Iraqi voters face logistical snags
Some politicians say residents of rural areas are unable to reach polling stations.
Last Modified: 30 Jan 2009 19:57 GMT

The electoral commission says it has developed new tools ahead of provincial elections [GETTY] 

Iraqi politicians say the onus is on the national electoral commission to root out fraud when voters head to the polls to vote for 440 provincial council seats in the country's first elections since 2005.

Nearly 15 million Iraqis are expected to cast their votes on January 31 to choose provincial councils for 14 of 18 provinces. 

Hamid al-Saadi, an MP from the Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council, said the commission has implemented processes to ensure transparency and curb electoral fraud.

In 2005, the Sunni Arab community and political parties largely boycotted the provincial and parliamentary elections saying polls should not be held while the country remained under US occupation.

Sunni Arab politicians had also accused the electoral commission of vote-rigging and incompetence.

"The commission is working with a sophisticated new election law which they are using as a road map for the election process. Unlike previous elections, the members of the commission are no longer appointed but elected," al-Saadi told Al Jazeera.

Logistical challenges

In Depth

Change sweeps Iraqi voters

Timeline: Iraqi elections

Iraqi voters will be able to choose from 503 parties, 224 of which are represented by independent candidates and another 279 running in joint lists.

Forty parties are represented in the form of political coalitions.

Kirkuk and the three governorates which form the autonomous regions of Iraq's Kurdistan will hold elections at a later yet undetermined date.

Though the elections have been contested with unprecedented enthusiasm - more than 14,400 candidates are running - some opposition parties say they remain sceptical citing inadequate preparations by the electoral commission. 

Dafir al-Ani, the head of the Iraqi Future National Gathering party, says violence, assassinations and sectarian strife prevented concrete improvements in the electoral process.

"The country was on the verge of being torn apart until security conditions recently improved. We think Iraqi institutions in general did not have the proper chance to improve themselves, let alone the High Electoral Commission, which is the backbone of Iraq's democracy."  

Voting by ration card

Sunni Arabs have embraced the elections saying they now have the opportunity to exercise their political powers through the ballot box. 

However, Akram Lafta, from a predominantly Sunni rural area south of Baghdad, has voiced dissatisfaction with the way polling stations have been distributed.

He said: "In the villages of Al-Hamza Al-Gharbi, residents are not allowed to vote at polling stations in the villages but must travel to Baghdad to vote."

He says the distance to the polling stations prevents many women and elderly citizens from participating in the vote.

"There is a general feeling in our areas that obstacles are still put in our way to keep us underrepresented."

Abd al-Aal al-Yassiri, the governor of Karbala province, dismissed such criticism and faulted residents of rural areas for their inability to vote.

"The electoral commission assigns voting areas according to each individual's rations card," al-Yassiri told Al Jazeera.

The ration card system was first established by the government of Saddam Hussein, the former Iraqi president, prior to the US-led invasion in 2003 as a means to provide staple foods to families during the UN sanctions regime.

"People who moved to new areas but kept the old cards issued from their old neighbourhoods are only allowed to vote in their old neighbourhoods ... it's as simple as that," he said.

Mobile voting stations

Iraqis will have more than 14,400 candidates to choose from [EPA]
Qutaiba al-Juburi, a member of the National Accordance Movement party, believes the electoral commission has come a long way since 2005.

He said he was pleased with the commission's preparedness ahead of Saturday's vote but acknowledged that remote rural areas presented logical challenges. 

"We received many complaints from rural areas that citizens could not reach their assigned voting stations, so the electoral commission promised to prepare mobile voting stations which roam the villages in the countryside," al-Juburi said.

Al-Juburi also said that some Iraqi parties had failed to persuade the commission to replace the rations card with the national identification card as a proof of citizenship and voter registration. 

Qassim Hasan Abudi, a local district judge and the administrative director of the Iraqi High Electoral Commission, said the ration card provided the government with the most accurate data on demographics.

He said: "Iraq has not been able to perform a proper census, and until we have a proper census we have no other choice but to stick to the rations card."

Winners and losers

While local media is predicting that some religious parties are likely to lose at the ballot because they failed to provide their constituents with basic services like electricity, drinking water, fuel, and security in the past four years, Iraqi politicians nevertheless expect the ruling parties to remain in power.

Al-Ani told Al Jazeera that the ruling parties had more financial resources to allocate to the election campaigns than their rivals. 

Al-Saadi denies that religious parties have lost their appeal in Iraqi society.

"If that were true we would not see tens of thousands of people gather every time Sayyid Abd al-Aziz al-Hakim (head of the Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council) ,delivers a speech, and would not answer his call whenever he asks them to listen to him."     

Al-Saadi believes that Iraqi media will have a greater stake to play this year in pinpointing any discrepancies or voter fraud.

"The media has improved the Iraqi people's understanding of the whole electoral process," he said.

"I can proudly say Iraq's democracy now is the most notable in the Middle East region." 

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