A Q&A on Iraq's March 7 parliamentary elections

McClatchy NewspapersMarch 2, 2010 

Thanks to a government quota, one in four Iraqi candidates is a woman. Their campaign posters show the diversity of Iraqi women, from ones wearing traditional headscarves to those with makeup and their hair uncovered, such as the candidate shown in this poster in Baghdad, Iraq. Iraqis enjoy poking fun at candidates and their campaign posters ahead of the March 7 parliamentary elections. (Hannah Allam/MCT)

BAGHDAD — On Sunday, Iraqis will vote in parliamentary elections that will shape their country's future. Here are some of the major questions along with answers culled from United Nations, U.S. and other international and Iraqi sources.

Q: Why are elections for parliament so important?

A: Unlike the U.S., Iraq has no presidential election. The president has largely a ceremonial role, and the real power lies with the prime minister. Iraqi voters will cast votes for one of many political parties (they can also vote for some individuals). Those political parties have formed political alliances with other blocs. The alliance that gets the most votes will get to choose the prime minister and will have greater say in forming a Cabinet and could have more legislators in parliament. So, the government formed by a nationalist, pro-Western slate could look very different from a government formed by a religious-based, Iranian-backed slate.

Q: Is there just one Election Day?

A: The main Election Day is March 7. However, March 4 will be a special voting day for members of Iraq's security forces and some medical workers because people in those fields will be securing the country on Election Day. And there will be three days of special voting — March 5,6 and 7 — in 16 countries for voters living outside Iraq as refugees or immigrants. The U.N. says the out-of-country vote could range from 300,000 to 3 million.

Q: Who are the candidates?

A: About 6,200 candidates are running for office. Some are members of the incumbent government of Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki. Others are from powerful political parties and tribal confederations. Still others are first-timers, total unknowns. Candidates include doctors, lawyers, tribal leaders, clerics, educators and businessmen and women. Some Iraqis complain of a conflict of interest because the candidates include some sitting judges and media personalities — people who should remain neutral, according to their professions' standards. All candidates had to pass a background test and, in one of the most controversial aspects of the election season, they had to be cleared of any suspicion of past involvement with the Baath Party of the late dictator Saddam Hussein.

Q: Are women allowed to vote and run as candidates?

A: Yes to both. Because of a government quota, 25 percent of all candidates are women, to ensure that women make up a quarter of parliament, or at least 82 seats out of a total of 325 seats. However, there are lots of tricky moves the parties employ to fill the female quota, such as signing up their wives or other relatives as candidates. There are no legal restrictions on women voting.

Q: What will security be like on Election Day?

A: There will be a heavy Iraqi police and Iraqi army presence around polling places. The Iraqi government has announced a four-day nighttime curfew starting Thursday. Borders between the provinces will be sealed a day or two before Election Day. On Election Day, there is a total ban on vehicles (a measure to prevent car bombs) with exceptions for security forces, election workers/monitors, and media, who must display special placards on their cars.

Q: How many eligible voters are there? What kind of turnout is expected?

A: There are 18.9 million eligible voters inside Iraq. No one has a good prediction for turnout because there are a number of wild cards, the first being security at polling places and whether voters feel safe enough to leave home and cast their ballots. Because of the vehicle ban on Election Day and to make sure voters don't overwhelm polling places, only 420 voters will be registered at each polling place. Each voter is supposed to have a polling place within a short walk from home. There are special polling places for the up to 183,000 Iraqis who were internally displaced, typically because of sectarian violence.

Q: Who pays the bill?

A: The Iraqi government has allocated a budget of $250 million to the Independent High Electoral Commission (known as IHEC) to recruit and train up to 300,000 election staff members.

Q: What is being done to prevent vote-buying, tampering with the ballots and other fraud?

A: Rumors — some quite credible — abound of politicians handing constituents cash in exchange for votes. What can be confirmed is that candidates have given potential voters air conditioners, guns, blankets and lavish meals in exchange for promises of votes. Ballot tampering might be a bit more difficult. The ballots are printed, and they're being kept in heavily guarded warehouses until they are distributed for Election Day. Each polling center has voting lists, and each voter will enter a polling place, confirm with an election worker that his or her name is on the list at that station, present a photo ID, sign next to the name, receive a ballot and then cast the ballot in private. Illiterate voters can seek the help of an election worker or a relative who has proper ID establishing the relationship.

Q: Will there be international monitors?

A: Yes, 500 to 600, although the U.N. complains there aren't enough for such a massive, complicated undertaking. There will be 13 teams of U.N. "poll-watchers," but they won't be doing monitoring per se because the U.N. is involved in helping to carry out the elections. There will be other teams of election observers doing monitoring — for example, the European Union is sending 126 observers to 14 provinces. The majority of the monitoring will be conducted by Iraqis, especially from the individual political parties.

Q: When can we expect election results?

A: There should be a rough indicator of results within a day or two. After polls close March 7, Iraqi election workers will count the ballots in the polling places under the watch of monitors, a process that is expected to take until midnight or later. Results of each polling place will be posted at the polling site and will remain up for 24 hours — which gives sophisticated parties the ability to send scouts to each polling place and tally up the rough results fairly quickly. After that initial count, the ballots are taken to secure warehouses where 1,100 data-entry workers will work in two shifts to enter the data. As soon as 30 percent of the polling stations in each province is entered, IHEC will begin issuing preliminary results, which will be updated twice a day until the process is complete. The absolute final results — after disputes/complaints are settled and the out-of-country ballots are in — may not be certified until the end of March.

Q: How soon after the results will a new Iraqi government be formed?

A: The results will kick off an intense — and possibly violent — period of horse-trading and deal-making. Some U.S. military and American civilian advisers have speculated it will take four to six months before a new government is formed. Others say that's optimistic, given the fractious nature of Iraqi politics.

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