Iraqi voter turnout estimated at 62%


Iraq achieved a respectable turnout at the polls over the weekend as 62% of registered voters cast ballots, according to the country’s electoral commission.

The figure exceeded expectations. Some Western officials had predicted that 55% to 60% of the 19 million eligible Iraqis would go to the polls.

Turnout in Baghdad was relatively disappointing: Only 53% of voters cast ballots in the capital, whereas the predominantly Sunni Arab province of Salahuddin saw a turnout of nearly 75%, according to the Independent High Electoral Commission. Sunni Arabs, a minority that prospered under the late President Saddam Hussein, had mobilized voters in hopes of gaining a larger voice in the government, which is led by the country’s Shiite Arab majority.

The lower turnout in the capital could be the result of a five-hour bombardment by militants that rattled Baghdad on Sunday morning and initially deterred people from voting.

Full election results are still days away. The electoral commission said it expected to have nearly a third of the ballots counted by Tuesday and the initial tally completed this week.

Disillusionment is high among Iraqis, who have watched their country suffer from rampant violence, unemployment and poor services. Nonetheless, most voted, apparently believing the polls were the one place where they could hope to have a voice.

The turnout was a marked improvement over provincial elections a year ago, which saw 51% of voters go to the polls. But it was a significant drop from the 76% turnout in the December 2005 national elections, and was only 4 percentage points higher than the 58% turnout in January 2005, when Sunnis boycotted the voting.

Despite the absence of official results, Iraq’s political parties jockeyed for position Monday. Members of both Prime Minister Nouri Maliki’s alliance and the coalition of a predecessor, Iyad Allawi, said they were in a neck-in-neck competition for the largest share of seats in parliament.

Sami Askari, a confidant of Maliki, said unofficial projections showed that the prime minister’s State of Law alliance had won about 100 seats, sweeping the country’s nine southern provinces and Baghdad. Askari said he believed Allawi’s Iraqiya list had won the northern and western provinces of Salahuddin, Anbar, Diyala and Nineveh.

Nonetheless, Askari downplayed Iraqiya’s victories, insisting that its share of seats was diluted because the Kurds, Maliki’s list and other blocs had won some posts in those northern provinces.

Allawi’s coalition had already declared victory in northern Iraq on Sunday night. But a member acknowledged Monday that Maliki had done well in the south, and cautioned that results from the capital could determine which faction has the edge in negotiations to form the next government and secure the premiership.

Despite the intense competition, neither Maliki nor Allawi is assured of becoming prime minister. Allawi is burdened by his past as a former member of Hussein’s Baath Party, which remains a redline for many Shiite Islamists. But Maliki has also stirred resentment and anger among his political rivals, who blame him for not being inclusive in his decision-making and alienating potential friends.

Salman is a staff writer in The Times’ Baghdad Bureau. Staff writer Usama Redha contributed to this report.