Global Policy Forum

Deadline Threatens to Limit Public Input


By Richard Chin and Alaa al Baldawy

Knight Ridder
August 7, 2005

The posters plastered on the concrete barriers set up to thwart suicide car bombers in this war-torn city feature laughing children and social diversity - Christians, Arabs, Kurds - co-existing peacefully under the motto "Our Constitution is Our Tent." Reality, in contrast, is a sweaty, naked two-month-old baby squirming in the arms of Layla Hussain, 35, who was trying vainly to cool off in the 100-degree Baghdad heat by stepping out of her apartment, which lacks electricity most of the day and is jammed with 16 people. "We don't get the ration food, how can we get a copy of the constitution?" Hussain asked. "How can we have a constitution? This government basically operates by order of the Americans."

The leaders of Iraq are trying to draft a blueprint for a permanent democratic government, a document they hope will unite a country split by ethnic and sectarian differences and roiling under constant violent attacks. Part of that process is an effort to find out what ordinary people like Hussain want in a national constitution. They didn't use polling and focus groups to write the U.S. Constitution 216 years ago, but that's what Iraqi officials are doing as a way to build legitimacy and public support. They're being helped by Western and Iraqi organizations armed with thousands of questionnaires and hundreds of suggestion boxes placed throughout the country.

Other recent new democracies have spent years on such education and opinion-gathering activities before writing their constitutions, but here the period for public input and debate has been compressed into just a few weeks because Iraqis are under American pressure to meet an Aug. 15 deadline. That means ordinary Iraqis won't have much of a voice in shaping their government, some analysts say.

Many residents perceive the new constitution as something written by the political elite under American influence behind the concrete fortress of the Green Zone. And they say it has little to do with their paramount concerns. "Will the constitution give us electricity, give us water or prevent people from being killed?" asked one woman shopping in the Karada neighborhood. "Would kidnapping and killing and slaughter stop? No. We will have it more than before," the woman said, slapping her palms together dismissively.

The American hope is that crafting a constitution on schedule will be a step toward creating a democracy that will undermine and isolate the violent insurgency. But the rush to get the document done in time threatens to squeeze out the public's views. "Other countries have taken literally years on what Iraq is trying to do in only a couple of weeks," said Nathan Brown, a political scientist and expert on Arab legal issues at George Washington University. "We could wind up with a constitution where they say, `Yes, they asked for our opinions, but in the end they listened to the American ambassador.'" Jonathan Morrow, a legal adviser working in Iraq for the U.S. Institute of Peace, agreed: "Iraq will not go down in history as a model constitution process," he said. "In Iraq, if it's a success, it will be a qualified success. It won't be another South Africa."

It isn't that Iraqi officials and nongovernment agencies aren't trying hard to solicit public opinion. A program of the constitution-drafting commission and support groups has collected more than 250,000 responses to questionnaires across the country. But the work got started only last month. "The problem is it's just going far too quick," Brown said. He worries that a constitution put before voters before a real consensus among drafters is reached might result in more national strife down the road. "My concern is, because of the rush we won't have time to let opinions gel," he said. "The whole rationale for the deadline is undermined by the insistence on the deadline."

Time is short because it took months to form the Shiite and Kurdish-dominated interim government after last January's election. More delays were caused by the need to bring Sunni Arabs into the process in hope that would defuse the largely Sunni-driven insurgency. The drafters have spent the last few weeks wrangling over issues like women's rights, the distribution of national resources, the role of Islam in the law, and the degree of autonomy ethnic regions will have. If the draft is completed by Aug. 15, it is supposed to go to voters for approval in a referendum by Oct. 15, followed by elections for a permanent government by Dec. 15.

Meanwhile, Iraqis in charge of public outreach have been trying hard to make up for lost time. In one office in a Baghdad residential neighborhood, clerks have been working double shifts processing questionnaires. They also sort through suggestions that have been e-mailed from expatriates around the globe. The office looks like any other except the workers are segregated by sex - women in one room with laptop computers, men in another room with desktop computers. It's a potentially deadly task, for government workers are targets for insurgent attacks. Guards with automatic weapons search everyone who enters.

Public suggestions for what to include in the constitution range from thoughtful to heartfelt to obscure. According to preliminary results, two-thirds of questionnaire respondents felt that Islam should be the only or the main source of legislation, and 91 percent supported women's rights as long as that did not contradict Islam. A sample found that the most popular ideas involved establishing Islam as the state religion, fair distribution of national resources and use of the death penalty, particularly against Saddam Hussein.

"Only Iraqis can operate businesses (in Iraq), and if foreign partners are allowed, it should not exceed 49 percent," according to another citizen's proposed provision in a message that concludes, "As an old man, my wish is to see a happy, free and prosperous Iraq before I leave this world. GOOD LUCK IRAQ."

Iraqis on the drafting committee say public suggestions have influenced their debates. Commission member Thamir Abbas al-Ghadban said outcry over a proposal to drop one provision guaranteeing women at least 25 percent of seats in the national assembly led to a decision to preserve that provision.

But some people on the street say it's a one-way conversation. "How can we see anything if we have no electricity (for the television)? They give it to us for five minutes, and then it turns off," said one Baghdad shopkeeper who declined to give her name. As she talked, the electricity in her store cut out. "We first want security and we want to believe that the constitution will make our lives better, but we never know."

"People of Iraq are very simple. They don't understand these points. They showed it on TV. But most people don't understand," said store owner Salih Mohmmad. "To be honest, I don't have confidence in them to give a suggestion. We don't have electricity, water, local services. This is all people are interested in."

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