Global Policy Forum

The UN's Electoral Mr. Fix-It


By Patrick J. McDonnell

Los Angeles Times
December 21, 2004

Day after day, Carlos Valenzuela faces the same question: Can legitimate elections take place amid the chaos and bedlam that is contemporary Iraq? "I say, 'Of course,' " says the soft-spoken Colombian who is the chief U.N. electoral officer in Iraq. "Look," he continues in his tiny office in this fearful capital's fortified Green Zone, "in my own country we have elections that are not perfect, that have been marred by violence and terrible intimidation. But still people go to the polls. And still the results are accepted as legitimate."

Valenzuela enunciates every syllable with care in English, one of several languages he has mastered. His salt-and-pepper goatee, stringy black hair and habitual black clothing are more suggestive of a Mexican rocker or Left Bank intellectual than a high-powered electoral Mr. Fix-It. But that's exactly what he is. Valenzuela, 46, is at the forefront of a tight-knit community of experts who wander the planet putting together elections in troubled nations the way specialized firefighters come in to douse oil-well blazes.

The vote here, scheduled for Jan. 30, will be Valenzuela's 14th election, and possibly the most daunting. He and other international electoral workers are largely confined to the Green Zone for security reasons, a major source of frustration because they must rely on Iraqi staff for news of progress or setbacks. And Valenzuela's efforts are facing increasing public scrutiny: The Bush administration's Iraq blueprint is entwined with the success of the elections for a 275-member transitional national assembly, which will write a new constitution for Iraq and select a transitional government. Two subsequent votes, to approve the constitution and elect a permanent government, are also planned for next year. "It is not one of the easiest ones, that I can tell you," Valenzuela acknowledges with a grin. "But, you know, I've been in elections that seemed pretty much impossible."

He rattles off a partial list of past assignments — Cambodia in 1993, Liberia in 1997, East Timor in 1999, the Palestinian territories in 2002 — the way others might recount visits to baseball stadiums, or trips to national parks. Valenzuela, colleagues say, is a tireless worker and fierce defender of the United Nations Charter who takes care of business but also likes to party. (He is said to be a smashing dancer and a versatile cook.) Much in demand, he is notorious for not answering e-mails or his ever-ringing cellphone. The constant travel to danger zones has made it difficult to settle down, acknowledges Valenzuela, who remains single. "He's an extremely modest guy," says Carina Perelli, director of the U.N. electoral division and a longtime colleague. "In all the years I have worked with Carlos, I have never seen him in a suit. He's always in jeans or something. But he is the ultimate professional."

His father was a politician in Colombia, where political violence has been endemic for more than half a century. Before becoming an electoral globe-trotter, Valenzuela worked on social welfare issues in Bogota, the edgy capital he still calls home, though he is from Colombia's south. A cousin says Valenzuela remains "very Colombian," though he has not spent much time there recently between studies in Europe — he has a doctorate from the Sorbonne in social and economic sciences — and his almost 12-year stint with the U.N. Valenzuela eschews overtly ideological remarks and sticks to the difficult job at hand. "I know that a lot of people are against the work that we are doing, because they see it as helping the Bush administration," Valenzuela said in a recent interview with the Colombian daily El Tiempo. "This is a very narrow-minded way of seeing things. This is not about fixing the chaos that Bush created. It is about how to work to resolve a problem that could become a regional and worldwide crisis."

He readily acknowledges that the polling in Iraq will not be close to perfect. But he is keen to help produce what he calls a "credible election," one with results that are accepted by the people, whatever the shortcomings. His job, he says, is to provide behind-the-scenes counsel and guidance to the Iraqi electoral authorities, who are running the vote. He closely monitors every step of the process.

Will Iraqis be willing to vote despite the threats, and likely violence? Yes, he says, if they believe the process is transparent and will produce a "real deal," not a sham result. Iraq today is a shattered nation with no recent history of democratic elections. Several parliamentary ballots in the 1950s were considered respectable for the time. The semiautonomous Kurdish region to the north has also had several votes in the last decade. But more than three decades of Saddam Hussein's Baathist police state have left a legacy of distrust and suspicion. And the U.S.-led toppling of Hussein unleashed a wave of political and sectarian violence and uncertainty that shows no signs of abating.

Valenzuela and his team of about 20 U.N. electoral experts advise the independent Iraqi Electoral Commission, which consists of eight Iraqi members and Valenzuela. A key concern is the safety of the commission's Iraqi staff, including 650 core staffers and 6,000 registration workers. One commissioner resigned in July after being threatened and was replaced. On Sunday, gunmen dragged three Election Commission employees from their car in Baghdad and executed them in the street.

On election day, plans call for tens of thousands more workers to be brought in to assist at 9,000 projected polling places nationwide. Anyone associated with the vote is a potential target, as is each polling and registration site. Many staffers conceal their occupations even from their loved ones. "A lot of these people could have other jobs, much less riskier, that probably pay more," Valenzuela says of his staff. "But they're here because … they believe in these elections."

Valenzuela bristles at criticism that Iraq's electoral process is only a rubber stamp for Washington's interests. "I was reading accusations just a little while ago, that of course [the Iraqi commissioners] are agents of the Americans," Valenzuela says, shaking his head at the notion. In fact, he says, the entire process, including the selection of the commissioners and the creation of an Iraqi electoral framework, "was done completely under the auspices of the United Nations."

Still, the U.N.'s position in Iraq remains an extremely delicate one. Many in the Bush administration remain suspicious of an international body that disapproved of the U.S.-led invasion. And some in the U.N. have balked at providing any help to what they regard as a U.S.-created mess. Nor have all Iraqis embraced the U.N. For a decade, Iraqis were taught that the agency was no more than a puppet of the United States, the enforcer of crippling international sanctions. One poster from the period represents Washington and the U.N. as cancer-causing cigarettes that come in the same package.

In retrospect, it is perhaps not surprising that the U.N.'s headquarters here was the target of one of the insurgency's first major suicide attacks, a truck bomb in August 2003 that tore the building apart and killed 22 people, including Sergio Vieira de Mello, a Brazilian diplomat who was the chief of mission and was close to Valenzuela. The Colombian, however, deflects talk about the danger he faces. He is under no illusions about the violence, especially in the troubled Sunni Muslim heartland around Baghdad and to the north and west, where the insurgency is at its most fierce.

Voter registration, underway since Nov. 1 in much of the country, had not even begun in the Sunni stronghold of Al Anbar province, where U.S. forces launched a major assault on the city of Fallouja last month. Electoral preparations were also suspended in the center of the northern city of Mosul after electoral workers were threatened and a storehouse filled with campaign literature was torched. "Certainly, I never mean to minimize the obstacles that violence brings," says Valenzuela, who concedes that the timetable is very tight. "Should violence spiral out of control … then the elections cannot take place."

Valenzuela dismisses suggestions by Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld, among others, that elections could proceed without the involvement of certain troubled areas. He views such proposals as exacerbating the sense of disenfranchisement already apparent in the minority Sunni community, where many are calling for an election boycott — or at least a delay. "The commission has no intention of going to partial elections," Valenzuela says. "There is an electoral plan for the country. In most places, that is working. There are a couple of places where that is not working, so you can take exceptional measures."

He won't elaborate, but others have put forward suggestions: stretching elections beyond a single day in sensitive areas, instituting some kind of same-day registration scheme. Valenzuela hints this may be his final big election for a while — "inshallah," he says, employing the common Arabic phrase that roughly translates as "God willing." All the running around has been exhilarating, and quite rewarding, he says. But it has left some holes in his life.

He speaks of returning to Bogota and opening a cafe. "I've been doing this full time for 13 years," he says. "I want to go back home and change my life." As he muses about the future, someone plays a violin somewhere deep within the Baghdad Convention Center, where you're more likely to hear mortar shots and missiles whizzing by. Like Valenzuela himself, the unexpected musical interlude provides a respite of calm amid the raging storm that is Baghdad.

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