11/15/2004, 00.00
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New parties, voters' lists and candidates . . . on the way to Iraq's elections

Baghdad (AsiaNews) – Preparations for Iraq's January elections are well under way. According to Abdul Hussein Hindawi, head of Iraq's Independent Electoral Commission, "all Iraqis want the elections, [but whilst] we are very optimistic [we are] very realistic at the same time".

Although election staff have received death threats, Mr Hindawi remains optimistic. "I think we will have a very good election," he said, "even with the difficulties, with the problems of security the election is popular. It is the only alternative for the country", he added.

Currently, there are at least 150 political parties representing every segment of the population, from communists to feminists. For a party to be on the January 2005 ballot, it must have at least 500 members. Since registration began on November 1, more than 60 of these parties have signed up representing all main ethnic and religious groups: Sunni, Shiite, Kurdish and Christian.

For Talal Madhat Serri, a leader of the Assembly for Iraq party, "it is a completely new experience [. . .] to have a democratic and free exercise in Iraq". In the last presidential election in 2002, with a 100 per cent turnout Saddam Hussein won every single vote cast by the country's 11.5 million voters.

In the upcoming January elections, 14 of Iraq's 25 million people will be eligible to vote. An estimated 1 million Iraqis living abroad will also be able to cast their ballot.

An estimated 40,000 polling stations will be set up for at most 500 voters each. This will make it easier for officials to combat fraud and make the process transparent.

Voter lists were compiled from existing food distribution databases based on ration cards issued under Hussein's regime. However, when Iraqis go to the 548 food centres to collect their 2005 food ration cards, they will be able to confirm or change their family information.
Campaigning will begin on December 15 when the voter registration process will end. Candidates will largely have to rely on the media to get their message out and avoid going out on the hustings because of security fears.

Iraqis will elect a 275-member National Assembly by proportional representation, which will then choose a president and two deputies.

Among the candidates to the presidency there is 42-year-old Wijdan al-Khuza'ie, a mother of five, who is running for the Democratic Women's Society party, a secular group that claims 2,000 members.

The new Assembly's main task will be to write a permanent constitution whose ratification by referendum is scheduled for October 15.

Despite security problems, expectations in the country are rising. According to Mohammed Ali, an aide to interim Prime Minister Ayad Allawi, "January 2005 is like a holy date on the calendar."

Shiites make up at least 60 per cent of Iraq's population, but the government has been traditionally dominated by Sunni Arabs, who are about 20 per cent.

Some Sunni groups have threatened to boycott the elections afraid that the elections might sanction a Shiite takeover or as a way to protest against the offensive against Falluja.

Iraq's government and US forces have argued that actions in Falluja are designed to clear the city of foreign terrorists who strike at civilians, government authorities and foreign solders.

The U.N.'s chief election adviser in Iraq Carlos Valenzuela said that "speculating about big parts of the country not being able to take part in the process certainly doesn't help the process or its credibility".

The election commission has already said that troops will be banned from entering polling stations to avoid charges of intimidation and fraud. (LF)

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