JASON KOUTSOUKIS, BAGHDAD
March 7, 2010
FOR only the second time in their country's tangled modern history, Iraqis go to the polls today to elect a new government. But with more than 6200 candidates competing for 325 seats in the National Assembly, several months of political horse trading are expected to follow the vote before a ruling coalition emerges.
Despite optimism engendered by the expected sight of millions of Iraqis lining up to choose their own government, whoever ends up prime minister faces a herculean task in trying to rebuild a country still reeling from the 2003 US-led invasion, which toppled dictator Saddam Hussein, and its aftermath.
"I'm not confident at all that these will be the free and fair elections that I had hoped for," said Adnan Pachachi, a senior Iraqi statesman, who is standing as part of the secular Iraqiya alliance led by former prime minister Ayad Allawi. "There have been wide reports of intimidation of voters; there are certain to be attempts at voter fraud," he told The Sunday Age.
Despite years of sectarian violence between Iraq's Shiite and Sunni populations, Mr Pachachi was hopeful people would vote according to their hearts and minds. "People want to vote for who they think is the best person capable of rebuilding this country. They don't care if the person is Sunni or Shiite," he said.
"And if they are allowed to do that without intimidation or fear, this could be a watershed moment and an example to the rest of the Middle East."
With Iraq's minority Sunni population widely expected to participate in today's elections, unlike in 2005 when they stayed away, international observers are expecting a turnout as high as 55 per cent.
Campaign posters and political advertisements adorned almost every street corner around central Baghdad last night as security forces put the nation into a virtual lockdown.
All Iraq's international borders were closed on Friday night and won't reopen until tomorrow. Travel around the country will also be restricted.
While opinion polling is considered notoriously unreliable, current Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's State of Law coalition may struggle to hold on to power.
A recent poll conducted by the US-based National Democratic Institute showed 43 per cent of respondents had a favourable view of Mr Maliki; 47 per cent of people polled said they had a negative view of him. In a last-ditch appeal to voters on Friday, Mr Maliki emphasised his record in keeping the country together and reducing the influence of the US, which still has about 115,000 troops stationed in Iraq.
"We kept Iraq's unity from being fractured and achieved a high level of security," Mr Maliki said. "Iraq is no longer an occupied state."
The same opinion poll indicated surging support for former prime minister Allawi, a secular Shiite with strong links to the US and who served as interim prime minister in 2005.
About 54 per cent of voters said they held Mr Allawi in high regard, the National Democratic Institute poll said, while 28 per cent said they disliked him.
Part of Mr Allawi's appeal is that he is seen as a potential strongman with the ability to hold Iraq's disparate religious and ethnic groups together.
Speaking on Friday at his home in central Baghdad, he said he was concerned that 7 million extra ballots printed by Iraq's electoral commission could be used to rig the vote.