January 30, 2005

What's At Stake In Iraq's Elections?

Christopher Albritton has some top-notch reporting on the run-up to the Iraqi elections (now underway), along with good explanatory material. His prediction: The United Iraqi List—the Shi'ite List "blessed" by Ayatollah Sistani—will win a plurality, but Iyad Allawi will keep his prime minister job. That's pretty significant if true: the prime minister will be an extraordinarily powerful position, serving as commander-in-chief of the armed forces (or "armed" forces if you prefer), and if I'm not mistaken, will appoint the National Security Advisor, who will keep his (or her) job for five years.

As a bonus, I thought I'd add a bit more context as to what happens after the elections. In theory, the Transitional Administrative Law—the interim constitution that governs this whole process—outlines the mechanisms by which the newly-elected National Assembly selects a Presidential Council and the Prime Minister. In practice, the TAL is very vague about a lot of this stuff, so who knows how the legislature will handle it. But here goes.

First, the National Assembly will select the three-person Presidential Council, which needs to be approved by a two-thirds vote. Essentially that means that the two major Shiite parties, along with the Kurds, will get to pick these people behind the scenes. I'm guessing that it will be something like Jalal Talabani (a Kurdish leader), Hussein Shahrastani (a Shi'ite close to Sistani), and Ghazi al-Yawer (a secular Sunni). In other words, it will be the same crew that was originally handpicked by the U.S. to lead the interim government. The Presidential Council gets to confirm all judicial nominations, and is allowed to veto any legislation passed by the National Assembly, who can only override it with a two-thirds vote. It's quite powerful.

So in all likelihood, the new government is going to be more of the same. The same folks who ran the interim government. The same folks who earned the distrust of ordinary Iraqis for getting too cozy with the Americans. None of this, mind you, is necessarily a bad thing, but it's telling. By the way, from Albritton's reporting, it very much sounds like the Shi'ites are ready to repudiate the interim constitution as a basis for Iraqi law if the constitutional drafting process gets too bogged down. That could lead to a lot of trouble, as I suggested a while ago.

Anyway, this is all speculation and obviously we'll see what happens in a few days, but it's instructive to note that high or low Sunni turnout doesn't fundamentally change the dynamic at work here. High turnout will obviously "bless" the new government and give it some legitimacy, but if the Sunnis feel like they're being overridden and marginalized within the National Assembly by the expatriate parties, as is highly possible, then the danger is that they'll become even more disillusioned with this thing called "democracy". It's one thing to get screwed by a political process imposed from without. It's another to get screwed by a political process that you joined precisely in order not to get screwed.

Oh, and when I say "we'll see what happens in a few days," I mean it literally. The ballots will be counted in multiple centers over the course of two or three days. Um, in theory that means the country should have like nine times as many vote-counting monitors as normal. In reality there are far, far less. Oy...
-- Brad Plumer 5:03 AM || ||