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Iraq Heads to the Polls on Sunday

January 28, 2005 at 12:00 AM EDT


MARGARET WARNER: And for more, we are joined by two experts who follow Iraqi politics and have written widely on the subject.

Adeed Dawisha is a professor of Political Science at Miami University of Ohio; he was born in Iraq and is now an American citizen. And Juan Cole is a professor of Middle East History at the University of Michigan. He authored “Sacred Space and Holy War” about Shia Islam. Welcome back to you both.

Professor Cole if the long-term object here is a free and independent Iraq, how significant a step on that path is the Sunday election?

JUAN COLE: Well, it’s a very significant step. It’s the first time that the Iraqis will have an elected government rather than an appointed one for some time.

MARGARET WARNER: And Professor Dawisha, you agree with that, this is a big step?

ADEED DAWISHA: Yeah. I agree with that. The last time the Iraqis voted in a relatively free election was June of 1954. So it’s half a century since this has happened. And so regardless of what it leads to, this election in and of itself is a seminal event.

MARGARET WARNER: And, Professor Dawisha, what turnout figures will you regard as a success?

ADEED DAWISHA: Well, two weeks ago the Palestinian – at least three weeks ago the Palestinian elections were won by Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas and the turnout was 43 percent, I think. So anything over 40 percent, I think I would be happy with. If it goes over 50 percent, I think that would be a major victory for the democratic process.

MARGARET WARNER: What would you set the threshold for success?

JUAN COLE: I agree that something like 40 percent or more would be a success. I fear that less than 40 percent would be a problem because they’re going to write a constitution as well.

MARGARET WARNER: So, Professor Cole, let’s get into now what’s driving this election. First of all, in terms of what’s driving the voters, is it more driven by ethnicity or by issues or both?

JUAN COLE: Well, I think it has been very difficult for the parties to put out issues. The candidates are largely unknown. In a way it is more of a referendum than it really is an election in the traditional sense.

And so because of that, the shorthand of ethnicity, I think, will play a very large role. The Kurds will tend to vote for the Kurdish list; I think a lot of the Shiites will vote for the Sistani list.

MARGARET WARNER: Well, let’s talk about the Shiites though if they’re 60 percent of the population, they surely aren’t going to all vote for the same list, are they?

JUAN COLE: No, they won’t vote for just one list. However, Grand Ayatollah Sistani and his advisers did put together a coalition list that groups all of the major Shiite parties. And so that coalition could well get a plurality of the votes.

MARGARET WARNER: And Professor Dawisha, what about the list led by the interim prime minister, who is also a Shia? His party has the money to do a lot of television advertising. Who does he draw from? What kind of Shiite voters might he draw strength from?

ADEED DAWISHA: Well, you know, much of politics is recognition. And Allawi has done a really good, has followed a really good policy of saturating the media with his pictures, with details about his policies; al-Arabiya TV for example, had about six weeks of one hour long interviews with him going over his life, his struggles against Saddam.

He is in the public eye. And I would have thought that anybody who is not going to vote for the either sectarian or the ethnic kind of affiliation might go for Allawi simply because he is the most, at the moment, the most recognizable politician in Iraq.

MARGARET WARNER: Do you, Professor Cole, agree with Anthony Shadid of the Post who said that he thought that the Sistani list would draw tremendous strength from the rural areas and, though he didn’t say it, maybe also the more Shiite, more religious cities in the South, but other Shiites might go elsewhere?

JUAN COLE: Yes. Well, certainly I think the more traditional Shiites, the people who look up to Sistani would tend to vote for that list. Some of the more sophisticated urban groups in places like Basra might have a more independent view.

But it’s hard to see where exactly they would go. I don’t think that Mr. Allawi is that popular in the deep South. And many of the other lists are problematic as well. So maybe Sistani’s list will pick up some of those people, too just to vote demure because there isn’t that much choice.

MARGARET WARNER: And of course most of the lists really haven’t had the money or the visibility to even get their message out.

JUAN COLE: That’s right. And a lot of the lists, I mean of the 107, 30 were actually individuals and mostly they have withdrawn. And then a fair number of other parties have withdrawn, so the ones that are in contention are ones that are grouped around very well-known figures.

MARGARET WARNER: So, Professor Dawisha, now if you are a Sunni and you dare to go out and vote, what are your choices?

ADEED DAWISHA: Well, there are two choices: You either go with the Sunni Party, and there a few of them still, but very small. The two that you have kind of pointed to, the one by Ghazi al-Yawer, the president and of course Adnand Pachachi will get most of the votes.

The other choice is rather than vote for a small Sunni party that will have very small representation in the national assembly is to vote for the Allawi group, which is led by Allawi who even though is a Shiite, nevertheless is a secular person.

And in his Iraqi list, there are a number of prominent Sunnis as well so that you might vote for him simply so that you can build a counter-balance to the United Iraqi Alliance, the Shiite group which, I agree with Professor Cole, will probably get a plurality of the votes.

MARGARET WARNER: How do you read the potential Sunni vote?

JUAN COLE: Oh, I think the Sunni turnout is going to be very low. First of all, the security is terrible in much of the Sunni area and there have been death threats against voters.

And then a lot of Sunni Arabs just feel that this process under U.S. Military occupation is illegitimate. So the recent polling done by the Zogby group suggests a turnout of no more than 30 percent.

MARGARET WARNER: And is it the case too that the alienated – the really alienated Sunni voters also might be looking for a more religious party than either of these two that are prominent?

JUAN COLE: Well, opinion polling does seem to show that the politicians that are best thought of among the Sunni Arabs now tend to be the religious ones. And they are the most likely to have called for a boycott or to have withdrawn.

MARGARET WARNER: So Professor Dawisha, once this transitional assembly… and we heard Donald Rumsfeld say it’s going to take a while to get it under way, but even if this isn’t an election driven hugely by issues, surely there are going to be – or I’m going to ask you: are there going to be differences or fault lines on some of the big issues that will confront them right away, for example, whether to set a timetable for the withdrawal of U.S. troops and the related issue of how to stem the insurgency?

ADEED DAWISHA: Well, in terms of the American occupation, originally the United Alliance did say they are going to have immediate talks with the Americans and will demand withdrawal.

MARGARET WARNER: This is Sistani’s party?

ADEED DAWISHA: Sistani’s party, indeed. Yes. The recent pronouncement by members of this group have actually moderated their earlier insistence on the occupation; they’re saying now that they are going to sit with the Americans and they would like to see some feedback from the Americans about some kind of a timetable, not at all pinpointing the length of this timetable.

So this could be a year or two years. I think all the parties concerned, those who are going to participate in the elections realize that certainly within the next twelve to eighteen months, the American and the coalition forces are necessary to keeping security in Iraq and I doubt very much whether any of them is going to demand American withdrawal.

MARGARET WARNER: There is some talk though by the Shiite parties, Professor Cole, that they might be then extending a hand to Sunnis who even aren’t really part of this election. How could that affect the debate over the presence of U.S. forces?

JUAN COLE: Well, the Shiite political leaders have indicated that they will try to draw the Sunni Arab politicians into the constitution making process, into government.

And it may well be that the Sunni Arabs will make a demand that there should be some kind of a timetable for U.S. withdrawal before they will participate in that process.

MARGARET WARNER: And when you say brought into the government, you’re saying, for instance, they could be appointed to some of these appointed posts, the presidency, the prime minister, the cabinet.

JUAN COLE: The cabinet. And also the entire parliament is not going to write the constitution. So there will be a constituent assembly, some kind of a committee and Sunni Arabs can be appointed to that.

MARGARET WARNER: Professor Dawisha, you wanted to get in on that point?

ADEED DAWISHA: I was just going to say — to emphasize the last point that Professor Cole was making, I think let’s not forget that the most important job of this national assembly is to write the permanent constitution and to set it for referendum.

And so you can always bring in Sunnis to sit on the committee that you are going to create to write the constitution.

MARGARET WARNER: And finally, before we go what about the burning issue of whether this constitution will seek to set up, Professor Cole, a more secular government or a more theocratic government?

JUAN COLE: Well, I don’t think most Iraqis want a theocracy in the Iranian sense, a clerical rule. I don’t even think the Sistani list wants clerical rule.

But I do think that if the United Iraqi Alliance, the Sistani list, does well, that there will be a demand for the implementation of religious law at the level of personal status, marriage, divorce, inheritance and so forth.

MARGARET WARNER: How do you see that, Professor Dawisha?

ADEED DAWISHA: That is going to be the sticky point and I hope it does not happen. I was interested to see that out of the 227 candidates, that the United Alliance, the Sistani party, only five or six in fact were clerics.

And most of the other people, at least the leaders, have said that they are trying to keep Islamic Sharia Law from intruding into the new constitution. So that I’m hoping that the family status law, given that a third or at least a quarter and maybe a third of the national assembly will be women — I’m hoping that this status law will not be affected by the new national assembly.

MARGARET WARNER: I’m glad you raised that point. The rules were set up so that women appear every third name on every slate.


MARGARET WARNER: So they are guaranteed, roughly what, a third of the parliament?

ADEED DAWISHA: At least a quarter and certainly probably a third.

MARGARET WARNER: All right. Professor Dawisha, Professor Cole, thank you both.