Something important is happening this Sunday in Iraq, but despite what George Bush or Iyad Allawi might say, it is not yet clear why it is important or what its consequences may be. Also unclear to many in this country is exactly what is at stake and who is involved. I offer this column by way of a primer.

The entire country will be regarded as one constituency, and votes will be awarded by proportional representation — that is, voters will choose one party, and the parties will fill seats in the National Assembly in proportion to the percentage of the national vote they receive. The 275-member Assembly will choose a prime minister from its own ranks. The main task of the Assembly is to draft a permanent constitution, which will be put to a national referendum on Oct. 15. The constitution can be vetoed in this referendum if two-thirds of the electorate in three of 18 provinces reject it. If it is accepted, new elections will be held, and a constitutionally authorized government should be in place by 2006.

One hundred and eleven parties have submitted lists of candidates; election law mandates that every third name on their lists be a woman’s and that no former high-level Ba’ath Party members or current military personnel may run. Groups with militias have also been prohibited. The major players are:

The United Iraqi Alliance (UIA) is a predominantly Shi’a coalition whose list of candidates was prepared by Iranian cleric Grand Ayatollah Ali al Sistani, the most influential religious figure for Iraq’s majority Shi’a. The clear frontrunner, the UIA benefits from a religious edict requiring all Shi’a to vote, though it has committed to nominating a prime minister from outside the religious establishment. Its main constituent groups are the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI) and the al-Dawa Party, both of which were based in Iran during the Hussein era, and the Iraqi National Congress, a party-in-exile under Ahmed Chalabi, one of the major proponents of the U.S. invasion.

The Iraqi List (IL) is essentially the personality cult of Shi’a interim Prime Minister Iyad Allawi. The party emphasizes law and order and both benefits and suffers from the publicity Allawi has received in his current post.

Kurdistan Alliance (KA) is an alliance of two rival Kurdish parties in promotion of a secular state and, at the least, autonomy for the three largely Kurdish northern provinces within a federal Iraq. The two parties are the Kurdish Democratic Party and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan. The KA is also hoping to incorporate the northern city of Kirkuk into the Kurdish autonomous areas.

Union of the People is a secular coalition led by Iraq’s oldest political party — the Communists — that stresses equality and is historically the party of impoverished Shiites.

Alliance of Independent Democrats (AID) is a secular party led by Sunni Adnan Pachachi, whose political career predates the 1968 Ba’athist coup. Like many parties, the AID is led primarily by returned exiles. Pachachi has repeatedly called for a delay of the elections but will not boycott.

Independent Nationalist Cadres and Elites is the party led by and catering to the followers of Shi’a firebrand Muqtada al Sadr; the party is still waiting for Sadr’s official endorsement. It could do well in Baghdad slums — if voters make it to the polls.

The Iraqi Islamic Party (IIP) is the most well-known Sunni party. The IIP has ceased campaigning, objecting to a security crisis that promises to effectively disenfranchise many already-minority Sunnis. In response, the Shi’a leaders of the UIA have promised to find ways to involve Sunni Arabs in the constitutional process even if they boycott the election. The IIP, however, says that it will not take government appointments offered by the victors, but still intends to take part in the constitutional process in some way. Meanwhile, the Association of Muslim Scholars, a Sunni religious entity, has also called on all Sunnis to boycott the elections — with one exception. Sunnis in Kirkuk, where peace hangs on balanced representation in the local council, who are being encouraged to vote.

The outlook is not particularly good. American commanders have warned that sizeable areas of four of the 18 provinces — Anbar, Nineveh, Salahaddin and the city of Baghdad itself — are too dangerous for elections, and these four regions are home to more that half of Iraq’s population. Indeed, Iraqi officials cite 50-percent turnout as a good showing. Some polling places — which are, incidentally, often schools — have been attacked already, and though it is intended as a security measure, a ban on civilian vehicle traffic on Sunday means that many voters will have to brave dangerous conditions on foot.

These elections will not be the glorious first expression of spreading democracy in the Middle East. They will not even be a reliable representation of the will of the Iraqi people. But they are important. There is little possibility of rerunning them now; those elected on Sunday will be the ones to draft Iraq’s new constitution. And while chances are that constitution and the government it spawns will fail, there remains a chance that they will not. Given the continuing inability of the American government to articulate any coherent plan for improving the situation in Iraq, all we can do on Sunday is cross our fingers and trust that, despite the nasty circumstances of this first step, the Iraqis will do a better job.

Sofia Fenner is a sophomore in Morse College.