Iraqis Turn Out to Vote in Large Numbers

Turnout was so heavy in today’s elections in Iraq that voting had to be extended for an hour.

Iraqis Turn Out to Vote in Large Numbers (AP)

Iraqis voted Thursday in one of the largest and freest elections in the Arab world, with strong turnout reported in Sunni areas and even a shortage of ballots in some precincts. Several explosions rocked Baghdad throughout the day, but the level of violence was low. The heavy participation in the parliamentary voting by the Sunnis, who had shunned balloting last January, bolstered U.S. hopes of calming the insurgency enough to begin withdrawing its troops next year. But much depends on whether the sides, after the votes are counted, can form a government to reconcile Iraq’s various communities, or merely fan the current tensions.

The large turnout forced the Iraqi election commission to extend voting for one hour, until 6 p.m. (10 a.m. EST) as long lines were reported in some precincts, said commission official Munthur Abdelamir. Results will be announced within two weeks.

I love the line “one of the largest and freest elections in the Arab world.” What are the other contenders, exactly? Has there ever been a free election in an Arab society, let alone a large one?

[Update: A commenter reminds me of the recent elections in Lebanon. D’oh.]

A recent VOA piece notes that,

Political systems in the Middle East range from benign monarchies and minor autocracies to military dictatorships and totalitarian states. Marcus Noland, a senior analyst at the Institute for International Economics here in Washington, says statistical data indicate that authoritarianism is especially persistent in Middle Eastern countries with majority Arab populations. He adds that interpretations of this particular finding are very controversial. “Some argue that there’s something in the Arab culture that is inherently anti-democratic and there are some anthropologists who have argued this. But it also could be that it’s not Arab culture, per se. It’s that there is something in the specific political history and current status of these countries that is creating the statistical association between Arab ethnicity and lack of democracy,” says Mr. Noland.

[…]

Juan Cole, Professor of History at the University of Michigan, says emerging from authoritarianism can be slow and painful in any part of the world and that the Middle East is no exception. He says democratic governance is supported by relatively well off and educated societies and rarely those with low per capita incomes.

“Most Arab countries do not have a thriving working and middle class that has the kind of income that it could mobilize resources for a greater share of power. A country like Egypt has a per-capita income of something on the order of $1,000 a year. And what that really means, since urban people make much more [money] than rural people, is that most Egyptians who live in the countryside, probably 40 percent or so, really are living on a few hundred dollars a year.”

The only democracy in the Middle East before now was Israel, with the non-state of Palestine moving in that direction.

Update: Steven Taylor provides an excellent “Iraqi Election Round-up” including a huge graphic with maps, profiles of the major candidates, and a timeline of the evolution of democracy in Iraq.

More from BBC:

Sunni Arabs, who boycotted the last election in January, appear to have participated in large numbers, even in insurgent strongholds. Despite tight security, several incidents of violence were reported, but voting was not seriously disrupted.

[…]

Turnout is reported to have quickened throughout the day, with people queuing to cast their ballots. That was the case even in the predominantly Sunni cities of Falluja and Ramadi, hotbeds of insurgent activity. At one stage, an election official in Falluja said that so many people were voting, they had run out of ballot papers.

Sunni nationalist insurgent groups had urged people to vote, in order to prevent the election of a government completely dominated by Shias and Kurds. However, the al-Qaeda in Iraq group denounced the election as the work of Satan and threatened attacks. It is believed to have been behind an explosion in Baghdad’s fortified Green Zone, which houses government buildings, shortly after the polls opened. Two civilians and a US marine were slightly injured.

Some 15 million Iraqis were eligible to vote. Most had to walk to polling stations as movement of vehicles was banned to prevent car bomb attacks. “It’s a day of victory, a day of independence and freedom,” said 60-year-old Shia Muslim Mohammed Ahmed al-Bayati as he voted in Baghdad. Teacher Khalid Fawaz in Falluja said he was voting “so that the Sunnis are no longer marginalised”.

Crowds turned out in Basra, the largest city in the Shia-dominated south, as well as the holy city of Najaf, dancing and chanting support for the alliance of religious Shia parties which is expected to win the largest number of seats.

BBC World Affairs Editor John Simpson in Baghdad says the voters he spoke to believe the election will help to bring about a strong, effective government of the kind Iraqis are desperate for. He says people also think it will bring Sunnis into government in some strength, and that it will get rid of the Americans and British, whose military presence is widely disliked. But he adds that Iraqi politicians are well aware that this positive feeling will evaporate if it takes them as long to form a coalition government as it did after the January election.

The White House has sent out a press release “What They’re Saying … About Iraq’s Elections.” While it obviously highlights on the positive things “they” are saying, there is a lot of jubilation out there at this historic event. Of course, the election is just another step down a long road. Still, it’s a big step.

Prime Minister Ibrahim Al-Jaafari: “Ballot Boxes Are A Victory Of Democracy Over Dictatorship.” (Alastair Macdonald And Luke Baker, “Big Turnout In Iraq Election Despite Scattered Attacks,” Reuters, 12/15/05)

Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad: “I Have Been To The Old City Of Babylon, As Well As To Baghdad. I’m Going To One Or Two More After This Show. And I’m Getting Reports From Across Iraq. And I Have To Tell You That The Reports Are Very Positive. Turnout Has Been Heavy So Far. In Some Places, People Have Come To The Voting Center With Their Families, Almost Like Going To A Wedding. And The Reports Of Security Incidents And Irregularities Have Been Very Few. So It Has Been A Good Day So Far.” (CNN’s “American Morning,” 12/15/05)

U.N. Envoy Ashraf Qazi: “All In All It Is A Historic Day And A Good Day.” “Elections for Iraq’s first full-term parliament since the fall of Saddam Hussein appear to have been successful, the U.N. envoy to Iraq said on Thursday. ‘Anecdotal evidence shows that there has been a good turnout, that it was inclusive and that security was well maintained,’ Ashraf Qazi told Reuters just before most polling stations closed at 5 p.m. ‘These are good measures of success,’ he said. Qazi, the special representative of U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan, said it was still too early to make a definitive judgment on the polls but initial signs were good. ‘All in all it is a historic day and a good day,’ he said.” (Paul Tait, “U.N. Envoy Says Iraq Election Appears Successful,” Reuters, 12/15/05)

Reuters: “The Demand To Vote Was So Strong That Polling Stations Were Kept Open For An Extra Hour In Some Areas To Allow Those Lining Up Outside To Cast Their Ballots.” (Alastair Macdonald And Luke Baker, “Big Turnout In Iraq Election Despite Scattered Attacks,” Reuters, 12/15/05)

In Ramadi, CNN’s Nic Robertson Reports “An Atmosphere Of Celebration.” ROBERTSON: “The polling station that I can see just down across the road there, one person voted there two months ago in the referendum in October. This time we understand over 100 people have voted. In the west of the city, many hundreds have turned out to vote. We’re being told when they get to the polling stations, there’s sort of an atmosphere of celebration, people handing out candies, very much like for the rest the country when they went to the polls in big numbers back in January.” (CNN’s “American Morning,” 12/15/05)

In Baghdad, CNN’s Aneesh Raman Reports That “Turnout Has Been High.” RAMAN: “Throughout Baghdad it seems turnout has been high, and more specifically, in the Sunni areas. In Dora (ph) neighborhood, for example, high turnout. Sunni turnout always seen as a key element to these elections. It was in October, more so now, because if they can be brought onboard and if they do feel that this political process can work for them, it could mean a curbing in the violence and perhaps an end to the domestic insurgents. So overall, it seems turnout has been high throughout the country.” (CNN’s “American Morning,” 12/15/05)

In Najaf, Knight Ridder’s Leila Fadel Says Iraqis “Feel Like They’re Finally Taking Hold Of The Government” That They Have Been Excluded From. FADEL: “Yes, it’s a huge moment. And you feel it down here, especially because they suffered so much during 1991 through the uprising. And everybody that I have spoken to, save three people, plan to vote for the United Iraqi Coalition, which is the Shia religious coalition of the political parties. They feel a sense of ownership. They feel like they’re finally taking hold of the government that has sort of excluded them for 35 years. Really, everybody is calling it a celebration. Let’s get ready to go to the wedding. That’s what I’m hearing over and over again.” (CNN’s “American Morning,” 12/15/05)

Fallujah’s Mayor: “Right Now The City Is Experiencing A Democratic Celebration.” “‘Right now the city is experiencing a democratic celebration,’ Mayor Dari Abdul Hadi Zubaie said in Fallujah, where voters streamed to the polls. ‘It’s an election wedding.'” (Ellen Knickmeyer And Jonathan Finer, “A Lack Of Violence As Iraqis Vote To Choose New Government,” The Washington Post, 12/15/05)

“‘This Is The Day To Get Our Revenge From Saddam,’ Said Kurdish Voter Chiman Saleh, A Kirkuk Housewife Who Said Two Of Her Brothers Were Killed By The Ousted Regime.” (Bassem Mroue, “Heavy Turnout Reported In Iraqi Election,” The Associated Press, 12/15/05)

“In Kirkuk, 60-Year-Old Sunni Arab Asmael Nouri Said: ‘It Is The First Time I Have Tasted The Freedom To Express My View.'” (Alastair Macdonald And Luke Baker, “Big Turnout In Iraq Election Despite Scattered Attacks,” Reuters, 12/15/05)

“We Are Going To Practice One Of Our Natural Rights.” “Voters seemed eager to cast their ballots. ‘We are going to practice one of our natural rights,’ said Mutasm Ali, 49, as he and his wife strolled along a deserted Baghdad thoroughfare. With a new government, the accountant said Iraq can ‘wish one day to be better than the United States.'” (Steven Komarow, “Streets Mostly Calm As Iraqis Head To Polls,” USA Today, 12/15/05)

“I Am Proud As An Iraqi…” “‘I am proud as an Iraqi because our country is becoming a center of attraction for all Arab countries,’ said Mohammad Wadi, a 50-year-old Shiite schoolteacher casting his ballot in the capital’s Karada district. He added, ‘The new situation in Iraq, the democratic system, is starting to put pressure on the Arab systems to make some changes toward democracy.'” (Borzou Daragahi, “Large And Largely Peaceful Iraqi Voter Turnout Today,” Los Angeles Times, 12/15/05)

“Now, Iraqis Have Begun To Realize That The Peaceful Way Is Better Than Violence To Get Their Demands.” “‘I didn’t vote in January because at the time the political realities were not clear,’ said Abdul Samariyee, 65, a retired tax collector in Baghdad’s Qadasiya district, where police were spotted driving a pregnant woman to the polling station. ‘Now, Iraqis have begun to realize that the peaceful way is better than violence to get their demands.'” (Borzou Daragahi, “Large And Largely Peaceful Iraqi Voter Turnout Today,” Los Angeles Times, 12/15/05)

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.

Comments

  1. ICallMasICM says:

    I heard a great one on the radio today ‘In the first presidential election since Saddam was deposed’ as if there were presidential elections when he was dictator.

  2. James Joyner says:

    Yep. Iraq had “elections” on a regular basis, of course, but they certainly weren’t meaningful.

  3. Perithn says:

    Has there ever been a free election in an Arab society,

    Yes. There were free parliamentary elections in Lebanon earlier this year.

  4. legion says:

    This is the problem of trying to impose democracy on a traditionally religious society… Democracy is supposed to represent (and implement) the will of the people, but if the vast majority of the people are actively religious, you’re going to wind up with a functioning theocracy.

    I really, really want Iraq to become a better place, but there’s a persistent voice in the back of my head saying ‘no good can come of this’…

  5. chris says:

    Gloomy now aren’t we?

    “This is the problem of trying to impose democracy on a traditionally religious society… Democracy is supposed to represent (and implement) the will of the people, but if the vast majority of the people are actively religious, you’re going to wind up with a functioning theocracy.

    I really, really want Iraq to become a better place, but there’s a persistent voice in the back of my head saying ‘no good can come of this’…”

    And yet, if they choose a relgious-based society, at least they chose it themselves.

  6. Herb says:

    Yesterday in the Democratic “pre rebutal” to Bush’s speech, Democrat Senator Carl Levin said that the Iraq election would lead to a Civil War.

    I guess that Levin should know all about this. The democrats have been trying to create a Civil War here in the US right after they lost in 2000 and have stepped up their divisive rehtoric since they lost in 2004. They have had some degree of success with their anti war, anti military, anti Bush, and anti everything agenda ever since the last election. Since 2000, the democrats have launched a hate campaign to undermine our government by any means possible, So, I guess that Senator Levin, speaking on behalf of the democratic party should know that a Free Election is cause and basis for a civil war.

  7. Fersboo says:

    Link your source Herb, I’ve already read that somewhere else today.

  8. Herb says:

    Fersboo:

    There is no computer link. I heard Levin utter those words in the democrats “pre rebutal” prior to Bush’s speech. He, Levin, and a few other white flag waving, surrender prone democrats made their views know in their Televison statements yestersay.

  9. Rick DeMent says:

    Has there ever been a free election in an Arab society,

    ah… Iran had competitive elections in 1944, but that didn’t last long. Too bad the US’s enthusiasm for democracy wasn’t as keen as it is today, we backed the Shah, not the parliment.

  10. Stevely says:

    Rick DeMent –

    Iran is not an Arab society.