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Rethinking Iraq's Election

By Samir S.M. Sumaidaie
Tuesday, December 28, 2004; Page A19

The interim Iraqi government faces a stark choice: whether to go ahead with the planned elections on Jan. 30 or postpone them. It has so far stood firm on its decision to stick to the schedule. The argument for doing so is compelling. Legally, the interim government is bound by the stipulations of the Transitional Administrative Law, which determined that elections be held before the end of January 2005, and by Security Council Resolution 1546, which confirmed the timetable and gave the commitment an international dimension.

Morally, delaying elections would be seen by insurgents as a victory, encouraging them to redouble their efforts to derail the political process. Moreover, a large segment of Iraq's people is eagerly awaiting elections and will feel cheated of their legitimate right if they are postponed. Nor would postponing the elections by a few months necessarily bring about any significant improvement in security conditions. In fact, it would probably create a disgruntled population of restive parties in southern Iraq, in addition to the violent and emboldened insurgents of the northwest.

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But to hold elections under current circumstances, when a sizable part of the country is not secure, just for the sake of voting, would produce a disproportionate and nonrepresentative national assembly. Far from stabilizing the country, this could be a recipe for a greater rebellion. If the national assembly then proceeded to write the permanent constitution, a significant number of Iraqis would feel marginalized and shortchanged. Their nonparticipation would be due not to any lack of desire to vote but rather to the lack of security.

So far this issue has been presented through public debates in Iraq and in the United States in binary terms: We either postpone the elections or keep to the timetable. Yet there is a third way forward -- namely, to go ahead with the elections but set criteria for their inclusiveness that would have to be met before the newly elected national assembly would be allowed to produce a permanent constitution. A criterion that could be agreed to by the major political players in the country might be set out in terms of differences in turnout. For example, if the turnout in two or three provinces was less than half that of the rest of the country, the assembly might not be considered sufficiently balanced to commit the country to a permanent constitution.

Of course, this idea may be implemented in more than one way. One possible mechanism could be to leave a number of seats vacant for the underrepresented provinces. Details could be worked out, and it is not beyond the ingenuity of Iraqi political leaders to devise a mechanism that is both workable and fair. Such a solution would have the merit of satisfying all those who want elections as soon as possible, thus denying terrorists a victory while producing a legitimate elected government that could focus on stabilizing the country. When that was achieved, another round of elections could be held to produce a more representative national assembly that could command the confidence of the whole country for writing a permanent constitution.

What is the downside? One obvious disadvantage is the delay in writing the permanent constitution. This, in my view, is a price worth paying for more stability. Another is the potential of giving the insurgents a victory by delaying the constitution indefinitely. But such an idea presumes that an elected government, acting with the help of the international community, would fail to make meaningful progress on the security front. That is by no means certain. In fact, an elected government would have a much better chance of stabilizing Iraq than the current interim government.

It might be argued that the Transitional Administrative Law already has a built-in safety valve in the shape of the stipulated referendum that specifies that if three of Iraq's provinces reject the draft permanent constitution, it would have to be redrafted. That is not the same, because without sufficient assurances made clear in advance, the road to the referendum could be very bumpy indeed. We need to put out a powerful message of inclusiveness, partnership and even mutual esteem, and to put it out now.

At this juncture we need understanding no less than force, and wisdom no less than clear goals. If a consensus can be reached, Iraq can approach the international community and ask for a Security Council resolution endorsing its decision to postpone the writing of its permanent constitution. Even if that proves to be difficult or time-consuming, it could be argued that a consensus within Iraq (e.g., a unanimous or near unanimous resolution by the interim national assembly backed by the interim government and some key political parties) is sufficient to adapt the political process to current realities.

One other thing could also be very helpful: a delay in the election date of just two or three weeks, primarily to give time for realistic arrangements for out-of-country voting and to better secure and prepare for the elections inside Iraq. Only one week has been set aside for voter registration of Iraqis in 14 countries. Considering that all eligible voters have to register in person, this is hardly enough time. And it assumes that by that time, all these countries would have agreed to allow elections to be conducted in their territories. At this point only one of these countries has signed up.

The electoral process is subject to an impractically tight schedule. While we must demonstrate commitment to the overall political process and its timelines, we must not be enslaved by it.

The writer is Iraq's ambassador to the United Nations.

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