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Q&A: Iraqi parliamentary polls

Iraqi youths play football in a field adorned with campaign posters

Iraq went to the polls to elect a new parliament on 7 March in what is hoped will be another important step on the way to full sovereignty and security self-sufficiency. BBC Monitoring looks at key questions behind the vote.

What were Iraqis voting for?

They chose individuals, parties and coalitions who will in turn select the next government. The candidates are competing for 325 seats in parliament.

What is the significance of these elections?

The government formed as a result of these elections will be the first to rule over a fully sovereign Iraq since the US-led invasion of 2003 which ousted Saddam Hussein, assuming the US judges the country stable enough to withdraw its troops as promised by the end of 2011.

Some say the elections could be a turning point for the country. Either they could entrench sectarian divisions which have been accompanied by much violence over the past few years, or they could promote reconciliation between the different ethnic, tribal and religious groups.

In terms of the wider region, Iraq could serve as a viable example of democracy if it holds successful polls, advocates of democracy argue.

What were some of the main issues surrounding the vote?

The disqualification of alleged Baathists - Dozens of candidates were disqualified for alleged links to Saddam Hussein's outlawed Baath Party. And although the list of banned candidates straddles Iraq's sectarian divide, Sunni groups interpreted the ban as an attempt by the Shia majority to sideline them in the political process.

Some fear that if the election lacks credibility among Sunni voters, Iraq could slide back into sectarian violence.

Security - Security was stepped up for the polls, but despite curfews and traffic restrictions, there were attacks in Baghdad and several other cities that killed 38 people. There were also bombings in the run up to the polls as a group linked to al-Qaeda threatened to disrupt them. However, correspondents reported a steady turnout at polling stations in Baghdad and other cities on 7 March. Security continues to be one of the main demands of voters.

What other elections have been held in Iraq in recent years?

The first post-invasion general election was held in January 2005, when voters chose a transitional national assembly whose main job was to draft a constitution. The constitution was approved in a national referendum in October 2005 and Iraqis voted for a new parliament in December 2005.

A national unity government, headed by the current prime minister, took office some weeks later.

What happened in the last parliamentary elections?

In the December 2005 elections, the United Iraqi Alliance, a broad Shia coalition won 58% of the votes and the main Sunni coalition (the Accord Front) came second with 19%.

The current Prime Minister Nouri Maliki was able to form a government with the support of the Kurds.

Were the elections held on schedule?

No. They were due to be held on 16 January 2010 but were delayed until a new election law was passed after a prolonged political wrangling. Parliament's term officially ended on 31 January.

Under what system were the elections held?

The elections were held according to an open-list system, in which voters can choose individual candidates from lists presented by political parties or alliances. In a closed list system voters can only pick a party, not individual candidates.

Seats will be allocated to parties or coalitions in proportion to the number of votes they gain.

Each province counts as one constituency. Each constituency is allocated a number of seats relative to its population size.

Religious and ethnic minorities have designated seats in several provinces. For example, Baghdad has 70 seats, one of which is specifically allocated to Christians and one to the Iraqi Baptists known as the Sabaean-Mandaeans.

Could Iraqis vote abroad?

Some 100,000 out of an estimated 1,3 million expatriate Iraqis reportedly registered to vote. They were able to cast their ballots in 16 countries on 5, 6 and 7 March.

What needs to happen after the elections?

It isn't clear how long vote-counting will take. Once a new parliament has been elected it must choose a new president. The president will then ask the leader of the bloc with the largest number of MPs to form a government.

Who are the main players?

A large number of political groups and alliances have competing for the support of Iraqi voters. Here are some of the main ones:

State of Law coalition

This alliance is led by Prime Minister Nouri Maliki and ostensibly cuts across religious and tribal lines.

Iraqi National Alliance (INA)

This mainly Shia alliance is seen as one of the biggest rivals to the prime minister's coalition and includes the radical cleric Muqtada al-Sadr.

Kurdish alliance

The Kurdish coalition is dominated by the two parties administering Iraq's northern, semi-autonomous Kurdish region.

Al-Iraqiyya (Iraqi National Movement)

This alliance includes the national Vice-President, Tariq al-Hashemi, a Sunni Arab, former prime minister Iyad Allawi, a secular Shia, and senior Sunni politician Saleh al-Mutlaq, who has been barred from standing.

Unity of Iraq Coalition

This group brings together a range of significant political figures, including Interior Minister Jawad Bolani and a leader of the Sunni anti-al-Qaeda militia in al-Anbar province, Ahmad Abu-Risha.

Iraqi Accord Front/Al-Tawafuq Front

The Iraqi Accord Front, an alliance of parties led by Sunni politicians, has recently suffered splits and defections. It includes the Speaker of parliament Ayad al-Samarrai.

Tribal leaders

Tribal leaders will play an important role in the election and have been courted by major parties. Some Sunni tribal leaders sprang to prominence when US forces began backing local leaders against al-Qaeda in 2006.

Minorities

Smaller minorities, including Turkmen, Christians, Yazidis, Sabeans, Shabak and others, are likely to ally with bigger electoral lists in areas where they are not dominant.

BBC Monitoring selects and translates news from radio, television, press, news agencies and the internet from 150 countries in more than 70 languages. It is based in Caversham, UK, and has several bureaux abroad.



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