Mon, Feb 02, 2009 - Page 1 News List

Iraqi provincial election hailed as milestone

NO MAJOR VIOLENCE Fear of attacks may have kept voters away, as turnout fell short of expectations. However, turnout among Sunni Arabs was relatively high


Just over half of Iraq’s voters turned out for the country’s provincial elections, officials said yesterday, after what was being hailed as a milestone for the future of the war-torn nation.

The 51 percent turnout figure was lower than expected, a result likely to disappoint Iraqi and US leaders who saw the elections as a key test for a country trying to secure stability and shore up its democracy six years after the US-led invasion.

“Turnout reached 51 percent at the national level,” Iraqi election commission chief Faraj al-Haydari told a press briefing, adding that 7.5 million of the 15 million-strong electorate cast ballots in 14 of 18 provinces.

Early unofficial indicators had suggested a turnout of around 60 percent with a tight security clampdown in place across the country to guard against militant attacks that may have deterred voters.

But the final figure proved lower than the 55.7 percent seen in elections four years ago, the Independent High Electoral Commission said.

However, there was a relatively high turnout among Sunni Arabs, in stark contrast to 2005 when they boycotted the ballot en masse, infuriated by the invasion that ousted former Iraqi president Saddam Hussein.

“We were expecting this turnout, because Iraq is now in a normal situation, government spokesman Ali al-Dabbagh said.

But the figure was way below the level of 70 percent to 80 percent that Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki said he was hoping for.

Nevertheless, Shiite candidates backed by the prime minister appeared to have posted gains in the poll.

Although Maliki did not stand in the election, he campaigned for the coalition and a strong showing would be a huge vote of confidence in him and his secular agenda after the years of ethno-religious violence that sent the country to the brink of civil war.

The election witnessed minor organizational and logistical problems, but overall “everything went smoothly, without security problems and effectively,” UN special envoy to Iraq Staffan de Mistura said on Saturday.

The fact that balloting took place without major violence bodes well for US President Barack Obama, who is seeking a military withdrawal in order to shift more troops to Afghanistan.

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