'Robust' Political Process Offers Hope for Iraq

An Iraqi soldier gives the "V" sign before voting for parliament. Credit: Bob Strong-Reuters. i i

An Iraqi soldier gives the "V" sign before voting for parliament on Dec. 12, 2005, at Kirkush Military Training Base northeast of Baghdad. Iraq's military bases, hospitals and prisons began voting on Monday, ahead of Thursday's national polls. hide caption

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An Iraqi soldier gives the "V" sign before voting for parliament. Credit: Bob Strong-Reuters.

An Iraqi soldier gives the "V" sign before voting for parliament on Dec. 12, 2005, at Kirkush Military Training Base northeast of Baghdad. Iraq's military bases, hospitals and prisons began voting on Monday, ahead of Thursday's national polls.

Much rides on the election of Iraq's first full-term parliament since the U.S. invasion of 2003. The new parliament and ensuing government will face a deadly insurgency and help decide how long the American presence in Iraq is to last.

Islamic and constitutional law scholar Clark Lombardi has followed the political process and met recently at a conference in Italy with Iraqis in the transitional parliament, where they talked about the future of their government.

The Election by Numbers

On Dec. 15, Iraqis will vote for their first full-term parliament since the fall of Saddam Hussein's government in 2003. Key facts:

Number of seats: 275

Women: Guaranteed at least 25 percent of the seats

Number of Voters: More than 15 million registered

Expatriate Voters: Located in 15 countries

Candidates: More than 7,700

Parties: At least 19 broad coalitions, in addition to independent candidates

Parliamentary Term: Four years

Prime Minister: Selected by a two-thirds vote of parliament

Government: Must be formed and seated by Dec. 31

Source: The Associated Press

Lombardi spoke with NPR.org producer Wright Bryan.

Ethno-Religious Map of Iraq

Ethno-religious divisions in Iraq. Credit: NPR.org. i i

Iraq's Sunni Arabs are concerned that the new constitution and government may lead to the enshrinement of Kurd and Shia mini-states in parts of the country where those groups are dominant. hide caption

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Ethno-religious divisions in Iraq. Credit: NPR.org.

Iraq's Sunni Arabs are concerned that the new constitution and government may lead to the enshrinement of Kurd and Shia mini-states in parts of the country where those groups are dominant.

How will you judge whether the elections were a success, or failure?

Iraq's Provinces

Map of Iraq's 18 provinces. Credit: NPR.org. i i

Iraq has 18 provinces. This vote for parliament will be based on a regional voting districts, rather the the single national district used to elect the transitional parliament. hide caption

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Map of Iraq's 18 provinces. Credit: NPR.org.

Iraq has 18 provinces. This vote for parliament will be based on a regional voting districts, rather the the single national district used to elect the transitional parliament.

In the immediate term, I would judge them first on whether there is broad participation by the people, and second, whether there is popular recognition of the results. If most Iraqis vote and most Iraqis accept the vote, then this will have been a successful election.

At some broader level, the elections are suposed to be a first step in the establishment of a viable Iraqi state. So, in the long run, if the elections result in a parliament incapable of making compromises on behalf of their constituents, then they will have to be judged a failure. We'll just have to wait and see whether the people vote for consensus builders or obstructionists before ultimate conclusions can be drawn about the elections. I think it's been a robust political process so far, and I'm more optimistic than I was six weeks ago.

How is this round of elections different from the last parliamentary election?

The structure is different. The vote will be regional this time, rather than one enormous national district. As a practical matter, this means that the Sunni-Arab regions of the country are guaranteed a number of representatives.

After the last elections, you had no real Sunni representation in the transitional parliament. This was a recipe for disaster, and in some ways we're still trying to undow some of the consequences of that situation. Because it will result in meaningful Sunni representation, this election should create a viable chance for Iraq to move forward and create a state that represents the interests of all its communities.

Who will have the greatest influence on the election results?

The number of parties that have formed and articulated platforms is amazing. Iraq is a diverse country and voters have real choices. So I don't think that any one person or group will really shape the election results.

That said, Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani is one of the big players. He's the most influential Shiite cleric and initially he'd taken the position that he wouldn't endorse a party. But now he has called for Iraq's Shia to elect religious parties and this is seen as a thinly veiled endorsement of the United Iraqi Alliance (UIA), the biggest religious Shia coalition in the elections. Sistani's intervention may steer some Shia away from the secular parties of Ahmad Chalabi and Iyad Allawyi. That would have important ramifications.

Still, the outcome of these elections really rests in the hands of the people, and that's exciting.

What is the role of religion in the election?

It plays an important but complicated role — particularly among Shia voters. Many Shia are considered to be observant religious figures who are inclined to vote for people whom they think will shape a state that reflects conservative islamic values. But these religious Shia are not homogenous. There is a rift between the original Shia establishment — represented by Sistani — and a new, more energetic movement lead by people like the cleric Moqtada al-Sadr. There is a lot of tension between the two over who will represent the Shia on the national stage.

It is important that al-Sadr has entered the political process after leading a couple of rebellions in the post-Saddam era. All of Iraq's players — the Kurds, the Sunni and the Shia factions — still hold on to the threat of violence as a means to an end. But it is a good sign that someone like al-Sadr is willing and able to engage in the political process. It suggests that there may in fact be political solutions to issues that once looked as if they would have to be resolved by force.

What role will women play in the election? Are they a factor?

The new election law establishes a quota requiring a certain number of parliamentarians to be women. So there will be women in parliament. I've also been enormously impressed by the women I've met who are currently sitting the transitional parliament. Based on my interactions with them, I think the women who are elected this time around will be very competent people, and active. Male figures will still dominate politics and will be the public face of most political factions, but I expect women will play a subtantive role in Iraq's parliament.

How do the campaigns address the U.S. presence in Iraq?

Clearly, among the populace it's a huge issue. And I don't think anyone has come out strongly in favor of the U.S. presence.

The Sunnis are the most explicit about their feelings. The Sunnis think the American troops are a source of suffering for their community. Thus, many Sunni political parties are calling the U.S. presence an occupation and are calling for it to end quickly.

The Kurds and the various Shia groups are ambivalent about America's military presence. Kurdistan is largely stable, and the Kurds gain considerably by having the U.S. policing the other parts of the country. So they are the most complacent about the U.S. presence. Most of the Shia would like to U.S. troops to leave. But they're aware that a rapid withdrawal could be against their immediate interests and lead to more violence.

What do Iraqis expect from the election?

I don't think we can easily break it down because there are so many competing visions for the future of Iraq. There really is a diversity of opinion.

That said, I think the Kurds expect to finally formalize their semi-independence, a system they're really happy with.

The Sunnis hope they will get a new parliament that will allow them to sit down at the table and bargain in good faith over issues that they've been unhappy about since the summer. They want to protect their economic viability and civil rights. And they really want to reopen the constitution, which was drafted without their input.

The Shia are of many minds. They have many different expectations and hopes. The religious Shia hope to use the elections to shape Iraq as a country that they're comfortable with — one where they have significant political influence and one with a strong Islamic identity.

The secular Shia expect and hope that they can foster a new, unifying nationalism and a centralized state that tempers the country's religious identity.

Who will arbitrate if the election results are contested?

Formally it's the Independent Electoral Commission of Iraq's (IECI) role to supervise the procedure for protesting and appealing the vote. Then there's an appeal beyond that to a panel of judges.

At the margins this could work. But if there is a significant question about the overall vote, this would be a potentially serious problem and we'd need to cross our fingers.

Are the Iraqis buying into the idea of democracy?

I think they are. The people and the current parliamentarians get it. They understand the relationship between the politicians and the electorate. They know that the relationship is about compromise.

Based on my discussions with them, parliamentarians are sensitive to the need for leadership, but also understand that they need to reflect the people's will. And that raises one important, and potentially worrying, point. The elites seem more ready to compromise than the people on the ground. And a lot of events in Iraq are being driven from the ground up. So those trying to ensure that Iraq stabilizes will have to remember that any compromise that really secures the future of Iraq will have to happen with the consent of the people on the ground, not just the people in parliament.

Clark Lombardi is a professor at the University of Washington School of Law, specializing in constitutional law and Islamic law. Last summer, he served on a team of experts assembled by the National Democratic Institute providing assistance to the Iraqi Constitutional Drafting Committee. Last month, he took part in a week-long workshop in Sicily, Italy, with a large number of Iraqi parliamentarians and members of civil society, many of whom are candidates for the new parliament. The workshop focused on federal government structures.

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