.

However the process goes, and whatever its outcome, the one sure thing is that many Iraqis will refuse to accept the authority of whatever combination of 275 hopefuls eventually constitutes the country’s first elected assembly.

“The elections cannot be legitimate because we are under occupation, so I will not be voting, nor will any of my friends,” said Layla Hamad, a Shiite shop owner.

“It’s not a matter of elections, because those in power will stay in power,” commented Suhaid, a 23-year old Shiite who is an unemployed computer science engineer. “This is a big lie and the elections are illegitimate.”

© 2004 The NewStandard