The Risks of an Iraq Election

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Charles Dharapak/AP

HIGH STAKES: Allawi and Bush are pushing for January elections in Iraq

There's little doubt that an election can be held in Iraq by the January deadline agreed by the Bush administration and Iraq's interim government. The question is whether, under the prevailing security circumstances, a credible poll can be conducted. That's because the purpose of holding an election now is to secure the all-important legitimacy of a popular mandate for a new government to stabilize Iraq. By that measure, an election whose credibility is questioned by substantial sections of the Iraqi population and the international community could do more harm than good. And the prospect of the January deadline producing a flawed election has led observers from UN Secretary General Kofi Annan and Jordan's Crown Prince Abdullah to Democratic presidential nominee John Kerry to urge a postponement. But the flip-side of the coin may be equally dangerous: the consequences of not holding the election on schedule could add the prospect of massive Shiite unrest to the security challenge posed by multiple insurgencies, and leave the Allawi government in a legal and political limbo in which the basis of its tenure becomes increasingly open to question. More importantly, even, postponement would be hailed as an important victory by the insurgents, and give them the confidence and incentive to escalate their challenge.

The election plan requires registering some 12 million Iraqi voters between now and January 31, during which time they will be asked to go to the polls and elect a 275-member constitutional assembly. That group will appoint a new caretaker government, and debate and adopt a new constitution for Iraq, which must be approved in a nationwide referendum by October 2005. The first elections under that new constitution would be held two months much later, which means that to cement their new order, Iraqis will be required to go to the polls three times in the space of a year. That's a tall order given the widespread and escalating insurgent violence: As the Iraqi electoral commission works on voter rolls in one part of the capital, U.S. warplanes drop bombs on buildings in another. Still, voter registration and other basic infrastructure arrangements are currently on track, according to electoral officials. Rather than setting up registration stations that could be attacked by insurgents and requiring Iraqis to face intimidation from naysayers upon entering and leaving, the electoral commission — comprised of a UN adviser and eight Iraqi technocrats appointed by the UN — has opted to base the voter roll on the ration cards issued to Iraqi households by the UN to supply them with food during the decade of international sanctions. In November, when the heads of most Iraqi households collect their ration cards for 2005, they'll also be invited to register. (Other arrangements will be made to accommodate returning exiles and members of the 3 million-strong Iraqi diaspora.)

At the polling stations, voters will be asked to choose a political party rather than an individual. The election will be run on a proportional-representation list system — each party contesting the election offers a list of candidates to fill the number of seats proportional to the share of the popular vote it wins. A party that earns 25 percent of the overall vote, for example, would be allocated 69 seats in the 275-member assembly, to be filled by the first 69 candidates on its electoral list. They'll also be invited to elect provincial assemblies on the same basis, and in the case of the autonomous Kurdish zone, to elect the members of the Iraqi Kurdistan National Assembly.

The UN estimates Iraq will need some 30,000 polling stations nationwide, and an electoral staff of some 120,000, yet to be put in place; currently, the UN presence in Iraq is limited, for security reasons, to a meager 35 people.

With election day only four months away, the rules of the game are yet to be established by the electoral commission, and there's no certainty over the identity of the parties that will appear on those lists, and in what combination. Obviously, those participating in the interim government will likely contest the election — the Allawi government is reported to be trying to cobble together an agreement for the interim government parties to compete as a single list, to create a kind of force-multiplier for groupings such as his own Iraqi National Accord that have limited political standing. Shiite spiritual leader Ayatollah Ali Sistani has expressed unhappiness at the idea of a slate of mostly former-exile parties dominating the election in this way, and his boycott threat may yet pressure the major Shiite parties to avoid standing on Allawi's ticket. Among Shiite political groups, the most important questions are whether Sistani gives the poll his blessing — he may be unhappy about some of the terms on which it is conducted, but he has previously threatened to call a mass Shiite uprising if the election is not held on schedule — and whether the mass movement led by Moqtada Sadr, which is particularly popular among urban Shiite youth, will participate. A Sadr spokesman reiterated this week that the movement would boycott elections as long as U.S. troops remained in Iraq. The Sadr group's capacity to disrupt voting in Baghdad and throughout the Shiite south would pose a significant threat. On the other hand, if Sistani perceives the poll as an opportunity to cement the claim of the Shiite majority for the dominant role in shaping Iraq's future, the firebrand Sadr could be persuaded to cooperate.

The major challenge, at this stage, remains creating a security environment in which Iraqis are free to go to the polls. Already, some in Washington, such as Defense Secretary Don Rumsfeld, are hedging by suggesting that the election could simply bypass those areas in which insurgent violence renders safe polling impossible. One or two towns cannot be allowed to hold up a whole nation's progress towards democracy, Rumsfeld argued. The idea of a partial election was quickly challenged by other U.S. officials, and by the Iraqi electoral commission. The problem it raises is not confined to a couple of towns, but potentially to a whole ethnic group; the security situation in much of the Sunni heartland is perilous right now, and it will be some of these areas that would be passed over in a partial vote. With the Sunni Arabs already confronting the prospect that Iraqi democracy will transform them from a ruling elite into a 15-20 percent minority, the effect of excluding whole Sunni towns from the vote will likely strengthen the hand of Sunni forces calling for a boycott. If the Sunnis as a bloc stay out of the election, that's a massive victory for the insurgency — and one that could sustain it for years to come. Sunni abstinence also dims prospects for a new Iraqi government winning wider Arab support. Iraq's Arab neighbors have urged the U.S. to do more to give the Sunnis a stake in the new Iraq, and Jordan's Crown Prince Abdullah — perhaps Washington's closest ally among the Arab regimes — warned on Monday that no credible poll in Iraq is possible amid the current "chaos."

The U.S. plans to address the security situation by launching an offensive in December, between the U.S. election and the Iraqi one, to break the grip of insurgents on some of the population centers in the Sunni triangle. But as Fallujah and Najaf have previously shown, frontal assaults on population centers tend to produce a furious backlash in the Iraqi public, even when Iraqi troops are used on the frontlines. Keeping to the January deadline would require conducting the election campaign amid bloody battles in some Iraqi towns, whose political effect would likely to be to radicalize the views of the civilian population.

The question facing Allawi and the U.S. is not so much whether some kind of poll can be held, but rather whether such a poll could achieve sufficient recognition to allow Iraq's transition to proceed on its current terms. That's not a goal that Washington and its Iraqi allies can achieve on their own, no matter how great their effort and investment. It will depend, ultimately, on the extent to which they can persuade others, from Sistani to Iraq's neighbors and the wider international community, of the bona fides of the planned election. That may be why Allawi and the U.S. last week quietly launched an effort to hold a high-level international conference on the Iraqi election next month. Rather than confining it to President Bush's "coalition of the willing," they're looking to bring in the G-8 countries and all of Iraq's neighbors, including Iran, to seek some consensus on Iraq's immediate future. Similar talks will be proceeding, no doubt, among divers Iraqi political factions. The prospects for an election that can be deemed a success now depend on the ability of the Bush administration, and its Iraqi allies, to reach agreement not only among themselves, but with many of those in Iraq and outside who have opposed them.