Jan. Elections Remain Misunderstood in U.S., Tenuous in Iraq

Dahr Jamail in Baghdad contributed to this piece.

Asked last week if Sunni participation was needed to make Iraq’s national elections “free and fair,” President Bush told reporters that he was “confident [that] when people realize that there’s a chance to vote on a President, they will participate.”

Bush’s statement constitutes a significant misrepresentation of Iraq’s upcoming election, albeit one likely believed by millions of Americans. In truth, Iraqis will not be voting for a president or any other executive.

While most Americans have little idea — or the wrong idea — about how the so-called “transition to democracy” in Iraq is supposed to work, politicians and the media have done little to clear up misconceptions of the process. But its complexity and the hastiness with which it is being carried out are reminiscent of last summer’s experiment in assembly democracy, a development that has analysts worried that even if the election is not completely ruined by violence, it will be spoiled by political operatives.

It might be politically advantageous for President Bush to oversimplify Iraq’s transitional process in a public address, but he demonstrated a much better understanding of it six months ago, when he spoke before the US Army War College.

“In [the January] election, the Iraqi people will choose a transitional national assembly, the first freely-elected, truly representative national governing body in Iraq’s history,” Bush more accurately explained in May, though the degree to which the body will be “truly representative” is in dispute.

“This assembly will serve as Iraq’s legislature,” Bush continued, “and it will choose a transitional government with executive powers. The transitional national assembly will also draft a new constitution, which will be presented to the Iraqi people in a referendum scheduled for the fall of 2005. Under this new constitution, Iraq will elect a permanent government by the end of next year.”

In other words, even if limited popular elections can proceed in the face of escalating political and security crises, none of Iraq’s estimated 12 to 14 million eligible voters will cast a ballot for president in the election scheduled for January 30, 2005. Iraqis do not yet have the right to vote for executive officials.

For at least the next year, Iraq’s sovereignty will reside in a kind of limbo begun on June 28, 2004. That was the day Iraq’s administrative responsibilities were transferred from the US-led Coalition Provisional Authority and its appointed Iraqi Governing Council to the un-elected Iraqi Interim Government backed by the US. The country’s interim constitution next mandates a two-phase “transitional period,” whereby the interim government is replaced with a new, partially elected Iraqi Transitional Government.

Iraqis will be voting for the core of a powerful transitional legislature — the 237-member National Assembly. According to the current, temporary constitution of Iraq, the National Assembly’s “principal mission shall be to legislate and exercise oversight over the work of the executive authority.”

As President Bush correctly noted in May, it is the National Assembly — not the Iraqi people — that will determine who serves in the executive branch, electing Iraq’s president and two deputies of state. Collectively, these three officials form the state’s presidential council, and must unanimously select Iraq’s next prime minister, Iyad Allawi’s successor.

The prime minister is responsible for presenting the Presidential Council with recommendations for the Cabinet of Ministers. Upon a vote of confidence from the National Assembly, the first phase of Iraq’s “transitional period” toward full sovereignty is considered ended and its second phase will have just begun.

Phase two ends once the Assembly finishes drafting a permanent constitution, approved in a public referendum, and a new government is elected; if everything goes according to plan, this will all occur by December 31, 2005.

However, some analysts are concerned that January’s scheduled election will be undermined — not only by “insurgents,” but also by US-backed political operatives.

Marina S. Ottaway, a senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace who penned a fiery op-ed in the Washington Post appealing to the US not to “rig” the Iraqi elections, told The NewStandard she is concerned the process may be a rerun of last summer’s Iraqi National Conference, widely considered to have been a major fiasco.

Held in August, the Conference was originally touted as an opportunity for Iraqis to serve as delegates and elect a 100-member interim National Council from amongst the event’s 1,200 participants. The four-day conference became a debacle that pitted many of the delegates against former members of the defunct Iraqi Governing Council, who enjoyed the United States’ support.

Not only were 19 seats already pledged to the remaining ex-Governing Council members who had not previously been absorbed into the Interim Government in June, but many former Council members served double duty organizing the National Conference and participating as delegates.

TNS reported on August 22 on delegates’ difficulty in grappling with unexpected rules that denied them the opportunity to run individually for the seats, forcing delegates to form slates according to conference requirements, such as the inclusion of women. But many participants complained most delegates never had a chance, as the winning slate was almost three months in the making, its competition scraped together in a matter of days.

The result was that powerful, unpopular, US-backed political parties — most formed in exile from where they safely advocated the 2003 invasion of Iraq — gained overwhelming representation in the first phase of Iraq’s transitional process.

Ottaway suspects the US is not interested in a “genuinely competitive” election come January but instead has plans to somehow weight the process in favor of Washington’s preferred outcome.

Dr. Wamidh Omar Nadhmi, a senior political scientist at Baghdad University, shares Ottaway’s general concerns. “Have a free election, and don’t take sides,” he rhetorically advised the US in a recent interview with TNS in his home. “Don’t give unnecessary support for people who are unrooted in the society.”

Nominees for the next Assembly must be backed with at least 500 signatures and meet several other requirements, some of them vague enough to leave plenty of room for controversial interpretations. Article 31 of the transitional constitution lists eight qualifications ranging from age and education to the expected elimination of certain members of the previous regime to other, less quantifiable conditions.

For instance, individuals who “have enriched” themselves “in an illegitimate manner at the expense of the homeland and public finance” are to be barred from running, even if they’ve never been legally charged or convicted of any crime. Oddly, the only criminals directly barred from candidacy are those “convicted of a crime involving moral turpitude.” The constitution does not offer any further clarification on this point, but merely insists that the nominee “shall have a good reputation.”

While the elections for the National Assembly may overcome seemingly insurmountable obstacles and allow for the formation of yet another transitional government, Iraqis still face the possibility that the Assembly will fail to draft a constitution in time for the October 15, 2005 general referendum at which it must be approved, or that the public will reject the measure next fall.

The constitution addresses both scenarios with the same remedy: If, by August 1, the National Assembly is unable to draft a permanent constitution, the Presidency Council may grant a six-month extension. Should they miss that deadline, or should Iraqi voters fail to approve a draft constitution, the National Assembly is dissolved, a new one elected and the second phase starts all over again.

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