The Iraqi Election Need Not Be an 'Either/Or' Proposition

Marc Ginsberg
Washington, D.C. — Iraq’s transition from dictatorship to democracy will take a major step on January 30th. Millions of Iraqis are expected to go to the polls for three separate elections that will hopefully set the war torn country on the road to a permanent government by the end of this year. Iraqis voting on January 30th will be voting for:

1. A new 275-seat National Assembly
2. Provincial governments
3. A Kurdish parliament

More than 7,000 candidates representing 111 different political entities are registered and are running in these national elections. Technically, over 14.5 million Iraqis are registered and eligible to vote.

The election constitutes the most ambitious experiment in democracy ever undertaken in an Arab country under the most perilous of circumstances.

So, what are these elections really about?

Once a National Assembly is elected, it will be required to draft a permanent constitution for Iraq by August 15, 2005, which will be submitted to the Iraqi people in the form of a referendum on October 15, 2005. If a constitution is adopted, general elections for a permanent government are scheduled for December 15, 2005.

The upcoming election is set against a backdrop of continuing instability and violence in Sunni-dominated regions of the country, which could severely impede voter participation. The Independent Electoral Commission of Iraq (IECI) is leading the way in an effort to operate 9,000 polling centers, but certain areas of Iraq are currently deemed far too dangerous for a vote to occur, and scores of election workers have been attacked and killed in recent days to intimidate voters and election officials.

Prime Minister Ayad Allawi acknowledged this week that pockets of Iraq would be too dangerous for voters to cast ballots. While American and Iraqi forces are engaged in a major effort to pacify as many violence-prone areas as possible, such as al Anbar and Ninewa (Mosul) provinces — ground zero for the insurgency — these and other provinces may ultimately be deemed too insecure for voters to venture to the polls.

However, as courageous as millions of Iraqi voters may be to show the world they desire democracy over dictatorship, there is a real danger that the vote’s legitimacy may be called into question if too many Sunni Iraqis boycott or are unable to participate in the election.

Many Sunni-led organizations have called on Iraq’s Sunni population to boycott election day. (Sunnis constitute 20% of Iraq’s population and were the dominant ruling class under Saddam Hussein’s regime). Many fear their minority status in a new Iraq largely dominated by a Shiite majority.

Many prominent Sunni Iraqi leaders are urging that the elections be postponed given the violence and negative impact a Sunni-led boycott would have on the election’s legitimacy.

Despite the violence and the boycott threats, I believe the elections should proceed even if voters in certain provinces simply cannot or will not participate. The election need not be an 'either/or' proposition. The election can take place in stages, with Sunni-dominated areas and groups participating in a few weeks or few months.

To postpone the elections due to intimidation and violence would constitute a major victory for terrorists and supporters of the former Baathist regime. The insurgents are desperate to prevent this election since they do not want to be seen as fighting a democratically elected government. They desperately want to maintain the fiction that they are fighting to free Iraq from occupation, even though their true goal is to put Saddam back in power.

Whatever may be its outcome or timetable, the January 30 election will not immediately reduce the level of violence in the Sunni-dominated regions. That may only come about only when a democratically elected Iraqi government –— backed by an adequately trained and equipped security force –— has the power to force a final showdown with those who will stop at nothing to return Iraq to the days of terror and dictatorship.

Marc Ginsberg is FOX News Channel's foreign policy analyst, breaking down current world events, including the rebuilding of Afghanistan, conflict with Iraq, and the continuing tensions between Israel and Palestine. With a three-decade career focused on the Middle East as a diplomat and as an international corporate lawyer, Ginsberg gives FOX Fans a comprehensive understanding of key elements in the politics and economics of this volatile region. He served as the ambassador to Morocco duing the Clinton administration. Presently, he is the CEO and managing director of Northstar Equity Group in Washington D.C., a technology venture funding company specializing in equity placements for e-commerce and software application developers.