Despair clouds first post-US Iraq vote

Prime minister hails lack of violence, but election watchdogs say disillusioned voters preferred to stay away from polls


    Baghdad – The ballots are just beginning to be counted from Iraqi provincial elections, but the first vote since US troops pulled out is already fraught with accusations of fraud and disagreements over the percentage of voter turnout.

    The Iraqi High Electoral Commission (IHEC) announced that 51 percent of registered voters cast their ballots in general voting on Saturday and in army and police voting last week.

    The figure, though, included only 33 percent turnout in Baghdad, by far the most populous governorate.

    The figure is identical to voter turnout in the last provincial elections four years ago.

    Iraqi non-governmental organisations dedicated to monitoring the election process said they believed the actual number of voters was much less.

    "The voter turnout in all of Iraq did not exceed 46 percent," said Hogir Sheakha, from the Shams organisation.

    He said he believed the IHEC calculations were flawed because they did not take into account the much lower populations of provinces where voter turnout was over 50 percent.

    "We can't compare Muthana, which had 60 percent and one million registered voters, with Baghdad, which has four million," Sheakha said.

    Asked about the discrepancy, a senior IHEC official said it wasn't important.

    "What is the problem if we say 50 percent and they say 46 percent?" asked Muqdad al-Sherifi, the head of IHEC's electoral directorate.

    He said the NGOs monitoring the election did not have enough staff throughout the provinces to be able to make an accurate assessment.

    Preliminary results of winning candidates are expected to be announced in the next several days.

    Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, whose State of Law slate fielded candidates in all provinces, praised what he called a high turnout and lack of violence.

    After a violent run-up to the election, the voting was relatively calm. Still, small bombs and mortar rounds landed near polling centres wounded several people. Even so, the car bombs and suicide bombings many feared did not materialise.

    Driving was banned in Baghdad and other major cities, possibly preventing attacks, but also making it difficult for Iraqis to get to the polling places.

    At least 13 political candidates were assassinated during the election campaign.

    One of Maliki's main rivals, Shia cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, said the low turnout in many places reflected despair by those disillusioned by Maliki's government.

    "We see again another clear and visible failure of the Iraqi government as a result of the corruption and terrorism in Iraq which has led to the reluctance of many Iraqis to vote in the election," Sadr said in a statement.

    He said the ban on driving in many cities significantly cut the turnout as did voter registration problems.

    Sadr described the vote as a last chance to save Iraq.

    The country faces national elections next year with its provinces and the central government more divided than at any time since the overthrow of Saddam Hussein in 2003.

    Under its post-war constitution, provinces that want the same semi-autonomous status as the Kurds have in the north, can hold a referendum to ask for it.

    In a controversial move, provincial elections were delayed in the Sunni majority provinces of Anbar and Ninevah. While the Iraqi cabinet blamed lack of security for the delay, many Iraqis believe it was aimed at preventing politicians allied with Maliki from losing their seats.

    Disillusionment with corrupt, ineffectual politicians has extended across party lines.

    Even in Sadr City, where the Sadr movement has a strong following, voter participation was believed to be lower than in previous elections.

    "She invited us to lunch and promised to find us jobs but she didn't do anything," said a shopkeeper in his 20s who voted for a candidate on the Sadr list in the last election.

    "I will never vote for anyone again because they are all liars."



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