Iraq's election: This time it's for real

BAGHDAD, Iraq — A row of policemen line up outside a school classroom in the Mansour district of Baghdad to vote, the younger ones almost as high-spirited as the schoolchildren who are normally there.

It’s Iraq’s fourth election since the toppling of Saddam Hussein ushered in this hybrid democracy. This one is perhaps the first in which the point is not so much that Iraqis are voting, but rather who they will actually elect.

“Last time, I wanted to vote with my blood but they wouldn’t let me,” says Hussein Jalil, a 23-year-old police commando who is voting again for Ayad Allawi and his Iraqiya coalition.

Jalil, voting on the day set aside for Iraqi security forces, insists he was serious about wanting to mark his ballot with more than blue ink. He’s never met the one-time prime minister and former U.S. ally but he’s seen a lot of his convoy.

“He’s the only one who goes out in the streets to make sure the police are OK,” he says.

On Sunday, for the first time in a parliamentary election, Iraqi voters can cast their ballots not only for the party lists but for individual candidates.

In a society like this where personal relationships are everything, it seems part of the reason why the polling sites for police and the army are packed.

“Every single one of my men voted,” says police colonel Bassim Saidi. He said the 48 of the 393 who didn’t find their names on the ballots were given permission to come back — forestalling the usual allegations of fraud.

“This election is much better than the previous ones because in those ones you couldn’t choose a candidate,” he says.

The policemen, walking down the dusty road to the battered school to vote, seem split between Allawi and Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, who polls are showing as the main front-runners. This isn’t Allawi’s first run. Appointed by the American occupation authorities as transitional Iraqi leader, he failed to get a single seat in the elections four years ago.

But in a country desperate for a strongman and disenchanted with religious parties, the secular Allawi whom some persist in believing has personally shot political rivals, seems to many the right man for the job.

At the polling site, the policemen voting seemed unfazed by bombings in Baghdad on Thursday which killed five people and wounded almost 40 others — it's become almost part of the backdrop of day-to-day life here. In one of the attacks, an Iraqi Army captain died after stopping a suicide bomber near a polling station, according to U.S. and Iraqi officials.

The battered Iraqi capital is a far cry from the Kurdish city of Suleimaniya where overzealous campaigning fueled by alcohol and accompanied by gunfire led to a ban on late-night campaigning last week. But the city is awash in political posters and political events that have tried but largely failed to create a sense of excitement among ordinary voters.

Apart from the military and police voting, which traditionally spikes higher, most officials are expecting a turnout of 50 to 60 percent.

“It’s not a matter of being afraid,” says Nermin al-Mufti, a Kirkuk journalist who is running for office in Baghdad under the Iraqiya list. “In 2005, it was much more dangerous and people went to the polls. This time they will not go that much because they are disappointed.”

Fear is not the issue. It’s disappointment with a parliament widely seen as inept, corrupt and almost completely self-interested.

Elections for provincial councils last year sent a message to religious-based parties particularly in the south, that voters would rather have electricity and clean water than politicians' promises of salvation.

Although Sunday’s vote will have been preceded by the first elections in Jan. 2005, to elect a national assembly, and then voting in Dec 2005, for the first full-term parliament, this is the first election in a fully sovereign Iraq since the U.S. handed over control for security last June.

Sunnis widely boycotted the first two elections, and they are seen almost as practice runs for a national vote in which most Sunnis have realized that the boycott did them more harm than good.

Despite the ban on 80 candidates, including two prominent Sunni politicians, for alleged Baathist ties, that isn’t expected to widely affect the Sunni vote.

“Maybe some people will be angry but at the end everyone will feel that they can’t waste their vote because it is a very important election campaign,” said parliament speaker Ayad al-Samurai, a Sunni.

Al Qaeda has threatened to disrupt these elections and if this weren’t a city used to terrible threats, it might have more effect.

Baghdad has been essentially locked down — with government workers at home on a four-day holiday there’s almost no traffic on the streets. Two hundred thousand police and soldiers not allowed to go on leave patrol the roads. On Thursday, streets around polling stations were closed and normally random searches were stopping every vehicle.

Despite that, a suicide bomber blew himself up at another school in Mansour being used as a polling center, killing three soldiers and wounding dozens more. Another bomber wearing an explosive vest killed four soldiers near a polling center in downtown Baghdad.

Seven others, including four children, were killed and more than 20 others wounded in an apparent rocket attack on the north of Baghdad.

Although the big question for election day is how much violence will there be, perhaps the more important one is what sort of government will take shape after the votes are counted.

Iraq’s political system is fragmented enough that no one party can win the 163 seats needed to form a government on its own. Building a coalition is expected to take weeks if not several months.

With Shiites holding the balance of power as well as forming the majority of the population, the next prime minister will almost certainly be a Shiite, while the role of president — expected to have less power in this government — will go to a Kurd or a Sunni.

The Kurds are themselves divided this time around, with the breakaway Change party doing serious political damage to the Jalal Talabani’s Patriotic Union of Kurdistan. The Kurds, though, who threw their weight behind Maliki, allowing him to become prime minister, expect once again to be the kingmakers.

“It’s difficult to predict what the results will look like but one point is very clear to me — none of the lists will be able to have a majority so there must be a coalition,” says Massoud Barzani, president of the Kurdish regional government and head of the Kurdistan Democratic Party. “For us we were not going to decide until after the elections what alliances we want to be a part of.”

That decision he makes clear, will be made on the basis of what various parties are willing to offer the Kurds, who see the next four years as their chance to entrench their control of disputed territories and push through a resolution to the disputed city of Kirkuk.

The only thing certain, says one Western official about Iraq’s diverse political players, is that any alliances are possible.