16 June 2004


Press Briefing


Iraq’s silent majority remained eager to express its opinion through the ballot as long as it was given fair means to do so and was protected from reprisals, affirmed Carina Perelli, Director of the United Nations Electoral Assistance Division, during a Headquarters press briefing today.

The first election of the transition process represented a major test for the United Nations in its role as adviser to Iraq’s Electoral Commission, she stressed.  The challenge:  to ensure that the build-up to and holding of, the 31 January 2005 Iraqi National Assembly elections were widely seen as clean and fair processes.

From the first, she recalled, the United Nations had seen that three aspects of the election process must necessarily be put in place to achieve the target election date of 31 January 2005.  Agreement was needed on who was to be responsible for organizing the elections, on the type of electoral system and unit of representation to be used, and on who the contenders and voters would be.

During the team’s first visit to Iraq, it had been agreed that the previous institutional system for organizing elections -- employed since independence but tainted under Saddam Hussein -- would not be used, but that an independent, non-partisan, and financially fully autonomous Electoral Commission should be given exclusive authority for the organization and conduct of elections.  That Commission would comprise two arms:  the first to constitute a Board of seven Commissioners with vote and voice, charged with establishing policy regulations and oversight, as well as adjudicating any disputes that might arise in the organization and conduct of the elections; and the second to constitute an executive arm, led by a Chief Electoral Officer with voice but no vote on the Board and who would serve as the chief administrator of the elections.

To that scheme had been added an international United Nations Commissioner, who would serve as the Chief Electoral Officer for the oversight of any United Nations personnel providing electoral assistance to Iraq, and who would serve on the Board with voice but no vote.

There had also been agreement on a procedure for nominating and selecting the Commissioners, she said, by which the population of Iraq had been asked to nominate candidates fulfilling the same criteria as candidates for the future National Assembly, who would then be vetted and evaluated by the United Nations.  A short list of candidates was then to be interviewed by a panel and presented to Iraq’s Governing Council.

The process had been extremely successful, she concluded, despite the unrest in Iraq, with 1,878 nominations received, and 25 candidates extracted from those nominations.  Subsequently, 14 names had been put forward for positions as Commissioners, ranked by merit, and four for Chief Electoral Officer.  The only change to the originally-agreed process was that the Governing Council’s plenary had decided to request the United Nations to select the successful Commissioners and Chief Electoral Officer, as the candidates were not well known to the Council’s members.

The Commission itself was a well-balanced body, she added, although the United Nations had asked for neither religious nor ethnic affiliation during the application process.  Moreover, two of the Commissioners were women, one of whom had been the highest-ranked candidate on the list.  There had been no need to take special measures in that regard.

Agreement had also been reached on a whole package of electoral modalities for conducting the elections, she stated, including that -- due to the gerrymandering of the country, the lack of a census and the lack of time to conduct a redistricting exercise -- it would be impossible to have units of representation below the Government level.  The entire country was to be treated as a national district, thus avoiding two problems:  first, imbalance in the number of votes needed to gain a seat in the National Assembly; and second, the need to define and register voters and candidates in Kirkuk and Mosul, whose status were to be discussed in the provisions of the Constitution.

Adopting a national district format allowed for accumulation and aggregation of interests and votes in different lists of candidates, she continued, while proportional representation would facilitate the creation of lists that were not mere political parties.  The participation of independent candidates and ad hoc political organizations was also to be facilitated.

The Electoral Commission would certify each list of candidates -– which could comprise a minimum of 12 and a maximum of 275 candidates for the 275-seat National Assembly -– signed by at least 500 eligible voters.  The only firm prerequisites were that political parties disclose their financial contributions and that any political party found to be associated with a militia or have an armed wing would be disqualified by the Commission.

In regard of who would be considered an eligible voter, Ms. Perelli said it had been decided that any individual able to prove himself or herself an Iraqi would be allowed to vote, regardless of the reason for which they might have lost their nationality rights under the previous regime.  However, that decision did not establish a precedent for future bodies responsible for dealing with the question of nationality.

The challenges faced by the Electoral Commission were enormous, she concluded.  This was a brand new organization, staffed by capable, but inexperienced, individuals tasked to conduct elections in just seven and one half months, in an environment where security problems, as well as the size and diversity of the land and people, would be daunting.  And as the United Nations would serve as lead agency in the provision of technical assistance and would not, therefore, observe the elections as per practice and doctrine, the international community must consider how to provide the necessary international observers, and how to empower national groups to monitor their own elections.

Responding to requests for further elaboration on the modalities, Ms. Perelli added, among other points, that the exact voting system remained to be determined by the Electoral Commission, but that there were two basic possibilities, given that it would be necessary to have paper ballots.  First, a single sheet could contain each list of candidates (designated by name or symbol), with voters required to vote for one list.  The second possibility was that each list of candidates could be printed on a separate sheet of paper, with the individual voting by enclosing the list of choice in a balloting envelope.  Regardless, the proportional system meant that each voter would vote only once and for the entire list of candidates of his choice.

There were also two alternatives when considering how to conduct electoral registration, she added.  Either an electoral card could be issued to every Iraqi voter upon presentation of identification at a registration centre, or, alternately, existing public food distribution databases could be used to compile lists of possible voters, to be verified against presentation of identification at the polling station.  The Electoral Commission would be responsible for deciding which system to use, and the United Nations was preparing an extensive brief on each alternative.

For instance, while registering voters according to the first alternative was a purer process, it must be conducted early on and registration centres were easily attacked.  Moreover, there was concern that identification papers in Iraq were easily forged and that large segments of the population had been disenfranchised under Saddam Hussein.  However, it did seem that decentralized and well-preserved databases of the population had been compiled under the previous regime and, while individuals might have been removed from the food distribution network in punishment, their names had simply been marked, not removed from the database.

As for the prospect of absentee voting, she cautioned that the cost was four to 10 times that of regular voting and that, in addition to cost, the issue of security would require some adaptation of the process.  Those out of country had not lost their entitlement, she stressed, but questions remained about how to conduct such balloting.  For example, should ballot receptacles be placed along the countries borders and/or in foreign embassies?  Moreover, while there was sure to be adequate funding for the first set of elections, one should be wary of pursuing options whose costs were ultimately unsustainable.

In terms of the training and capacity-building needs facing the Electoral Commission and the United Nations, she said that an estimated 30,000 polling stations would be needed countrywide, which meant approximately 120,000 to 130,000 individuals working on polling and vote counting.  Those individuals would be trained by the Electoral Commission, including through cascade training; however, the members of the Commission were to be trained by the United Nations and other international trainers.

That training would be conducted in Mexico, which had been selected because it had one of the strongest electoral authorities in the world.  Furthermore, the country had the experience of undergoing its own transition process from a single party structure, and had matched the security and training requirements needed.

On the issue of the security, Ms. Perelli acknowledged that the situation was worsening as the handover approached, but added that such had been anticipated.  The Electoral Commission could continue its work as it was still at the stage of planning and internal housekeeping –- recruiting, budgeting and plans.  The first stage during which an improved security situation would be vital was registration, which should begin no later than September.  Improved security would also be necessary for the subsequent stages of certification and polling.

The United Nations and the Electoral Commission were also very aware, she continued, of the possibilities for intimidation of candidates.  Removing the election from the local level should provide an extra layer of security for the candidates, but they would assuredly still need special protection.  By poll time, there would need to be great improvement in the security situation.

Among other topics, she also stressed that the United Nations was less concerned by lack of literacy in elections than by ensuring that voters knew what they were voting for.  For example, in East Timor in 1999 –- a country where 70 per cent of the population had been illiterate, 70 per cent had been rural and 70 per cent in bad health –- the population had known what they wanted and how to vote, and had done so.

On the monitoring of campaign contributions, she noted that the only provision made by the Electoral Commission and the United Nations was that contributions exceeding a certain limit be disclosed.  That was both because the money aspect of politics was well known to be an area of interminable legislation -– where laws became obsolete as soon as they were adopted –- and because the Commission lacked staff trained to investigate under such legislation.  The elected legislative body would have to address this issue.

She also noted that the National Assembly would be responsible for choosing the head of State.

The team was definitely on track to hold elections by the deadline, she concluded.  One agreement had already been reached ahead of deadline, and the rest –- including for the appointment of the Commissioners -– had been reached on the deadline.  The Commission was now entering the second, and complex, phase of the process, making decisions on modalities and, having brokered the agreements, the United Nations would now advise the Commissioners on their decisions.

Among the objectives for the next seven and one half months, she cited:  the need for civic education, led by the United Nations, as the honest broker of the agreements, to explain the electoral arrangements to the Iraqi population; and ensuring a fully-staffed Electoral Commission, with deployment in all Iraqi provinces by July and voter registration started no later than September.  Political entities and parties must be certified, the campaigns must be conducted -- indeed, most had already begun -- and then followed the polling and vote counting.

Throughout each step of the process, voter education (how to) and civic education (on the electoral process and what was being elected) would be needed, she said.  All these processes must also be accompanied by social validation, whereby each process was open to criticism, challenge and adjudication.

* *** *

For information media. Not an official record.