To: Interested Parties
From: Robert O. Boorstin

Despite the Bush administration’s determination to push ahead, there is a distinct possibility that Iraqi elections will not be able to proceed as scheduled or will be held in the midst of chaotic violence. With the situation on the ground so insecure, it is difficult to effectively plan into the future. Rules and procedures for the January elections are continuously being developed and changed on an ad hoc basis, adding to the growing confusion throughout the country. Successful elections would be a boost to prospects for a free and democratic Iraq, but expectations must be tempered – they will do little to settle deep-rooted divisions or ensure stability in the country.

  • The January elections are the first step in a three step process. The January elections will form a legitimate 275-member National Assembly whose major purpose is to draft a new permanent constitution. If a new constitution is agreed to additional elections are then supposed to be held no later than December 2005. Insurgents will likely attempt to disrupt not just the upcoming elections, but the delicate constitutional negotiations, and the December 2005 elections as well.
  • Securing polling places will be an impossible task. It is estimated that 9,000 polling places throughout the country will be needed. The targeting of polling sites could potentially disenfranchise entire communities. Reflecting the potential crisis, Prime Minister Allawi has suggested that elections should be held over a period of a few weeks so forces can concentrate on protecting a few designated areas at a time rather than the whole country. Regardless of the exact timetable, elections will be tainted by violence and it is likely that U.S. troops will be blamed by the population for failing to provide full security.
  • Voting will likely take place along ethnic and religious lines. Seats in the new National Assembly will be allocated according to the proportion of votes a party receives in the election. In an effort to increase their percentage of the vote both the Shia and Kurds have formed single party lists in order to improve their position in the National Assembly. Shia leader Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani succeeded in bringing together an incredibly diverse slate of 22 parties into an umbrella group, which also contains the alliance between firebrand cleric Muqtada Sadr and former Bush administration favorite Ahmed Chalabi.
  • There will be legitimacy problems. A number of groups centered in Sunni areas have called for a boycott of the elections and are willing to resort to violence and intimidation to see that a boycott holds. There are a few small moderate Sunni parties, but none are strong enough to counter extremist voices. Iraqi elder statesman, Dr. Adnan Pachachi, who turned down the offer from Lakhdar Brahimi to become Iraq’s interim Prime Minister, has said that turnout might be as low as five percent in the predominantly Sunni areas of Iraq. If a boycott takes place, a new National Assembly would possess almost no legitimacy in the eyes of the Sunni public, further marginalizing them from the political process.
  • The United Nations is not running the election. There are 35 UN workers on the ground, of which only three are election specialists. Another 25 experts may deploy, but have thus far been unable due to the deteriorating security situation in Iraq. The UN is there merely to advise the Iraqi Electoral Commission, which is made up of Iraqis and is responsible for the running of the election. The International Foundation of Election Systems, International Republican Institute, and the National Democratic Institute are on the ground helping to prepare Iraqis for the election. The Bush administration may attempt to blame the UN for election problems, but the administration never created the security that the UN required.
  • Preparations are behind schedule. Although it is estimated that 150,000 people will be needed for the elections, few have been hired and trained. The Iraqi Electoral Commission has also yet to lay out all the rules and procedures governing the elections, which means that those that have been flown out of the country and trained will have to be trained again. The Commission is also responsible for organizing the elections for Provincial governments and the Kurdish Regional Assembly.
  • Mass confusion about the elections. A poll by the International Republican Institute found that 40 percent of Iraqis do not know who or what they are voting for, the procedures and process of the elections, the location of polling stations, and crucially, the platforms and positions of the hundreds of political parties and over 4000 candidates. Educating voters on these issues is crucial to ensuring the credibility of the elections.
  • The expatriate vote could cause controversy. In a questionable move, the Iraqi Electoral Commission has opened up the process for expatriate Iraqis in fourteen countries, including the United States, to vote. The decision to allow an estimated 1.5 million expatriates the right to vote caused concern amongst many Iraqis, who see this as a way for outsiders to skew the election results.

Robert O. Boorstin is the senior vice president for national security at the Center for American Progress.

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