Iraq Vote Goes Smoothly, but Results Are Another Story

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Filippo Monteforte / AFP / Getty

Iraqi men look at the electoral lists at the entrance of a polling station in the eastern town of Khanaqin, in Diyala province near Iraq's border with Iran, on January 31, 2009. Millions of Iraqis voted in provincial elections on Saturday.

The Arabic phrase you hear again and again in Iraq is "schwaya, schwaya," which is usually said along with cupped hands held out for emphasis. The translation varies somewhat depending on the circumstances, but generally "schwaya, schwaya" means "hold on" or "go slow" or more formally "patience please." The day after Saturday's nationwide provincial balloting election officials essentially urged Iraqis to take the saying to heart as they wait up to three weeks for the official tally.

"We hope that by the end of the week we will have some initial results for you," said Qassim al-Abodi, the chief electoral officer for the Independent High Electoral Commission of Iraq (IHEC). "In two to three weeks, we will have the final, ratified results, we hope. And we please ask you to be patient until the final ratified results are announced by IHEC. We would like to remind you that only IHEC has the authority to announce the results."

Iraqi officials say about 7.5 million voters cast ballots across central and southern Iraq Saturday, making for a turnout of roughly 51%. The semi-autonomous northern region of Kurdistan did not participate, but throughout most of Iraq hundreds of polling stations opened early Saturday morning. Some 500,000 independent observers watched over polling centers nationwide, and Iraqi officials say no major incidents or serious complaints were reported. (See TIME's Special Report: "Life Returning to Iraq's Streets")

The vote marked Iraq's second provincial elections, which determine the makeup of provincial councils that in turn elect regional governors. The political stakes in the vote were low compared to politicking at the national level. But the election took on added importance in the eyes of American and Iraqi officials, because it offered a chance for Iraq's Sunni minority, who boycotted the 2005 provincial elections, to rejoin the political process in areas where they have strong numbers such as Anbar and Diyala province. Election day was also seen as a key test for the Iraqi security forces, which staged a massive operation to secure the streets. Iraqi authorities put the country in virtual lockdown, sealing the borders, closing the airports and banning all but essential traffic in downtown areas. Thousands of Iraqi army soldiers and police officers stood watch as voters headed to the polls. American military patrols were also on the scene in Baghdad, but U.S. forces largely stayed in the background.

The biggest problem of the day appeared to be the inability of some displaced voters to access polling centers. Voters had to be listed on an official registry at specific polling stations in order to cast ballots. Iraqi officials acknowledged that some internally displaced voters were confused about where they should vote and wound up turned away from polling stations, despite a public awareness campaign aimed at avoiding just such a snafu. But overall, Iraqi officials said, that was a minor issue that would not seriously impact the vote.

"The polling center locations were widely advertised," said Qassim, who addressed reporters in Baghdad alongside other IHEC officials. "It's simply that some citizens had not made good use of the information."

Not everyone agreed, however, that it was such a minor snafu. At polling station No. 65 in Baghdad's Karada district, volunteer observer Hafa'a Latif said the number of people who were turned away could call the vote into question.

"A lot of voters didn't have names on the registry," said Latif. "And that in my opinion should be considered a breach by the independent commission."

Um Ahmed, who was displaced from her home in southern Baghdad during sectarian violence, managed to cast a vote at station No. 65 the central part of the city. But she said many Iraqis like her had trouble. "The whole operation is a failure," said Ahmed. "And certainly we will find evidence of a lot of fraud. The problem of displaced people is not solved."

For the most part, however, Iraqis have considered the election a success so far. No major violence broke out, and the complaints seemed no more serious than the inevitable problems that occur when millions of people cast ballots all at once anywhere, including in the U.S., much less in a fragile new democracy like Iraq.

Who gained in the election is of course unclear. But already many in Baghdad are speculating that the tickets headed by Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki and former Iraqi Prime Minister Ayad Allawi appear poised to make the best showing. Iraqis largely seem content to wait for the final results in any case.

"Predictions are difficult," said Khalid Oglah, the chief election official overseeing polling station No. 65. "The ballot boxes will reveal who is the winner."

With reporting by Tariq Anmar / Baghdad

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