THE first-ever free election among the Kurds of northern Iraq may not have been perfect. But its results have been hailed by the Kurds themselves as a victory which has confounded the dire predictions of their enemies - especially the Baghdad government.
Though it turned into a political salvage operation, the election gave the two main contenders - Masoud Barzani's Kurdish Democratic Party (KDP), and Jalal Talabani's Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) - a massive popular mandate to go ahead and set up a new Kurdish national assembly (parliament) and a new administration to run the Kurds' daily affairs.
The Kurds turned out en masse to vote May 19, swamping the inadequate number of polling stations. More than 88 percent of the estimated electorate actually voted. The figure would clearly have been even higher had there been enough stations. When the doors closed at midnight, hundreds of frustrated would-be voters were shut out.
But the result did nothing to help the Kurds break out of their current situation of heavy dependence on the Western coalition nations for protection against Iraqi President Saddam Hussein's hostile government. Its forces ring Kurdistan to the south and are imposing a harsh food and fuel blockade.
Most observers agree that if anything, the election will make an accommodation with Baghdad even less likely. It has angered Baghdad further, while at the same time shackling the moderate Mr. Barzani to the more intractable Mr. Talabani, who rejects any deals with Saddam's regime. No clear winner
The two big parties emerged almost neck and neck from the poll, and were each allocated 50 seats in the assembly, with five other seats reserved for Christians.
In a separate, four-cornered vote for the quasi-presidential post of "leader," neither Barzani nor Talabani won the necessary absolute majority, so a runoff is supposed to be staged within two months.
But the election very nearly turned into a fiasco after the polling closed. A handful of small parties, which had been virtually wiped out in the vote, accused the two big factions of organizing large-scale multiple voting. KDP and PUK officials leveled similar charges against one another.
With party officials refusing to sign the polling returns at some of the disputed stations, the whole election was suddenly in jeopardy. It took three days of intensive wrangling behind closed doors by the party bosses to settle the crisis and clear the way for the poll results to be announced.
When they were, they reflected a political accommodation rather than straight electoral results. Barzani's KDP had in fact come out narrowly ahead in the poll, and should have had 51 seats to the PUK's 49. But because the gap was so narrow and the air so thick with accusations and disputes, the KDP agreed to share power equally - for the time being - in order to keep the peace. Both sides compromised
"We had two choices - either to cancel the election, which would have damaged the standing of the Kurdish people, or to sacrifice the victory which we claim for the sake of the general good," Barzani said in a post-election interview.
"The world must know that the Kurds did not fail in their effort to establish a parliament," he added. "Iran, Turkey, Syria, Iraq, and other countries of the region must understand that we can build our own administration, despite their claims to the contrary and their predictions of failure."
Part of the unannounced understanding was that another election will be held for the assembly in about four months, drastically curtailing the body's proposed three-year term.
"This was our first attempt at democracy, and you always have difficulties the first time around," Talabani said in an interview. "There were shortcomings and problems, but next time, it will be perfect, very fair and very just, and there will be no complaints about it."
For the next attempt, the Kurds plan to have a proper electoral register, more polling stations - and truly indelible ink.
The most drastic problem had suddenly emerged less than 24 hours before polling was due to begin on the original election day, May 17. Special ink, sent from Germany to stamp voters' hands and prevent multiple voting, was discovered to rub off easily.
A two-day delay allowed time for a Kurdish scientist to come up with a silver nitrate solution for staining voters' fingers. It was used on the day, but turned out to be removable, especially with the aid of solvents.
That opened the door to possible multiple voting, acrimonious accusations, and doubts about the true results.
"Seventy percent of our problems stemmed from the ink," Barzani said ruefully.
So the outcome was essentially a holding operation and a truce between the two main factions. They have pledged to work together to establish the assembly and set up an administration in which the smaller parties - none of which achieved the 7 percent of the poll required for admission to the assembly - will also be included. Euphoria in the streets
The outcome was greeted with scenes of wild rejoicing throughout Kurdistan. Volleys of gunfire poured into the sky, and for several days, there was dancing and music in the streets, with crowds waving both the green PUK flag and the yellow KDP banner.
"Everybody knows the results were played with a little, but they don't mind," said one joyful Kurd. "We are happy we have emerged united. It is a great victory over Saddam's government, which said we would all be fighting each other."
Whether that unity would survive a stricter election, in which there would be a winner and a loser, remains to be seen. Both Talabani and Barzani have pledged to accept the outcome, and to continue working together whatever happens.