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Faculty's Lesson in Democracy: Picking a University President

Teachers convene with optimism in Baghdad. Other campuses in Iraq also hold elections.

May 18, 2003|Tyler Marshall | Times Staff Writer

BAGHDAD — It was back-to-school day at colleges and universities throughout Iraq on Saturday, but at Baghdad University, faculty members made a brief but important detour on the way to their classrooms.

They practiced democracy.

For the first time in the memory of even the most venerable professors, the faculty had been granted the right to vote for the university's president plus two senior deputies. And in oven-like heat they crowded into a stifling auditorium to do what comes naturally to any American: nominate candidates, listen to them speak, bicker over procedure, challenge rules and -- eventually -- cast their ballots.

Before it was over, the 500-plus voters had selected Sami Mahdi Al-Mudafer, a Basra-born chemistry professor.

"I'm very proud today," said Yazin Pir Radha, a microbiologist, perched in the front row to hear every word. "I'm hoping for more democracy and the freedom to criticize anyone."

The faculty voting at Baghdad University was repeated at institutions of higher learning in many parts of the country Saturday in what became a de facto introduction of free voting into an important element of Iraqi society. That it came on the day that classes resumed for the first time since the start of the U.S.-led war against Iraq added to a mood of cautious optimism.

The senior American advisor to the Ministry of Higher Education and Scientific Research, Andrew Erdmann, said he was pleased with the day's events.

"They've been able to express their preference to say who they want to take them through this difficult time," he said.

To be sure, the democracy was limited. In all cases, those selected must be approved by the U.S. occupation authorities before taking office. That approval requires any winner to be a current faculty member who holds a doctorate and has no high-level connections in Saddam Hussein's Baath Party.

"They have to be people we can work with," Erdmann said.

Further, the successful candidates' terms could end in weeks with the semester's close in the summer. Some also complained that poor communications, the lack of transportation and uncertainty about public security reduced the number of voters. In the College of Engineering, for example about half of the faculty had registered to vote; in the College of Arts and Language and the College of Nursing, faculty attendance was about 25%.

Still, none of this seemed to deter the voters who crowded into the auditorium Saturday.

"I don't know who the candidates will be," said Hadithi Omar, who had taught urban planning at the university for 30 years. "I hope there is someone I know."

When organizers opened the floor to nominations, hands shot up immediately and within minutes there were 11 nominees. All were men. After the names were written for all to see, each candidate addressed the audience with a description of his past.

A computer scientist named Hilal Bayati told his colleagues that he had been jailed by the Hussein regime for more than a decade and that he and his family had been tortured.

Most focused on their academic histories and ended with statements that they had never been affiliated with the Baath Party. A candidate who declared that he had "retired" from the party was the only one to receive no applause after his remarks.

The silence was but one sign of anti-Baath sentiment in an institution where party membership was a prerequisite for senior positions a few months ago. Outside the auditorium, placards urged faculty members to vote against any Baath candidates.

U.S. civil authorities banned high-level Baath members from public life Friday; those who had served in the party's lower ranks were free to participate.

As faculty members ascended stairs toward the auditorium, they passed haunting photos of about 40 young people who disappeared during Hussein's rule.

Some of those in the auditorium had also been shocked by an incident last week , when U.S. authorities were forced to cancel their first attempt to conduct the election because of irregularities, including identification checks that allowed many ineligible voters into the auditorium and several Baath Party figures seemingly in charge.

With squares of white paper serving as ballots, each candidate Saturday was allotted just two minutes to introduce himself, and with votes counted on a blackboard, the event seemed more akin to a student council election than a vote for the head of country's largest university.

There were no immediate reports of irregularities in elections elsewhere Saturday and those who voted at Baghdad University seemed satisfied by the process. "It's a starting point," noted Hussein Ali Daoud, 32, a member of the engineering faculty. "We hope it's a good one."

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