Ballot Debate Rumbles On

Iraqis have conflicting opinions over calls for direct popular vote.

Ballot Debate Rumbles On

Iraqis have conflicting opinions over calls for direct popular vote.

Tuesday, 22 February, 2005

(ICR No. 47, 09-Feb-04)

For the past two months, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani has focused Iraq's political attention on his demand for the direct election of the country's first sovereign government.

Indeed, Sistani has even been able to focus international attention to the point that the United Nations has agreed to send a delegation of experts to determine whether elections actually are feasible.

The ayatollah has criticised the November 15 agreement reached between the Governing Council and the Coalition Provisional Authority, which calls for sovereignty to be transferred by June 30 to an Iraqi transitional assembly chosen through a system of regional caucuses.

Although the plan does call for direct elections by March 2005, Sistani has asked for them to be held sooner, and for no un-elected authority to take power in the interim.

"The ayatollah has reiterated his stance that the planned transitional national assembly cannot represent Iraqis in an ideal manner," read a statement released by Sistani's office in mid-January.

"Experts think it is possible to organise fair and transparent elections in the coming months," the statement added.

In the past weeks, tens of thousands of marchers have come out across the country to demand elections, while such council members as Ahmed Chalabi of the Iraqi National Congress and Abd al-Aziz al-Hakim of the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq have issued statements in support.

"We should have elections in Iraq and we should keep to the [June 30] timetable of the transfer of sovereignty," Hakim told reporters on January 20.

Chalabi, meanwhile, said in Washington on January 23 that "elections are possible", and that the system of indirect elections envisioned by the November 15 agreement was a "sure fire way to have instability".

But support for Sistani's call is not universal, as some people vigorously oppose the idea while others profess no opinion on it at all.

Gathering numbers is not easy, but even one writer's survey of Baghdadis revealed a host of conflicting opinions over the call for elections.

These opinions were not split exactly along sectarian lines, but Shia tended to support Sistani's call, while many Sunni Arabs and Kurds were more likely to argue that electing a government was unfeasible, or simply not a top priority given Iraq's current problems.

"Sistani is wise in his decision to call for [swift] elections," said Hussein Ali, a resident of the Shia holy city of Karbala who describes himself as a supporter of the ayatollah. "It is necessary for the national council to be elected directly by the people."

"Maybe it wouldn't be an ideal election, but it would give us more legitimacy than having appointed officials," said Haydar al-Araji, a Shia trader from the southern province of Babylon.

"We are aware of logistical and technical problems surrounding the elections as well as the security concerns, but I believe they can be 90 per cent successful."

Abbas Yasir, however, a follower of murdered Shia scholar Mohammed Sadiq al-Sadr from the east Baghdad slum of Sadr City, said Iraq should "give the Americans a chance to keep their promise to hand over authority to the Iraqis. We have to depend on the November 15 agreement".

But more important than politics, he said, is "maintaining security, ensuring that all Iraqis get food, and employment".

"I oppose early elections," said Hamza Obaid, a Sunni student at Baghdad's Mustansiriya University. "There is no reason for demonstrations. Priority should go to security and the economy."

The authorities "must ensure jobs for us, so we can keep our dignity, before they think about elections," said Thamir Rahah, an unemployed Shia from the predominantly Sunni Dulaimi tribe in the west Baghdad district of al-Bayaa.

Some Iraqis demanded elections, but not under foreign occupation.

"In spite of the illegitimacy of the Governing Council, we reject [both] elections and a system of appointments while there are occupying forces. The occupying forces must leave Iraq and then we can have elections," said Sheikh Ahmed Abd al-Ghaffour, the imam for the west Baghdad Sunni mosque of Um al-Kura.

"Let there be elections under the supervision of the United Nations or some other international body," said Sunni journalist Karim Abed Minaf.

Others dismissed the prospect of elections purely as a device to get the foreigner occupiers out faster.

"I reject elections," said Farhad, a Kurdish taxi driver in Baghdad. "It will take a long time, and require a lot of effort and more money. That gives the [coalition] invaders the chance to stay longer."

"There are qualified people that could lead the country, and you could appoint them directly without elections," he added, without specifying who should make the appointments.

"I don't care for politics. We got fed up with politics under the Saddam regime," said Amr Ali, a Shia factory worker in the military industries. "Let America solve the problem."

Others wanted their old president back.

"Neither the Governing Council nor elections - nothing will represent will me. The only representative for me is Saddam," said Safaa Mohammed, Sunni who does day labour in the western Iraqi town of Ramadi.

"We didn't practice democratic elections under Saddam," said Sunni carpenter Firas Jassem, from al-Amal. "This whole elections concept is vague for me."

Shia foreman Hasan Hadi is also weary of the process. "I just want to wake up tomorrow and find a new president. He can be Sunni or Shia, Arab or Kurd, and I don't care how he gets there."

Kamal Ali, Adnan Karem and Haytham al-Husseini are IWPR trainee journalists in Baghdad.

Iraqi Kurdistan, Iraq
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