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Iraqi voting rules raise concern about challenges

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

BAGHDAD —  Iraqi officials acknowledged problems Tuesday in determining how winners will be chosen in regional elections, raising concerns that electoral challenges could tarnish the key Jan. 31 vote.

U.S. and Iraqi officials have pinned their hopes on the balloting to unify the country's fractious ethnic and sectarian groups. But confusion about the results could undermine that goal and provide a new source of tension.

Voters in 14 of the country's 18 provinces will choose members of ruling councils, which wield considerable powers at the regional level. The vote is widely seen as a dress rehearsal for national parliamentary elections expected by the end of the year.

One of the most contentious issues is how to ensure the fair representation of women _ with questions arising over how to implement a legally required quota system setting aside seats for them on the councils.

The confusion stems from the election law that sets guidelines for the vote. The measure was enacted in November after months of bitter debate among rival ethnic and religious factions.

Members of the Independent High Electoral Commission, which oversees balloting, said the law was unclear on certain points, including how to allocate seats based on the number of votes received.

Lack of clarity has forced the commission make its own interpretations in establishing the specific guidelines for the vote.

Commission chief Faraj al-Haidari singled out the women's quota system, saying the committee had decided to mandate one female winner for every two men because the law did not take into account smaller parties without female candidates.

"The elections law says that for every four winners there is a woman, but the commission had another interpretation," he said. "This is not applicable in the small entities that have only one or two people, and this might mean that women might get less than their stated quota."

Jalaluddin al-Saghir, a lawmaker with the biggest Shiite party, said the issue could prove problematic.

"I think this process will create problems in the end because some male candidates will feel that some women have won despite the fact that they had fewer votes," he said.

The electoral commission also said it had taken measures to minimize confusion at the polls since voters for the first time will be allowed to choose candidates instead of just political parties.

But the voters must understand that a vote for a political party is required while individual candidates are optional. If they mark only an individual, the ballot is invalid.

Candidates' names won't appear on the ballot. Instead they will be identified by numbers found on a board posted in the polling station.

Officials decided not to include names of candidates on the ballots because of the large number _ 14,431 nationwide, competing for 444 council seats. Of that total, 3,912 candidates are women.

Al-Haidari said 502 political groups had registered to compete and 75 percent of those were new.

Commission member Qassim al-Aboudi said education campaigns were under way to make sure voters know how to cast their ballots.

"The instructions on the ballot paper have been formulated in such a way as to make it very clear to the voters what they must do and formulated in a way to reduce mistakes as much possible," al-Aboudi told reporters Tuesday. "We anticipate that the mistakes will be very few as long as the voter follows the instructions."

But with just over two weeks to go before the vote, it's unclear whether many voters will be savvy enough to mark the ballot properly in a country with a high rate of illiteracy. Large numbers of rejected ballots are likely to result in legal challenges and allegations of fraud.

A conversation overheard by an Associated Press reporter on a minibus in Baghdad this week showed that some voters do not even know the date of the election. Some believe the U.S.-backed government would impose winners.

The top U.N. envoy in Iraq, Staffan de Mistura, urged Iraqis not to expect immediate results and to await an official announcement by the electoral commission.

"That will require some time because we will go through every possible complaint, every possible allegation. So the Iraqi people will have to be patient," he said.

However, most major parties in Iraq are religious or ethnically based, and suspicion among them runs deep after years of violence.

The vote for provincial councils is expected to redistribute power more equitably, thereby empowering minority Sunnis and defusing support for the insurgency.

But the process leading up to the elections in 14 provinces has highlighted lingering political tensions as Shiite, Sunni and Kurdish parties jockeying for power remained deadlocked on the elections law until finally agreeing to postpone the vote in the province that includes the disputed city of Kirkuk _ the main stumbling block.

Special arrangements have been made for tens of thousands of Iraqis who have been forced from their homes during the sectarian violence.

Iraqi security forces, hospital patients and employees and detainees also will be allowed to vote three days early, al-Haidari said at a news conference to announce the rules for the vote.

He said tamperproof ballots were ready to be delivered to voting centers in the next few days and expressed confidence about stringent measures to prevent fraud, including the use of indelible ink to prevent people from voting twice and watermarks on the ballots.

Copyright 2009 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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