BAGHDAD, IRAQ — HERE were never any prizes for predicting the outcome of Iraq's first national referendum.
But the near-unanimous endorsement of Saddam Hussein as the ruling Baath Party's sole candidate for the presidency - and the excited bursts of automatic gunfire that accompanied the results yesterday - might not be enough to win the beleaguered Iraqi ruler another seven years in office.
The referendum showed that despite top-level defections, a serious feud in his family, and intense international pressure, Saddam has tightened his grip on power and still commands the loyalty of the Army, the Baath Party, and most of Iraq's fearful and suffering populace.
"There is no doubt that Saddam is in firm control of the apparatus of the state," says Jamal Shair, a former Jordanian Cabinet minister and member of the Pan-Arab Baath Party. "The question is: How much longer will he be able to control the population of Iraq by this means?"
The most remarkable aspect of the referendum is how this country - reeling under a five-year UN embargo, isolated from the outside world, with its economy in ruins - could run such an organized, orderly, and well-attended poll.
The atmosphere of fear and intimidation, which keeps a proud and sophisticated people in a state of servility, goes some way to explaining the overwhelming turnout.
At the Alba Bin Gazwan school in a middle-class area of Baghdad, Mohammed Jumadi, an Iraqi magistrate who supervised the polling, put in a 16-hour day and counted each of the 8,899 ballots himself.
The counting process took four hours. He called out the "yes" votes as an official made white chalk strokes on a school blackboard. Just after midnight, Mr. Jumadi was able to take the results to the counting center: 8,866 "yes" votes, 15 "no" votes, and 18 spoiled papers.
The ballot was secret and asked the voter to tick off a yes or no to the question: Do you want Saddam Hussein to continue as Iraq's leader?
But party officials visited citizens' homes to register them to vote. And the officials implied that food rations would be reduced if people did not show up to vote, an Army veteran requesting anonymity told the Monitor.
But the adoring crowds, chanting children, and patient lines of voters at about 1,662 polling stations throughout the country also suggested that Iraqi people are yearning for a real say in government affairs.
"It was a big brother referendum," says a European diplomat in Baghdad. "But it has shown that the Iraqi people are ready to take part in a more democratic system than their leaders are allowing."
Iraqi Information Minister Hamad Yusuf Hammadi insists that the referendum is a step toward a more democratic system in the delayed transition from "revolutionary legitimacy" to "constitutional legitimacy."
He says the referendum - delayed by an eight-year war with Iran and then the Gulf war - followed the creation in 1980 of an elected National Assembly and a legislative council for the self-rule of northern Kurdistan, a semi-autonomous region within Iraq's borders.
It also will lead to a new senate-like legislative body - the Shura Council - that will be half-elected and half-nominated. "We want to create a multiparty system and a free press," says Mr. Hammadi. "But we are not talking about a liberal democracy.
"We don't follow that kind of system. We are creating our own. This is an Iraqi process," says Hammadi, who has served as Saddam's secretary and adviser for nearly 20 years.
Hammadi says his idea of a free press does not allow criticism of Saddam. "We haven't reached that stage yet," Hammadi told the Monitor.
But the referendum indicates that Iraq's leader could afford to be much bolder in his tentative experiments in democracy.
Even Saddam's enemies concede that he would almost certainly win a free and open election in Iraq, albeit with a much smaller margin than this week's landslide.
"I think Saddam's regime will fall in 1996, but it will not be through force," Shair says. "Saddam has learned the tricks of how to prevent counter coups, and the opposition is so divided and weak that there is no chance of toppling him.
He says that King Hussein had erred by building up Lt. Gen. Hussein Kamel Hassan, the head of Iraq's military industrialization program who defected to Jordan on Aug. 8, into the future leader of Iraq.
'WHAT is needed is for King Hussein of Jordan to seek the support of Saudi Arabia and Egypt and the Jordanian people for a political initiative leading to a national conference of all the main elements in Iraq - Sunni Muslims, Shiites, and Kurds - as well as the spiritual, intellectual, and political leader," Shair adds.
Western diplomats in Amman are more skeptical about the prospects of setting up a national conference and still see King Hussein as the key player in Iraq's future.
Jordan controls the only official entry into Iraq - a gruelling 16-hour journey by road - and could bring the country to its knees within weeks.
But Jordan receives 70,000 barrels of cheap oil a day from Iraq, and cross-border trade is vital to Jordan's economy.
Diplomats say that King Hussein is seeking the substitution of goods from Jordan by exploiting his improving relations with the Gulf States. Saudi Arabia has offered 40,000 barrels of oil a day.
Another sign that Iraq's population could be ready for a change is in the differing perceptions of what the referendum would achieve.
Iraqi officials insist that the vote was to show the international community that despite the UN embargo, the people of Iraq are solidly behind Saddam. And, they say, it was part of Iraq's transition to a constitutional system.
Voters expressed passionate hope that the massive "yes" vote for Saddam would persuade the world to lift the crippling embargo and alleviate their desperate plight.
"We want the United States to take into account the feelings of the Iraqi people," says Sajida al-Mousawi, a poet and worker in the Culture Ministry.
"We hope that when the West sees that we stand behind Saddam Hussein, they will change their attitude toward the embargo," he says.
Like most Iraqis, she was reluctant to discuss the defections of General Kamel, and his party. But she expressed sadness about Saddam's daughters.
"There is some sadness. We wish these things wouldn't happen. We hope they will return, but we don't know how. They are good girls," Mrs. Mousani says.