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U.N. Optimistic Iraqi Elections Will be Held in January

United Nations -- The election process is ahead of schedule and Iraqis throughout the country are eager for elections to be held, the head of the U.N. electoral assistance team said May 3.

"What I have found is an incredible eagerness to go to elections -- even more so than in the majority of the election processes I have been in -- in the sense of basically saying ‘it is a way of stopping the rest of the world from making decisions for us; it is the way of stopping a few from making decisions in our name without having consulted us,'" said Carina Perelli, director of the U.N. electoral assistance division.

Speaking at a press conference on the status of the planned elections, Perelli said there is an "extremely strong and across the board" consensus for elections to proceed.

Perelli appeared confident that regional and national elections could be held by the January 31, 2005 target date, despite a deteriorating security situation throughout the country. She said the next steps in the process were for Iraqis to select an electoral commission and to finalize election laws.

She said, "right now we are better than on track," because the Iraqi Governing Council had accepted a U.N. recommendation to have an independent board of election commissioners, and enough money has been allocated for the January elections.

She said she is encouraged that the process will continue because of what she saw "in the eyes of the people" when she and her election team were in Iraq for three weeks in April.

In talking with "the common people, the grass roots organizations," Perelli said, "basically what I have seen is a very, very strong desire and commitment to have their voices heard for the first time and to have them heard very loudly."

"The rest in an election is technique," she said. "That is what we are here for -- we can provide the knowledge of the technique. What we cannot provide is the political will of the people to march towards an election. That is what I think I saw in the eyes of the Iraqis."

The United Nations has estimated that elections would require eight months of solid technical preparations after the completion of a regulatory framework for the elections. That framework must be completed by May 31
in order to prepare for elections in January. In the meantime, the
United Nations special envoy, Lakhdar Brahimi, is helping to form a caretaker government that will govern during the period between the end of the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) on June 30 and the January elections.

The first phase of the election process is underway with the U.N. and the CPA setting up a form of ballot boxes for nominations for seven election commissioners and a head of the electoral commission. U.N. officials will review the nominations and reduce the list of candidates to twenty. The twenty finalists will be interviewed and selected by three international elections experts who have not yet been named.

What is "essential and critical," said Perelli, is that the process and the commissioners be seen as impartial, nonpartisan, and not part of any
past system. The commissioners will not be able to participate in
electioneering or join a political party while in office.

"We are going for a totally independent electoral commission with exclusive authority for elections, whose decisions can only be appealed at the Supreme Court of the land, and who, basically, will have total autonomy from the political powers and the executive powers," including the ability to manage its own budget, Perelli said.

Citing a poll showing that only three percent of the population supports the concept of political parties, she said, "the anti-political party feelings of the population is extremely high."

"One of the things we heard the most in out talks was basically the outcry of the population in terms of having more participation in the decision-making process and being more involved," Perelli said.

"For us the most important thing is that the Iraqi people understand that going through this very cumbersome process has to do basically with the fact that we don't want the new institution to have some bias authority, because these commissioners will have the power to be at the helm of the electoral process for almost two years and will be the enforcers ... of the legitimacy of the process and the legality of the process," she said.

Perelli said that at this point it is difficult to gauge how the security situation will be or how much it will affect the political process. In elections, she said, "the process is as important as the outcome" so it is imperative for the people to feel that their interests have been taken into consideration. That, in itself, can affect the security situation, she said.

"We also know that once you launch an electoral process, particularly if the citizenry starts to believe in the ownership in the process, then the capacity of what we call the political security -- basically the people fighting for the right to have that election -- will also occur," she said.

"What is at stake is whether or not this election is resolved by ballots or by bullets and it is going to be part of the responsibility of the Iraqis citizens to also mobilize to defend their election if they feel sufficient warranties are provided for this electoral process to be their own," Perelli said.

"Basically, at the end of the day, security starts and stops with how firm is the conviction of the voter and the contenders in the process," she said.

Nevertheless, if violence escalates or there is intimidation of the candidates, the United Nations will not participate in the election and will advise other institutions not to, Perelli said. But it will be up to the Iraqi election commission to determine whether conditions are sufficient for elections will take place.

"We do not believe that elections are silver bullets that kill all ills. So basically we will not go on with an election if we perceive this will be an empty shell of a process. That will not be in the interest of either Iraq or of the United Nations," Perelli said.

But even without security problems, Perelli said, the process will not be easy. In January 2005, three elections will be held -- for the council at the governate level, for the national assembly of Kurdistan, and for the Iraqi national assembly. For any election board, three elections at the same time are "the queen of all headaches," she said.

The United Nations will provide "very heavy technical assistance" on the modalities of the election and will train the commissioners on how to make decisions and conduct election information campaigns, she said.

The U.N. will not be observing the elections "in any way, shape or form," Perelli added. "We will be doing the work of the lead agency in technical assistance . . . and it would be inelegant on our side to mete some sort of judgment on how well we have done that work." That judgment will have to come from other international agencies or groups, she said.

(The Washington File is a product of the Bureau of International Information Programs, U.S. Department of State. Web site:


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