|Nearly 19 million Iraqis in 18 provinces will be eligible to vote in national elections [GALLO/GETTY]
On March 7, Iraq will hold national parliamentary elections in what is believed to be a critical stage in the country's political development since the US-led invasion in 2003.
Iraq previously held national assembly elections in January 2005, and parliamentary elections in December of the same year.
A majority of Sunni politicians (and voters) boycotted the election process in 2005, in what they later admitted to have been a miscalculation which paved the way for Shia dominance of the Iraqi government and parliament.
With nearly 19 million Iraqis eligible to vote this year, turnout at the designated 50,000 polling stations throughout the country's 18 provinces is expected to be high.
What is an open-list electoral system?
In 2005, provincial and national elections were conducted under a "closed list" electoral system, in which voters selected a party or coalition list that in turn selected the individual party member to fill the parliament or council seat.
Voters did not know who was on the list because the Iraqi electoral commission had cited sectarian violence and security precautions as reasons to conceal candidates' names.
Such a system paved the way for widespread accusations of corruption and fraud with allegations that some parties relied on family ties and allies to allot seats.
This year, however, Iraqis will be able to cast their votes for either a political party, coalition or an individual candidate in an "open list" system that allows for direct representation and greater transparency. While the voter can choose to elect a list, they can also choose a preferred candidate within that list.
The open-list electoral system was first applied during provincial elections in January 2009.
How many seats in parliament are up for grabs?
In 2005, Iraqis voted for 275 seats. However, due to population growth at a rate of 2.8 per cent a year, the Iraqi elections commission called on the parliament to amend Iraq's 2005 electoral law to increase the number of allotted seats to every province.
In December 2009, after much dispute in parliament, the number of seats were increased to 325 for Iraq's 18 provinces. This translates roughly to 1 seat per 100,000 people.
Some MPs argued that the amendments decreased the number of seats allotted to minorities and did not take into account Iraqis in exile. One of the two vice-presidents vetoed the amendments, which led to the initial election date of January 20 to be pushed back to March 7, giving time for the amendments to be revised and a compromise to be reached.
According to the Electoral Assistance Office of the United Nations Assistance Mission in Iraq (Unami), eight of the 325 seats are considered "component seats". Three of these seats are reserved for the Yazidi, Sabeaen, and Shabak ethnic minorities. The remaining five are reserved for the Christian minority in Iraq.
Christians in Iraq have complained that this figure is too low and cannot adequately represent them in parliament.
How many candidates are running this year?
According to the Iraqi High Electoral Commission (IHEC), 6529 candidates representing 86 political entities put in their bids before nomination closed on December 20, 2009.
|In 2009, Maliki broke off from the United Iraqi Alliance and formed a new coalition [GETTY]
What are the main parties and coalitions running this year?
The coalition list which won the 2005 elections is the United Iraqi Alliance (UIA), comprising mainly religious Shia parties. However, in early 2009, the UIA split into the State of Law Coalition, headed by Nouri al-Maliki, the prime minister, and the National Iraqi Alliance (NIA), led by Ammar Hakim.
The State of Law Coalition includes Maliki's Dawa party, the Anbar Salvation Front (an Awakening council party), and other smaller parties led by former MPs.
The NIA, a mostly Shia coalition, includes Hakim's Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq (formerly SCIRI), Ahmed Chalabi's Iraqi National Congress, the Badr Organisation, the Sadrists, breakaway Dawa party members led by former prime minister Ibrahim al-Jaafari, the Islamic Virtue Party (Fadhilah), the Shia Turkmen Movement, and other parties.
The Iraqi National Movement, headed by Iyad Allawi, a former prime minister after 2003, crosses sectarian lines and says it is a secularist and nationalist party. Among its chief campaign slogans is its strong opposition to regional interference in Iraqi affairs, a veiled reference to Iran, which is seen to strongly back both the State of Law and NIA coalitions.
It includes Allawi's Iraqi National Accord, the Iraqi Front for National Dialogue, and other mostly smaller Sunni parties.
Since the end of the 1991 Gulf War, the Kurdish political landscape had largely been dominated solely between the two ruling parties – the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) led by Jalal Talabani, the Iraqi president, and the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP), chaired by Massoud Barzani.
But the two parties now find themselves threatened by Gorran, or the Movement for Change, chaired by Nawshirwan Mostafa, which first made in-roads during the Kurdish region's provincial elections in July 2009 when it won over voters seeking a multi-party system.
For the first time since 2003, Kurdish parties will not be running as a unified coalition in national elections.
Is there a mechanism to ensure that Iraqi women are fairly represented?
According to the post-2003 Iraqi constitution, parliament should be comprised of no less than 25 per cent female candidates. As a result, the amended electoral law of December 2009 stipulated that parliament should comprise 82 female representatives.
Each party and coalition list must ensure that 25 per cent of its nominated candidates are women. However, the women's quota has not been filled since 2005 and as a result, the elections commission said "special measures" must be implemented to ensure the quota is met.
Women's rights groups in Iraq and abroad have complained that the Iraqi parliament has not provided information on what the measures involve or how it would go about implementing them.
The UN says that more than two million Iraqis who fled the post-2003 violence remain in neighbouring countries or have since been given refuge in the West. Will they have an opportunity to vote?
In December 2009, the national elections commission ended debate whether Iraqis living abroad should be given the opportunity to vote by requesting that Out-of-Country ballots be available in 16 countries. These are Australia, Austria, Canada, Denmark, Egypt, Germany, Iran, Jordan, Lebanon, Netherlands, Sweden, Syria, Turkey, UAE, UK, and the US.
According to the UN, elections monitors from the commission as well as from UN agencies will be dispatched to voting centres in these countries.
The new electoral law also made provisions for internally displaced persons (IDPs) which it defined as "an Iraqi who has been forcefully displaced from his permanent place of residence to another place within Iraq after April 9, 2003, for any reason".
The Iraqi government says that some 97,000 IDPs in Iraq will be able to vote anywhere in the country as constituents of their place of origin.
Is the US overseeing these elections?
The elections are led, funded, and managed by the Iraqi government and the IHEC is the only authority administering the elections. Some 300,000 election officials and monitors will be deployed throughout Iraq.
According to the US embassy in Iraq, "the US does not play a direct role in Iraq’s elections operations, but we are supporting the Government of Iraq when requested. US partners are working closely with the GOI to provide technical advice to IHEC, as well as political party training and voter education.
"Embassy Provincial Reconstruction Teams (PRTs) engage with government officials, NGOs and political parties to assess election preparations. United States Forces in Iraq will advise, train and assist Iraqi security forces in support of the parliamentary election and in compliance with the Security Agreement."
The Iraqi government is also receiving support from Unami.