'Selection' is Balad's first democratic step
October 19, 2003
BALAD, Iraq — Democracy arrived Friday at this city north of Baghdad.
A vote billed as a “selection,” not an election, gave citizens a chance to elect a general council. The vote was cobbled together by the U.S. Army stationed in the area.
In that sense, then, Capt. Matthew Cunningham is sort of a James Monroe of Balad. The commander of Company A, 1st Battalion, 8th Infantry Regiment called it “Democracy 101” and said, “I’m somewhat of an idealist.”
He said he expected about half of the roughly 40,000 eligible voters to make their mark to elect five people in each of the city’s 12 districts. Those 60 elected representatives will then decide which 12 from their ranks will have votes on issues affecting the city. The rest will be non-voting representatives.
By mid-afternoon, the voting seemed to be going smoothly. At one polling place in a school near a Muslim shrine, more than 600 people had voted.
“It’s been pretty steady all day,” said 2nd Lt. David Nelson. “We haven’t had a lot of people at one time. But it’s been steady.”
The man in charge of that polling place, Adnan Nogi al Baldawi, said the voters were happy with the chance to express themselves with a ballot.
“We will not forget this day when the American forces have helped us,” he said.
He said the election was a great day in the history of a city that has known troubles. The city rebelled against Saddam in 1982. The dictator cruelly crushed the rebellion. While the city is pro-American, the rural areas around it remain loyal to Saddam.
Cunningham said there was a “power vacuum” in the city when the troops arrived in late spring. The town’s council represented only a small percentage of the people.
“It was much more aligned with tribes,” he said. Now, the council will represent geographical areas of the city, and council members will answer to their neighbors.
The status quo, he said, was a destabilizing factor. The only solution seemed to be an election.
“That’s what the city wanted,” he said.
The problem, however, was the lack of a constitution in Iraq as a guide for elections. There are no election rules; no established qualifications for candidates. That’s why this is being called a “selection” rather than an election.
Cunningham began a lesson for the city, which has nearly 100,000 residents.
“A lot of it is just civics class discussions,” he said. They found a New Hampshire election guide to use as a road map.
The people chose the candidates. The Army had power of refusal, however. No Baath Party members allowed, for instance, because that was the party of Saddam Hussein.
It wasn’t a completely smooth process.
“There are people who have significant power to lose,” he said. They aren’t happy.”
As the word spread and Cunningham devised the rules — anyone over age 18 can vote, even women — and campaign posters sprouted, covering walls, poles and windows.
The voting went largely unimpeded. The Army, the captain said, stayed invisible while members of the recently-trained Iraq Civil Defense Corps provided security and local election officials guided voters through the process.
Cunningham said there is nothing in Army training to prepare an officer for this role, but he will not soon forget it.
“It’s rewarding,” he said. “We spend a lot of time getting shot at. This is one of those times when you feel good. It’s definitely a step forward.”