Iraqi voters turned out heavily in Sunday's national elections, despite an upsurge of violence leading up to the balloting, news reports indicate.
Iraq's Independent High Electoral Commission said on Monday that the election day turnout reached 62 percent. That does not include several days of early voting. Results will be announced on Friday.
The Aswat al-Iraq (Voices of Iraq) news agency reported that the March 7 parliamentary elections were the largest ever held in Iraq, with 19 million eligible voters in all of Iraq's 18 provinces.
They were electing 325 members of Parliament who will govern Iraq for the next four years, as the country emerges from U.S. military occupation.
Attacks in Baghdad and elsewhere on the morning of the elections left over 30 people killed and 32 others wounded. This followed weeks of stepped up violence.
Iraqi politicians from left to right had warned that the attacks were aiming to intimidate voters and "render the country's political process altogether a failure," as one media commentator told Aswat al-Iraq.
Judging by the turnout, however, the majority refused to be intimidated.
Conservative Sunni leaders, some linked to Baathists, who had organized a boycott of the parliamentary elections four years ago this time ran on various slates and assailed the violence, as did conservative Shiite Islamists.
Although the voting appeared to have gone relatively smoothly, the results will be marred by the problematic election law adopted after months of wrangling. The law's provisions favor the currently dominant political groupings and make it more difficult than previously for smaller slates to win seats in Parliament. In fact, the votes for those smaller slates that do not meet the threshold are redistributed to the dominant parties.
Iraq's Communist Party and other groups had fought for a more even-handed election process, and assailed the law as undemocratic. Nevertheless, the Communists said building democracy in Iraq would require continuing struggle, and the party waged an active election campaign, leading a left People's Unity slate with several other small parties. A rally by the Communist-led slate last week at an outdoor stadium in Baghdad drew some 15,000 cheering, banner-waving participants.
A few prominent slates, drawing on big financial resources, are expected to wind up with the most seats in Parliament. They include:
* Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's State of Law slate, which includes his Shiite Islamic Dawa party and others;
* the Shiite Islamic Iraqi National Alliance, which includes the Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council, Moqtada al-Sadr's group and others;
* the Iraqi National Movement/Iraqiya slate headed by former Prime Minister Iyad Allawi, which includes a number of Sunni figures and groups;
* the Kurdish Alliance, which includes the two long-standing ruling Kurdish parties.
Some combination of these, aligned with other slates, will determine who the next prime minister will be.
Every one of them has presented itself as a national, rather than a religious or sectarian-based, coalition. They have focused on their technocratic, secular and even academic qualifications, put forward similar slogans and promises, and made no mention of their religious or sectarian agendas. This reflects the Iraqi public's increasing rejection of religious candidates and programs and sectarian-based politics. This trend was demonstrated strongly in last year's provincial elections. The driving force has been mass anger over militia violence, corruption, and failure to improve daily living conditions and economic life.
In Najaf, in heavily Shiite southern Iraq, candidate Samad Saheb, from the Popular Unity slate, noted this shift in public sentiment.
"The past failures have kept them away from the religious parties, and stimulated them to look for confidence in secular and leftist parties," he told a reporter for Niqash. "The change will not be total, because of the reemergence of sectarian tendencies immediately before the start of the electoral campaign but it will certainly be clear."
Before the election, hints were floated in U.S. media that the United States might delay its phased troop withdrawal - with a big pullout scheduled for this summer. This morning, Foreign Policy magazine analyst Marc Lych suggested that the withdrawal would proceed as scheduled. "The election produced nothing to change the U.S. drawdown schedule, and offered little sign that Iraqis are eager to revise the SOFA or ask the U.S. to keep troops longer. Iraq is in Iraqi hands," he wrote.
Photo: Rally for the People's Unity slate led by the Iraqi Communist Party, last week in Baghdad (photo by Iraqi Communist Party).