Low turnout in Iraq's election reflects a disillusioned nation

McClatchy NewspapersFebruary 1, 2009 

BAGHDAD — Voter turnout in Iraq's provincial elections Saturday was the lowest in the nation's short history as a new democracy despite a relative calm across the nation. Only about 7.5 million of more than 14 million registered voters went to the polls.

Interviews suggest that the low voter turnout also is an indication of Iraqi disenchantment with a democracy that, so far, has brought them very little.

Since the U.S.-led invasion in 2003 and the fall of a brutal dictator, Iraqis witnessed unprecedented violence in their nation and what they believe is humiliation under a foreign occupation. Even on Saturday, U.S. tanks could be spotted across Baghdad on largely empty roads.

Following elections in 2005 Iraq spiraled into a sectarian war. People cowered in their homes while others literally killed each other in the streets. Many here feel the people they elected were party to or were at least complicit in the violence. The security forces too were feared as sectarian death squads and Iraqis also believed that American raids or passing U.S. tanks sometimes resulted in innocent civilian deaths.

Many blame the U.S. presence in Iraq for sowing the seeds of sectarianism by bringing back exiles to rule them.

Beyond the disillusionment, thousands of potential voters were unable to cast ballots Saturday because official voter lists did not contain their names. Street protests resulted.

"I didn't participate in this election because I don't trust any list," Yasir Baqir, 28, said on Saturday in Fallujah. "Like any election, we read and see many promises but nothing real (happens) and there is still a crisis, a security crisis, an economic and a services crisis."

Saturday's turnout of about 51 percent was well below the 76 percent turnout who cast ballots in national elections in December 2005 and even below 57 percent who voted for provincial councils and their national assembly in January 2005. On Election Day in January 2005, 44 people were killed. Saturday one person was reported killed in non-election related violence.

"There was a mood of apathy before the elections," said Ali al Adeeb a Shiite legislator from Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki's party. "Many asked themselves what is the good? Why should we vote and for what? The enthusiasm came as the elections got closer."

Despite the turnout, the Independent High Electoral Commission said participation was a positive sign for provincial elections. The commission also characterized voting violations on Election Day as extremely low.

"[The commission] is very pleased with the turn out," said Judge Qassim al Aboudi. "All these complaints who claimed not to be on a voter registry for a number of reasons were at the wrong center or did not update their information."

Despite that assessment, it seems that tens of thousands of mostly displaced people didn't get to vote. The commission said this was a mistake on the voter's part. Many didn't check where they were supposed to vote before Election Day.

Most of the confusion seemed to be concentrated in Sunni Arab and Kurdish areas.

On Sunday Maliki's Coalition of the State of Law seemed to be the big winner but preliminary results will not be available until the end of the week. Maliki spent weeks heavily campaigning for the party of candidates who would fill the seats across the nation. He was widely criticized by other slates for using government resources to campaign.

The extent of the power of the provincial councils is unclear. While they control the security, public facilities and influence local ministry official appointees, their budgets come from the central government. Governors, who are elected by the provincial councils, can be ousted by a vote of the national parliament.

Maliki has strongly advocated for a stronger central government and weaker provinces. If he can fill provinces with his supporters, he may be able to garner further power for the federal government.

Many officials outside of Maliki's circle worry he has grown too strong.

As a Shiite Islamist, he recast himself last year as a nationalist despite heading a Shiite Islamist party. Maliki cracked down on Shiite militias in the south and in Baghdad and his support for Arab parties in the Kurdish Arab regions has given him new support from some Arab Sunni constituents.

Iraqis cast their ballots in 42,000 heavily secured polling stations across the country on Saturday. The electoral commission received the most complaints from Nineveh province and Diyala province where Kurds and Arabs rub up against each other and are vying for power.

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