At a vote-counting center in eastern Baghdad, a dozen men representing various political parties sat on a stage in a school gymnasium on Sunday monitoring the counting of ballots.
The process was painstaking.
The ballots, after being sealed at local polling stations, arrived at the center in large plastic containers. Before any votes were counted, the names on each ballot were checked against a computer database. Once the counting began, election officials recorded the results on four separate forms. Redundancy was built into every procedure.
“People want us to rush, but it is very complicated,” election official Abbas Sabah said. “It is like trying to build a Rolls-Royce by hand.”
With results still trickling in slowly from Iraq’s parliamentary elections last week and no clear winners likely to emerge anytime soon, public frustration seems to be growing. US officials have privately expressed concern that even a fair election might be made to appear unfair.
Political officials continue to make public accusations of election fraud, including the alleged stuffing of ballot boxes and forgery.
In the absence of final results, months of careful preparation could be threatened. Both the US and the UN spent millions of dollars to ensure that the election was viewed as transparent and credible.
“One way to reassure someone who fears the results are being rigged is to get results out there,” a Western observer working on election issues said.
The many checks put in place by Iraq’s Independent High Electoral Commission are laudable, said the official, who added: “But if taken too far, it will backfire and erode public confidence by further delays.”
There are partial preliminary results from each of Iraq’s 18 provinces and they point to a very close contest. Officials cautioned that only a fraction of the more than 12 million votes had been counted.
In the Shiite south, Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri Kamal al-Maliki’s coalition and a coalition of Shiite religious parties appear to be splitting the majority of votes — early results announced on Sunday from Basra, Iraq’s second largest city, showed al-Maliki doing well there.
In the Sunni heartland in the north and west of the country, the coalition led by Ayad Allawi, a secular Shiite who has become a champion of Sunni candidates, appears to be dominating.
The Kurdish parties, as expected, are maintaining their control in Kurdish territories, but in the city of Kirkuk, which is disputed by Arabs and Kurds, Allawi’s coalition appeared to be doing surprisingly well in early returns released on Sunday evening.
If these early trends continue, no coalition is likely to emerge with a clear mandate. Each seat that the various parties control in the new 325-member parliament could become a crucial bargaining tool, because the approval of a two-thirds majority of lawmakers would be essential to form a new government.
Among the many questions likely to be answered over the coming weeks and months, in addition to whether the Iraqi public will accept the election results as fair, is whether some Iraqi politicians will be willing to accept defeat at the polls.
UN officials said there had been little evidence of large-scale irregularities so far. The elaborate procedures meant to ensure transparency and to catch irregularities are partly responsible for the slow pace of the count. Every step in the complicated process has been open to observers, including representatives from every political party.
At the counting center in eastern Baghdad, with everyone watching everyone else on Sunday, it would have been difficult to tamper with votes. About 30,000 have been counted at the station so far and about 800 improper ballots were discarded, Sabah said.
“People will try and trick us,” he said. “They try and vote twice.”
After the voters’ names were checked in the database, the boxes were marked with green tape and hundreds of men and women, who have been working 12-hour shifts since the election on March 7, sat at six long tables tallying the votes.
Maky Alkras, an observer from one of the political parties, said election officials listened to complaints, but were too lenient. For instance, he said, ballot boxes were not allowed to be placed on counting tables to prevent workers from adding votes.
“When we saw a box on a table, we told the officials and they scolded the employees,” he said. “They should have fired them.”
In a country where basic services like electricity and trash collection remain abysmal, entering all the information from more than 50,000 polling stations into a central database — and doing it twice to prevent fraud — has proved challenging, but the longer it takes to complete the count, the more Iraqis fear that things may spin out of control.
“The delay is wrong and it will give the political parties more opportunities to interfere,” said Ali Khazal, 28, a day laborer in Baghdad. “The crisis could start like a tiny bubble and the delays give it a chance to grow. We, as Iraqis, fear that it might reach the point of bursting in the Iraqi street and the biggest loser will be the Iraqi people, as usual.”
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