Iraqi Municipal Elections a Success

WaPo: In Iraqi Towns, Electoral Experiment Finds Some Success

With a knack for improvisation and little help from Baghdad, [Tobin] Bradley, the political adviser for the Coalition Provisional Authority in Nasiriyah, has carried out what may stand as one of the most ambitious democratic experiments in Iraq’s history, a project that goes to the heart of the debate about how Iraq’s next government should be chosen. In the province of Dhi Qar, about 230 miles southeast of Baghdad and a backwater even by Iraq’s standards, residents voting as families will have elected city councils in 16 of the 20 biggest cities by next month. Bradley will have organized 11, more than half of them this month.

At every turn, the elections have set precedents, some of them unanticipated. Voters have typically elected professionals rather than tribal or religious leaders, although the process has energized Islamic parties. Activists have gone door to door to organize women, who turned out in their largest numbers this past week in some of Iraq’s most conservative towns. Most important is the way residents qualify to cast ballots — cards issued by Hussein’s government to distribute monthly rations.

In the debate over the U.S.-administered transfer of power to an Iraqi government, those cards have emerged as a crux of the dispute. U.S. authorities have resisted elections for choosing the next government, fearing that — in the absence of up-to-date voter rolls — logistical challenges and the potential for fraud could not be addressed before June 30, the date of the scheduled handover. But Iraq’s most influential religious leader, Ayatollah Ali Sistani, has suggested that ration cards could substitute for voter rolls.

While making clear they are not endorsing the idea for all of Iraq, U.S. and British officials say the ration-card system works strikingly well in this province, Iraq’s fourth-largest. “In principle, we here are quite in favor of it, and people like it,” said John Bourne, the British coordinator in the province. “The question is, will it work on a larger scale here, and the next question is, will it work elsewhere?”

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With about a month of planning — at a cost of about $600 each — Bradley organized back-to-back elections this past week in Chebayish and Fuhud, towns of dirt roads, stagnant puddles and cinder-block huts that border the resurrected marshes Hussein sought to drain in the 1990s. Banners in Fuhud that called voting “a moral, religious and national duty” competed with Hussein-era slogans still painted on walls of the one-story girls’ school. “Down with the Jews,” one intoned.

Hundreds lined up outside the school, carrying the sometimes smudged, creased or torn ration cards issued to their families, plus one other form of identification. In this election, each family was allowed two votes — one for a man, one for a woman. Ration cards were marked with two stamps, and voters then sat at battered school desks, choosing between five and 10 names from a list of 44 candidates.

Truly remarkable. Granting that these are isolated–presumably cherry picked–instances, the execution of this is going much better than I’d have hoped for. The fact that professionals rather than clerics are emerging is also a very hopeful sign indeed.

For a civilian administration often criticized for its isolation and disproportionate presence in Baghdad, the Coalition Provisional Authority in Dhi Qar has demonstrated a flexibility and improvisation more commonly exhibited by the U.S. military in Iraq.

In each election, Bradley has started with a preparation committee of unaffiliated residents. Beginning a month before the vote, they come up with conditions for candidates: minimum age, no Baath Party affiliation and an often contentious education requirement. Judges from outside run the voting, and lately, nongovernmental organizations have played a growing role.

The hard-to-forge ration cards, a slip of computer-generated paper, identify the head of the household. While some have contended the former government abused the system, Bradley said he believes 95 percent of families in the province have ration cards. Voters with the cards then prove they belong to the family. In the early elections, Iraq’s patriarchal society meant only men voted, so Bradley changed the rules to give two votes to each family — a red stamp for women, a blue stamp for men.

“It’s not a perfect system,” he acknowledged.

Women’s participation was a particular problem. A total of three women voted in the two elections before the rule change. In the election after the revision, in Batha, 62 women — from a total of 1,200 — cast ballots. Then female activists from Nasiriyah, the provincial capital, got involved, going door to door with leaflets and broadcasting a message from the mosque loudspeaker after the noon prayers.

“To all respected women of the town of Fuhud, to every housewife, teacher and doctor, to the educated and uneducated, we would like to tell you that your presence at the elections center is a duty,” called out 26-year-old Rasha Muhsin Aboudi.

Within an hour, dozens of women showed up at the polling station, some carrying barefoot children. More than half were completely veiled, their faces hidden. The judges cast a cursory, futile glance at their identification cards.

“I think we’ll be a little lax on that one,” Bradley said.

Remarkable judgment for a 29-year-old. Read the whole article; it’s all quite impressive.

FILED UNDER: Iraq War
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.