BAGHDAD — Iraq election workers began tallying votes from 47,000 polling stations across the country Monday, a day after the country pulled off a landmark vote despite scattered dozens of explosions that went off in Baghdad and in other parts of the country.
At the bustling headquarters of the Iraqi High Electoral Commission (IHEC), cheers went up as the first boxes of tally sheets from individual polling stations arrived. The boxes, from polling sites from the Rasafah district of Baghdad, were put through metal detectors before dozens of IHEC employees began unsealing the envelopes.
The IHEC said 62.4 percent of eligible Iraqis voted. That's down from an official figure of 79.6 percent in the last parliamentary elections, when Shiite Arab and Kurdish voters turned out in huge numbers, but represents the first national parliamentary elections with wide Sunni Arab participation.
The first indication of results is expected by Wednesday at the earliest, when 30 percent of the votes counted in a single governorate are expected to be tallied and announced. Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's State of Law coalition is expected to make a strong showing in the south. But political observers believe that the overall race between Maliki and Iyad Allawi, a secular Shiite, is too close to call.
Whether Maliki's State of Law alliance, former prime minister Iyad Allawi's Iraqiya party, or the Iraq National Alliance - which includes Ahmed Chalabi and radical Shiite leader Moqtada al-Sadr - win the most votes, the leading political parties are expected to take until late spring or even summer to strike the bargains needed to form a coalition government. The two main Kurdish parties and a breakaway Kurdish group are expected to be a key part of any coalition.
Officials fear that the political uncertainty while a government is being formed could fuel political violence.
That could extend the violence that plagued the run-up to Sunday's election, and election day itself. Although almost 40 people were believed killed when two houses collapsed due to explosions early Sunday, US military officials said most of the attacks involved small, largely ineffective bombs made from water bottles.
'THOSE WHO LOSE MUST ACCEPT THAT'
With so much at stake in these elections, IHEC Chairman Hadi al-Amri has suddenly become the most sought-after official in the country.
Amri said he has tried to avoid communicating with party officials. But while immersed in conversation with a candidate from the Iraqiya list, Amri eventually agreed to take a call from Iraqiya party leader Ayad Allawi, who had issued a statement on Sunday alleging fraud and calling for an investigation into the election results. Amri told him the results were not in yet and not to be too hasty in alleging electoral violations.
"Those who lose must accept that but no one accepts that ... this is Iraq - we must not have any losers," says Amri, describing what he sees as his biggest challenge. "All of them want to win."
Allawi, the one-time prime minister who is the main rival to Mr. Maliki, had called for an hour's extension to Sunday's voting after explosions throughout Baghdad kept people from the polls in the morning. The request was turned down by election officials.
'I'M VERY HAPPY TO BE A PART OF THIS'
Amri and international observers said the attacks did not seem to have had a significant effect on voter turnout in the capital.
"There are no international standards for this but everyone can say it was a very, very good participation. The most important thing is that people in Iraq realize that the only solution to their problems is to participate in the election," said Judge Qassim al-Aboudi, an IHEC commissioner.
At election headquarters, more than 1,000 temporary employees have begun work to tabulate the tally sheets from each polling site and enter them into a database. The ballots themselves were sent to secure warehouses after counting overnight in each of the polling stations, much of it by lamplight.
At one of the crowded desks, Riyadh Hiyan was opening the sealed envelopes to check the voting lists against IHEC records. "I'm very happy to be part of this," said Mr Hiyan, who has a degree in chemistry but can't find a job.
Election officials and Western observers said this election - Iraq's fourth national election since Saddam was toppled - seemed more organized and better run than previous polls.
"We have more experience now," said Dr Hazem al-Badri, the official overseeing the intake process. "We have twice as many staff and many more computers."
His biggest problem? "Too much media," he said, interrupting an interview to instruct a worker as to which folder the sheets went into. "There are so many, it has affected my job - I need quiet."
(McClatchy and the Christian Science Monitor operate a joint bureau in Baghdad)