Iraqi vote expected to bolster Maliki
Early returns from Saturday's provincial polls suggest that the Shiite prime minister's Dawa Party will be the big winner.
Election day was largely free of violence as millions of Iraqis voted in provincial polls that appear to have bolstered Shiite Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's power in the south and weakened the Kurds' dominance in the north.Skip to next paragraph
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In parts of Iraq the mood was festive and hopeful. In Baghdad, children played soccer in streets free of cars as driving was mostly banned. Families wore their best clothes to walk to polls. Elsewhere, voting seemed oddly routine. The first postinvasion nationwide vote in 2005 – marred by fighting, threats, and boycotts – was considered by many as a democratic test run; Saturday's vote is seen as the real thing.
"This will determine the direction Iraq goes in – now and in the future," says school principal Abbas Zaki, who woke at dawn to run a polling station in the northwestern city of Sinjar. "We don't want to talk anymore about this person against that person."
But while election monitors hailed a smooth vote, Iraqi officials reported that turnout was 51 percent – lower than expected, particularly in Baghdad, where only 40 percent of registered voters went to the polls.
Official results are expected midweek. But early returns indicated that Shiite candidates affiliated with Mr. Maliki's Dawa Party did well in the south, while in the north, Sunni Arab voters, many participating for the first time, were believed to have voted in significant numbers for al-Hadba candidates, a new party that has pledged to challenge Kurdish expansion.
The expected popularity of the Dawa Party is seen as a boost for Maliki ahead of a national election set for the end of this year. The disputed Kirkuk region and the three semiautonomous Kurdish provinces were excluded from the provincial elections.
Five political candidates were assassinated in the run-up to the elections. But on voting day, there was so little violence that the vehicle ban, which outside the major cities seemed widely ignored, was lifted to allow more voters to get to the polls. In one of the only incidents of violence, US soldiers shot two off-duty Iraqi policemen in a firefight near Mosul.
To keep the election safe, Iraq sealed its borders, shut down its airports, and deployed every available soldier and policeman around polling stations in the 14 of 18 provinces that voted Saturday.
In Baghdad, as they did elsewhere in Iraq, voters proudly displayed purple ink-stained index fingers – proof that they had cast their ballots.
Many say they have high expectations for Iraq's newly elected politicians.
"I have a college degree, but there are no job opportunities because the security situation was out of control. This election will offer me different opportunities," says Uday Samir, who set aside his language degree in Turkish to be part of a poorly paid neighborhood watch group in the Athamiya neighborhood of Baghdad.