August 22, 2004
By Lisa Ashkenaz Croke
In what had been touted as Iraq's first democratic election, last week's tumultuous Iraqi National Conference closed with a four-judge panel selecting a list of candidates for the Interim National Council, leaving the hundreds of delegates invited to the conference to approve the decision with only a show of hands. In the end, the same former exile groups currently holding the highest seats in Iraq's appointed interim government will also dominate the country's newest temporary body.
Last week's conference was suppose to elect 81 Iraqis to a new 100-member Interim National Council, responsible for oversight of US-installed Prime Minister Iyad Allawi's transitional government until elections planned for early 2005. The council will have veto power over Allawi's policy decisions and approve next year's budget. The US already appointed the other nineteen members to the National Council before handing partial sovereignty to a group of Iraqis in June.
Under rules not announced until the conference began, the approximately 1,200 delegates assembled were told they would not be allowed to run as individuals for any of the 81 available seats. Instead, organizers gave participants a matter of days to compile and submit a list of 81 names, with each slate subject to a ballot vote by the entire delegation at the end of the four-day conference. A 65 percent majority would be required to approve the winning slate.
Yet, on the fourth and final day of the conference, no vote was held at all. According to press reports, the ballot boxes stood empty, and instead a panel of four judges chose the winning slate by default after the only competing slate was withdrawn in protest. The prevailing slate was submitted by a coalition primarily comprised of parties friendly to the US and other occupying powers.
A show of hands on the conference floor reportedly approved the panel's choice, but only after a number of delegates had stormed out in protest.
Calling itself the Iraqi National Union, the winning slate was dominated by five political parties formed in exile during the reign of Saddam Hussein, each with aspirations of overthrowing the former dictator.
Two slated lists had remained Wednesday night: that of the Iraqi National Union, and a slate of independents submitted by delegate Ismail Zayer, editor and chief of an Iraqi daily newspaper.
Any slate submitted for consideration had to account for certain criteria, such as 25 percent representation of women, a rule to which tribal groups refused to adhere. Other groups complained that did not have time to form slates that could compete with the Iraqi National Union.
The Iraqi National Union worked on its list for months, according to Hamid Kifaey, a former Governing Council spokesperson. "We only worked on our list for 24 hours," he told Agence France-Presse. "We had no chance."
Just before conference delegates were to vote on the two groups, three-dozen members withdrew their names from Zayer's slate, the New York Times reports. The late split left no time to form a new coalition or to bargain for a slot within the Iraqi National Union, and Zayer withdrew his slate in protest.
"There was no transparency," Zayer told the Post. "The parties didn't give us a chance. They played this game in the most unfair way."
Some disappointed participants left the conference altogether. One delegate from the Al-Multaka Democratic Party told Radio Free Europe that his group was withdrawing from the conference "because the parties already in power dominated the proceedings." Jawdat Al-Obeidi called the process "illegitimate" and said it "does not represent the composition of Iraqi society."
What some called a lack of democracy, members of the prevailing organization excused as practical necessity. "We have [to choose] 81 people, and the parties demanding to sit on [the council] could reach 200 or more," Saad J. Qindeel, a deputy from one of the prevailing parties, told Radio Free Europe. "So, it is hard to satisfy all the parties because one can't have all of them participating in the list." Qindeel is a member of the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI), a powerful organization of former exiles.
There is little question that the five parties said to dominate the winning coalition are deeply embedded in the Allawi government and already enjoy overwhelming representation. However,the Islamic Daawa party, the Kurdish Democratic Party, the Iraqi National Accord, the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, and SCIRI all lack popular recognition outside of their own constituencies, notes the Post.
The United States rewarded the five groups for their support of US-orchestrated regime change in Iraq with places in the Governing Council formed in the immediate wake of last year's invasion. Former American occupation chief L. Paul Bremer had installed representatives from all five former exile groups into the Governing Council a year ago, provoking criticism that the IGC was an American puppet government.
Just before it was dissolved in June, the Interim Governing Council appointed most of the current Iraqi government. More than a third of that body is made up of former IGC members, including seven former exiles now appointed to the top seven seats. Another nineteen IGC members and ministers were given reserved slots on the new, 100-seat Interim National Council.
"It is natural that the main political parties should play a big role," SCIRI's Qindeel said to Radio Free Europe. "If you call this 'domination'... I don't call it 'domination,' I call it 'democracy'."
According to conference rules, 21 seats were to go to party members, 21 to provincial leaders, eleven to minorities, ten to tribal figures, ten to civil society organizations and eight to independents, reports AFP. Neither the names of the new council members, nor the actual breakdown of representation is known as of this writing.