The vote that spells new hope for Iraqis
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On Jan. 31, Iraq's provincial elections took place in a relatively peaceful atmosphere, with religious parties losing ground for the first time. Our reporters in Iraq assessed the hopes and fears of the population on a landmark day for the country.
For the people of Iraq, January 31, 2009 just might go down in history. Most Iraqis see the provincial elections as the first truly free ones in their history, after mass boycotts and violence marred the 2005 polls. There is a strong feeling that a milestone was reached. Despite the curfew, there is almost a party atmosphere in the streets. Even the police are chilling out.
Not even a year ago, there were bloody shoot-outs in the Adhamiyah neighbourhood. In the name of religion,of power, or just out of rage. Today, a polling station opened in the local school.
The Abou Ali family members are locals. This man is a Sunni carpenter. His wife is a social worker, and a Shia. She harbours high hopes for today’s ballot: “These democratic elections are new to us, we’ve never seen that before. We have to vote in these elections for the country to get on its feet again, for things to get better.”
Nothing comes easy in Iraq
On the ballot paper - which, incidentally, looks more like a poster - there are more than 400 lists representing over 15,000 candidates for Iraq’s provincial assemblies.
Preparation for these polls has been long and painstaking. Their success is crucial to Iraq’s future. So everything has been planned, down to the last detail. While no-one can call an election fraud-proof, at least it is strictly a secret ballot.
Not all the polling stations have as festive an atmosphere as the Mouhadj school, but all have the same tight security. On the ground, there are only Iraqi police. Above the voters’ heads, American troops are trying to be discreet, but they’re never out of earshot.
January 31st has marked two historical achievements: the day passed peacefully and turnout hit 51 percent
But one day without violence is one thing. On the eve of the vote, three candidates were mowed down in broad daylight by masked men.
Deputy Minister for Displacement and Migration Al Khafaji travels about with four cars and twelve soldiers for escort. He has no trouble justifying such protection: “Politicians are always targeted by terrorist cells and militias. You have to take every precaution in order to work. If you go out alone without escort, you can have serious problems. Politicians are symbols, and when they are killed, it is demoralising and causes society to break down.”
A brutal civil war between Sunni and Shia Iraqis has left deep scars. It’s hard to come around to the idea that the mortal enemy of old can simply become a political adversary. Kidnappings and targeted assassinations have not really ended.
Today, Iraqi’s priority is security. Then come jobs, electricity, water - basic things for a society that will gladly accept democracy if it works. But the religion-based parties that have governed Iraq’s provinces up until now have provided none of those key needs.
In line with international guidelines for free elections, Iraq has also instituted an equal opportunities policy. There are thousands of female candidates. Some are simply the wives of tribal leaders, while others are genuine activists in their own right.
Iman Jawad is one of them: “Our list is a nationwide Iraqi list, which is against the communitarianism that’s plaguing today’s Iraq. We don’t want communitarian quotas, we don’t want clans, and that’s why I am standing as a candidate on this list.”
The candidate is totally aware of the risks of fraud. However, she reminds us, “there is a degree of fraud in all elections, all over the world, and our experience in Iraq is new.”