PRESIDENT BUSH last week called elections the "most important step" in a five-point plan he outlined for Iraq's transition to self-rule. If successful, elections can supply the ingredient so far lacking in its post-Saddam governing arrangements--popular legitimacy.

There is much to be done. Some very broad choices have already been made. The form of government--"republican, federal, democratic, and pluralistic," with powers devolved whenever possible to regional and local governments--is specified in the Transitional Administrative Law adopted in March by the Iraqi Governing Council. Elections for a 275-seat National Assembly will be held by secret ballot, under laws aiming to give women one-quarter of the seats and "fair representation" to small minorities like to Turcomans and Chaldo Assyrians, by the end of January 2005.

The existing provinces will remain--the 18 governatees--which are free to cluster themselves by threes in regional governments. The Kurdistan National Assembly will continue to administer six governates. Elections for governate councils and for the Kurdistan National Assembly will be held at the same time as those for the National Assembly.

Candidates must be 30 years old, with at least a secondary school diploma or the equivalent. They must not be former top members of the Baath party, and if former "full members" they must have renounced this tie in writing.

But that's about all. The voting system has yet to be determined. So have the rules for granting political parties ballot status, at a time when there are scores of parties in Baghdad alone. How will campaigns be financed? Will candidates be given free time on TV and radio? And there are the logistics of holding a vote to arrange: voter registration, location of polling places, and provisions for monitoring the vote and the count. Not to mention voter education.

THE NEW IRAQI GOVERNMENT will get advice and technical assistance on these matters from outside. A U.N. team headed by Carina Perelli has been in Iraq for that purpose. Most of the work is going on out of the public eye, minds concentrated by the ticking clock.

The world has by now an accumulated store of experience with political transitions in countries emerging from oppression or conflict. Jamal Benomar, senior adviser to the United Nations Development Program, calls these "refounding moments." In an article in the current issue of the Journal of Democracy, he attempts to distill from the experiences of 19 countries some lessons for Iraq. They are sobering.

One "precondition for free and fair elections" that he stresses looks unattainable: security. It will take extraordinary determination by the people of Iraq, and by Iraqi and Coalition security forces, to hold an election at all in the face of the bombings that are likely to intensify as the vote nears.

Another desiderata that is missing is time. The timetable agreed to is extremely tight. An electoral law will be no sooner adopted than implemented, with minimal time for public education and discussion and consensus-building. Elections present the opportunity for "democratic empowerment," Benomar notes, as local groups learn to serve as "media and polling monitors" and citizens debate, and size up their choices, and finally vote. Ideally, this cannot be rushed.

In the real world, everything must be done at once, yesterday. Iraq's new government--a government still lacking democratic legitimacy--has its work cut out for it.

Claudia Winkler is a managing editor at The Weekly Standard.

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