Iraq 2005: Background

Brief history of the 2005 Iraq elections

On January 30, 2005, Iraq held its first general election since the United States-led invasion in 2003. Iraqis chose representatives for the transitional 275-member Iraqi National Assembly, as well as for the 18 provincial Governorate Councils. Elections to the Kurdistan National Assembly, the 111-member legislature of the Kurdish Autonomous Region, were also held that same day.

According to the Independent Electoral Commission of Iraq, about 8 and a half million voters out of a total estimated population of 25 million cast ballots—a turnout of about 58 percent across the country. Actual voter turnout ranged from 89 percent in the Kurdish region of Dahuk to two percent in the Sunni province of Anbar, which included the Sunni-dominated cities of Ramadi and Falluja.

The United Iraqi Alliance, backed by Shi’a leader Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, led in the National Assembly vote with 48 percent, the Democratic Patriotic Alliance of Kurdistan received 26 percent and the Iraqi List, a coalition led by interim Prime Minister Ayad Allawi, came third with 14 percent. Twelve parties received enough votes to win a seat in the assembly. Regulations set out for the party lists required that at least every third candidate be female, although the division of votes among the many parties meant that slightly fewer than one-third of the elected legislators were women.

Following the election of the legislators, the winning United Iraqi Alliance formed a coalition Iraqi Transitional Government with the Democratic Patriotic Alliance of Kurdistan. Jalal Talabani of the Kurdistani Alliance became the President of Iraq, after his election by the Assembly with a two-thirds majority, and he and his two vice presidents proposed former exile Ibrahim al-Jaafari, a Shi’ia leader of the Islamic Dawa Party as Prime Minister, which became official after a two-thirds approval in the Assembly.

This Iraqi Transitional Government served in office from May 3, 2005 until May 20, 2006, when it was replaced by the first permanent government. Under the Iraqi constitution, the President is the chief of military and head of state and the Prime Minister is the head of government who exercises most executive powers.

Disruption of the election

Prior to the election the Sunni Arab community called for a boycott and some armed Sunni groups threatened violence to disrupt the voting. Despite significant security precautions, the imposition of checkpoints in major cities to control access to polling centers and curfews after the polling centers closed to protect the ballot boxes and vote counting, more than 100 attacks on polling places took place on election day (including a mortar attack on the US Embassy), killing at least 44 people (including six policemen and nine suicide bombers) across Iraq, including at least 20 in Baghdad.

Those figures, however, were lower than many had anticipated, and voter turnout was higher than many observers had predicted. While voting irregularities were noted across the country, such as poll centers opening late and ballot boxes and ballot forms not arriving at centers or arriving in insufficient numbers, the streets were not “washed in blood” as some opponents threatened.

However, mindful of security concerns, the International Mission for Iraqi Elections, a commission led by Canada and consisting of members from nine countries, monitored the election from Amman, Jordan. Baghdad-based staff from the IMIE countries assisted inside Iraq.

Some voting actually occurred outside of Iraq, in 14 countries around the world. Over one million eligible voters lived outside Iraq, and over 280,000 registered to vote in the election—the greatest number in Iran, but there were significant numbers in North America and Europe as well. While the top three lists in the vote inside Iraq also led among the expatriate voters, the Kurdish group won almost 30 percent of the international vote, and the National Rafidain List, which had a strong Iraqi Christian base, won 7 percent of the vote, compared to winning less than half a percentage point inside Iraq. Iraqi Christians and Iraqi Kurds are over-represented among the expatriate Iraqi community.

Global interest in the election

What is measure of success of an election? And when should the assessment be taken? Despite the dozens of deaths in the election-day voting, the big story on election day outside of Iraq was the unexpected high turnout. US and British media especially read the turnout as an indication that the Iraqis had had enough of violence and desired a democratic voice. Commentators spoke of “the victory of democracy” and “the defeat of terrorists.”

The most ubiquitous images were photos of Iraqis waiting in long queues to vote, or of their fingers marked with purple ink to indicate that they had already cast their ballot.

Soon after the polls closed US President George Bush spoke to reporters: “The Iraqi people themselves made this election a resounding success.” Although he noted that “terrorists and insurgents will continue to wage their war against democracy,” he promised that the United States would “support the Iraqi people in their fight against them.”

Very few in the media, before or after the election spoke about the problems in the election system itself that reinforced sectarian divisions and frustrated reconciliation. The “closed party list” ballot system, for example, meant that voters did not choose individual candidates who had articulated clear political platforms.

Iraqis voted for parties or coalitions of parties aligned along ethnic or religious lines. And, because many electoral lists weren’t made public until just before the voting, even the competing rival lists of candidates were unknown to most voters. This gave rise to an Assembly controlled by party leaders.

Resources on the Iraq elections

Wikipedia entry on the election